Running a hotel—with its many moving parts—tests even the best leaders. You need to motivate low-paid staffers who largely determine your success.
Wayne Goldberg, 54, knows the hotel business. He began mowing hotel lawns at 17. Today, he’s president and CEO
of La Quinta Holdings, an Irving, Texas-based chain with roughly 7,000 employees.
EL: What’s yourphilosophy?
Goldberg: You don’t manage people. You manage things. You lead people.
EL: Can you give an example?
Goldberg: In 2011, we defined our culture and our values. But we  didn’t define them and tell everyone what they were. Instead, we allowed our employees to define our core values. Then we built everything around what our employees told us. Now everything we do is evaluated based on whether we’re living up to these values. We survey employees every year.
EL: How about customers. Do you survey them as well?
Goldberg: Yes, we asked our consumers what they wanted from us. They told us they wanted to be assured—that the moment they pulled into the parking lot, they wanted to be assured they made the right decision. They also wanted to settle into their room and have it be their space, not ours cluttered with our propaganda. So we changed how we market to the consumer in the room. We no longer put marketing material in the room because consumers don’t want it in their way.
EL: You have 839 properties across the United States. How do you maximize your time during a hotel visit?
Goldberg: When I’m at the property, the manager and I walk around the hotel speaking to employees. I’m there to find out what we can do to help make their job easier.
EL: Do employees open up to you?
Goldberg: I make it clear when speaking to our hourly employees that I’ve been an hourly employee. I’ve been a maintenance person, I’ve worked in the laundry. There isn’t a job I haven’t done.
EL: What do you learn from them?
Goldberg: The next best idea—to save us money, to make us more efficient, to drive consumer loyalty—is sitting out there with an employee somewhere and you just have to figure out how to get it from them. We have a “Penny for Your Thoughts” program: We’ll pay any employee for an idea that saves us a penny per room per day—or creates an extra penny per day in revenue.
EL: What are your favorite questions to ask them?
Goldberg: It’s a very open, direct dialogue. I ask them, “What is it you need to make your job easier?” and “Tell me what it is we’re doing that we shouldn’t be doing” or “Tell me what we’re not doing that we need to be doing.” I’ll usually end a meeting by asking the manager, “Have you shown me everything you want me to see?” They’ll usually say, “Yes.” Then I’ll say, “OK, now show me what you don’t want me to see.”
EL: What happens?
Goldberg: We usually get a pretty good laugh. They might take me to a room that’s out of service. That can open up a great dialogue as to why. Maybe corporate isn’t delivering what they need to get the room back in service, like getting a mattress.