Meet Carol Watson, the ambitious Assistant General Manager of Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia. A Pittsburgh native, Watson moved to Philadelphia for college after her older brother -- who was already here for med school -- convinced her that she would love it. Watson studied chemistry at Temple University for two years until she decided to take a big risk that would change everything. Learn more about Carol below... What was it like growing up in Pittsburgh?
It was very nostalgic, pre social media. It was hanging out with friends, going to the corner store or playing jump rope with friends, just that quality face to face time. That’s something that I encourage and really cherish. If we’re going to have a meal, put the phone down. Let’s engage in one another. That helped me in work and in being a mother. It’s about the connection and people. At the end of the day, no matter what your position is outside of your home, it’s the connections that matter.
How did you discover chemistry?
It was one of those things where I always enjoyed math and science and didn’t know at that point what I wanted to do. It seemed like a logical next step. I was in that track in high school. I remember it was late sophomore year, which is pretty late to think about changing your major, and I said, ‘I just can’t envision myself doing this.’ I really enjoy interacting with people and being social.
I was also interested in business. There was a big marketing push for the [Temple School Of Tourism And Hospitality Management] and it really cemented the deal for me. I saw the opportunity to travel and have a worldly viewpoint.
Be a constant learner. You have to keep evolving and keep growing and look at everything as an opportunity, not a challenge.
It sounds exciting and also difficult to have that moment so late in your college career.
It was. What major can I [study] where I won’t be here for another four years? I’m lucky it worked out.
Who were some of your mentors or people you spoke with at the time that helped you realize you wanted to switch gears?
I would definitely say Dean [Jerry] Montague, who is still there. He was a very good role model and mentor and he helped me see the opportunities. A lot of it was my guiding compass. I’m very fortunate to always know what's good for me. I would seek advice and ask people’s opinion, but I always trust my gut. If it feels right and I’ve done the research, I just roll with it.
Did you have any jobs during college?
Ironically what brought me to hotels was a job in college. Even though I was in the [Temple School Of Tourism And Hospitality Management], hotels were the last thing on my mind. I was interested in convention centers, bureaus of tourism, and event planning. One of my colleagues was working at a hotel as a manager, and offered me a position at the front desk. I raised my hand and said ‘why not’ and that is how I fell in love with hotels. That’s when I knew I wanted to use hotels as a vehicle to grow my career. I’d have the ability to connect with people and get to see all the departments, the front desk and how it all works together as a well oiled machine.
Being at the front desk sounds like a challenging job. You’re dealing with people who are happy, or unhappy, there are complaints. How do you deal with that?
I think you have to go in thinking about the fact that something may have happened before they came through the doors. It’s our responsibility to help in any way that we can. Let them know that this is a comfortable place where we want [them] to feel the welcome. I want to work hard to turn it around for them. Maybe someone lost a loved one or they’re going for a job interview and they’re anxious or they’re here for a girlfriends weekend. Trying to be emotionally intelligent and listen, picking up on those little cues can help you tap into what they need.
You won’t have a conventional family and you have to be ok with that if you want to be a woman in leadership. You might not be able to go all the PTA meetings or bake the cookies, but if you go to the bakery and buy the cupcakes it’s just as good.
Have you always been a good listener?
Growing up I was a bookworm, so it helped me be a good listener. I loved hearing stories and being intrigued about other people and other places. That’s what grew my fascination for being a good listener.
When did you develop the characteristics of a leader?
Even in school, I showed qualities of leadership. If we were working on a group project, I would say ‘we’re going to do this and we’re going to be the best.’ I’m very competitive. For those who are more timid, I like to find their strengths and see what they’re really good at. If they’re shy, I want them to put themselves out there. ‘You’re awesome at this. If you can do this part, imagine how it will help the big picture.’ I’m always thinking about bringing out the best in people. Shoot high. Always shoot high. Always put a crazy idea out there. That’s where you have to start and build from there. Don’t think about what can or can’t happen. Just go for it.
What are some qualities of a great leader?
A great leader is someone who is ok with making a decision and sticking with that decision, but thinks holistically not only about how it will impact the business, but the people who operate the business.
You have such a demanding job. How do you find ways to balance?
That’s a good question. Support from my husband and making sure I have a tight partnership at home. Over communicating - I don’t take things for granted. If I know it’s going to be really busy here in advance I give notice and talk about what the looks like. That’s really helped me. I’m also all about making time for special moments. If it’s a weekend away somewhere, or going to a venue or event that we haven’t done before. I take the time to plan so that my family can have special experiences and quality time when we’re together.
JUST REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE AND THAT YOUR BEST SELF IS YOUR GENUINE SELF AND THAT’S WHAT YOUR TEAM WILL PICK UP ON.
In your opinion, what makes a great partner?
Someone who really listens and someone who wants the best for you. It has to be a mutual thing. They want to see you excel and be the best you can be and will do anything to support you -- and the reverse. Sometimes you have to have that selfless approach if it’s beneficial to your partner than you at the time. For example, my husband -- who I am head over heels for -- he was very understanding of what I wanted to do with my career, very supportive. As you can imagine with a young child balancing all of that...but then he wanted to go back to grad school and now it’s reversed. Whatever you need, I’m here for you.
