The hospitality to healthcare pipeline: industry cross-pollination in action

Just over a year on from the launch of The MBS Group’s first-ever dedicated healthcare practice, we have been reflecting on the mission we set ourselves, namely: to bring new thinking about leadership to the sector post-pandemic, and to talk about the need for transformation, innovation, and increasingly empowered consumers. In doing so against the backdrop of MBS’s long history and deep engagement with the consumer world more broadly, as a practice, we have often found ourselves contrasting leadership priorities within health and social care with those in the adjacent consumer-facing sectors.

In particular, there are significant crossovers between healthcare organisations and businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors – both multi-site operations, underpinned by a large workforce and driven by a relentless focus on customer (or patient/resident) experience. It is perhaps for this reason that we’ve seen a growing trend for cross-pollination of talent between the industries. Over the past couple of decades, hospitality (with its reputation for service-led customer excellence) has become something of a training ground for healthcare leaders of the future – and, off the back of the success of the early adopters, today we are seeing more and more healthcare executives and non-executives being directly hired from hospitality.

But while they may share certain operational similarities, hospitals, care homes, and clinics differ in some fundamental ways from restaurants, hotels, and holiday parks. Without downplaying the importance of regulation (e.g. around food hygiene) in hospitality and leisure environments, there is a critical difference in the level of responsibility for safety that health and social care colleagues shoulder in their “day jobs” when compared to their peers in other sectors. Put simply, while many parts of the skillset may be the same, these key differences often mean that what’s required holistically from leaders across these “neighbour” industries can be quite different in practice.

With this in mind, we sat down with leaders from across the healthcare sector to explore their experience of making the transition from hospitality and leisure in more detail. What value have they brought to the sector? What have the challenges been? What motivated them to move across in the first place? And what should healthcare companies consider when making hires directly from hospitality?

Perhaps the most obvious crossover between the two spaces is the similarity in workforce dynamics. Both industries rely on a large, often highly-skilled, employee base, many of whom are at the lower end of the pay-scale. At a time when workforce considerations are high on the agenda (just this month, many UK nurses voted in favour of strike action), we were keen to hear if any lessons from the hospitality sector could be applied in healthcare when it comes to managing and motivating employees.

“Healthcare has a sector reputation (which is not unfounded) for being hierarchical, fear driven and old fashioned,” said Jeremy Richardson, who swapped hotels for care homes in 2014 and is now the Chief Executive at Runwood Homes Senior Living, having previously run Brighterkind and the Four Seasons Group. “From a leadership perspective, the mission is to set out a different proposition, one that revolves around empowerment and engagement.”

“It’s about engaging and inspiring your team, and developing a really strong culture” – Jane Bentall, Non-executive Director at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust

Jane Bentall, the former Managing Director at Haven Holidays and today a Non-executive Director at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, spoke on the significant challenges of empowering the workforce without having control over pay. “It’s about engaging and inspiring your team, and developing a really strong culture,” she told us. Here, there are strategies that can be applied directly from the hospitality sector, and it was fascinating to hear from Jane the approach that Bourne Leisure’s leadership took at Haven: “we called it ‘Get, Grow, Keep’, and it was about identifying each person’s motivation for joining us and supporting them through their career. As a result, I do believe our team members felt properly valued as individuals.”

Crucially, leaders who come to healthcare from outside the sector can ask fresh questions, and find new ways to solve old problems. Tim Hammond, who previously worked across hospitality as the Managing Director at TGI Friday’s and Chief Executive Officer at Elior, and is today Non-Exec Chair of Horizon Care and Education and Health and Case Management Limited, was clear on this point: “as a senior leader,” he reflected, “you should never believe that you can’t add value to a role, even if you’re not a technical expert in a particular topic.”

“As a senior leader, you should never believe that you can’t add value to a role, even if you’re not a technical expert in a particular topic” – Tim Hammond, Non-Exec Chair of Horizon Care and Education and Health and Case Management Limited

One of the leaders we spoke with offered a compelling example of this, recounting a conversation with colleagues about a shortage of pharmacists in the UK. “They would just say, ‘oh it’s a country-wide problem’ and move on,” they told me. “But when we had a shortage of chefs in my previous role, we created a chef academy to train our talent from within. Why can’t we do the same with pharmacists? Or at least ask the question. It’s about putting these issues into real life, commercial contexts and getting people who have been in the organisation for decades to see things a little differently.”

Clearly, there is a lot that hospitality leaders can bring to a role in healthcare. But what does it take to make the transition successfully?

Navigating the idiosyncrasies in healthcare is one of the biggest challenges for leaders new to the space. Jeremy Richardson spoke to this point: “It is such a highly regulated sector,” he told us, “one which requires significant technical expertise – especially operationally. My role as a leader has been to harness the skills of technically gifted operators and create an environment in which they can shine and do their best work.” Indeed, more than one leader reflected that it had taken them longer than anticipated to get to grips with these nuances, and spoke warmly about the vital role that long-standing colleagues played in getting them up to speed.

“My role as a leader has been to harness the skills of technically gifted operators and create an environment in which they can shine and do their best work” – Jeremy Richardson, Chief Executive at Runwood Homes Senior Living 

This led us to question the best ways to smooth the inevitable learning curve when leaders transition from a non-clinical to clinical environments. Beyond swapping insights with other leaders in a similar position, Jane shared that a specific course for NEDs moving into the NHS had proved highly valuable. “I was in a room with a group of fellow new non-executives, and it was a safe space to ask questions,” she said. “It gave me the grounding to understand the right questions to ask back in the boardroom.”

Aside from subject-specific knowledge, what resonated most strongly through our conversations was the need for a values-driven  leadership approach for a transition into healthcare. Justin Ash, who spent his early career at KFC and is now the Chief Executive at FTSE 250 private hospital group Spire Healthcare, suggested that senior executives from hospitality and leisure must have the “appropriate mindset to transfer into such an ethical environment”. In particular, Justin pointed to his time at Yum! Brands, a highly values-driven hospitality organisation, as valuable preparation for his subsequent roles at Lloyds Pharmacy and Oasis Dental Care.

Indeed, each of the leaders we spoke with for this column described a direct correlation between success in healthcare settings and a values-led approach to leadership, a quality which can of course be developed from within any sector. Another consistent theme across these conversations was a genuine desire to help others through their work. “People often ask me which sector I’ve enjoyed working in most,” said Tim Hammond, “and I always say care homes. It’s addictive, providing a fundamental service that makes the last phase of someone’s life as comfortable as possible.”

Jeremy Richardson struck a similar chord, telling us that he was driven by the opportunity to make a difference in healthcare, “not just to our residents and their quality of life, but also by being part of modernising attitudes to leadership in a critical sector, and shifting an old-fashioned, fear-driven mindset to one built