You should never compromise your femininity or whatever you believe in just to rise in the ranks.
Did you ever have a moment when you felt incredibly overwhelmed? How did you move past that feeling?
I think we all have our moments. For me, it’s just meditation and taking a step back and thinking about what a great opportunity I have here and what a joy it is to be a mother and a wife, and think about how I can do this in a way that makes sense for everyone. It really starts with me being able to give time back to myself and recharge my batteries. I’m lucky that Kimpton is a company that celebrates work life balance.
How did you make it from the front desk to the sales team?
The front desk was a good starting point because it’s where I learned to connect with people and that’s so vital in sales. At the end of the day it’s not about who has the best hotel, a lot of the times decisions are made because the customer trusts that you can deliver. That goes back to making them feel comfortable and listening to their needs. Did you come up with creative solutions? That’s what you have to do at the front desk every day.
It taught me to be open to new experiences. There are so many people from different backgrounds that you meet in sales. It taught me to be open and try new things, whether it’s cuisine or travel or a new book. Be a constant learner. You have to keep evolving and keep growing and look at everything as an opportunity, not a challenge. You can’t go back and fix what happened in the past, but how are you going to move forward with it?
You seem to really understand leadership. Who are some of the leaders you’ve looked up to in your life?
I would say first my grandmother. She taught me a lot about respecting people and knowing that we’re not in it alone. You have a lot of help and support, and give back. I really admire Oprah, just to see her take that leap away from her show to create her own network, stepping out of her comfort zone I loved seeing the courage she had to do that. Maya Angelou, she uses arts and activism. I could go on and on. Those who overcome adversity and really take a challenge, and keep moving forward.
Tell me more about your Grandmother.
She was very fearless, I would say for her generation she was very much into teaching me lessons. Don’t get married just to get married [laughs]. Get married because it’s the right thing to do, but don’t feel pressure that you have to do that or have kids. She was more about taking care of yourself, making sure you finish college and think about what’s next for you. Don’t rely on someone to take care of you. Feel comfortable in being yourself. You don’t have to fit in. You want your friends and the people you surround yourself with to have a different perspective than you. She had friends of all different backgrounds and she loved connecting with people and she loved to celebrate diversity.
What are some things that people don’t know about managing a hotel?
It could be as little as buying new throw pillows, and all of the research that goes into it. How durable are the throw pillows? Does it go with the design scheme? What will it say in that space? Or the coffee mugs -- how does it feel in your hand? How much coffee will go in there? We want people to have a nice pour. Or the front desk uniforms-- does their presence create that sense of welcome. It’s the small and subtle cues that people don’t know, but it ties together to make the experience. Then there’s the training. It’s finding the talent that is willing and has that heart of service.
How do you want people to feel when they walk into one of your hotels?
That they’re important and that we’re here to take care of them. It doesn’t matter what goes on outside of these walls, but when you’re here we’re so glad to have you and we want you to come back.
What has been your biggest career challenge thus far?
I would say that when my son was young, finding a way to balance motherhood and my career. One thing that was really inspirational for me was a panel of women in leadership. They were CEO or very high executive level, very different industries from healthcare to construction. I was listening to their paths. How did they make it work? One thing I came back with is that you won’t have a conventional family and you have to be ok with that if you want to be a woman in leadership. You might not be able to go all the PTA meetings or bake the cookies, but if you go to the bakery and buy the cupcakes it’s just as good [laughs]. It’s things like that. I might not be home every night to make dinner, but maybe on Sunday I’ll make a meal that can last a couple days. It’s just a different way to manage it. I didn’t realize until then that the picture of what it should look like to work and have a home life, you need to squash that notion and just define it for yourself. Once I heard that, I really got it.
What’s next for you?
Definitely General Manager. That is a role I am really looking forward to. I want to give back a little bit and add more to the community. Being a General Manager gives you that time back to serve on boards, to be really active in the community. For me, it’s how do you give back to women? I am a huge supporter here in Philadelphia. We have a Kimpton Women In Hospitality Group. I always try at least once a quarter to bring the women of both hotels together and talk about a topic that’s relevant and have a fun networking component with it. I would love to do more of that, perhaps a little bit outside of the hotel.
What advice would you give to the next Carol Watson?
I would say build your trust circle sooner. I think in the need to want to keep moving, you don’t always stop to say ‘who can I bounce ideas off of’? Who is maybe where I am and aspiring to do the same thing? Build that network so you’re doing it together. Continue to trust yourself and take risks, It’s ok. Shoot high and don’t look back. If something doesn’t work out, it was a fun journey and you have a lot of experience from it. Use that experience for the next journey.
Trust your gut and know who you are. Sometimes as women you might feel the need to not be yourself, especially when you’re a field where when you climb the ladder it’s a lot more dominated by male presence. Just remember who you are and that your best self is your genuine self and that’s what your team will pick up on. That’s what will make you more successful. You should never compromise your femininity or whatever you believe in just to rise in the ranks.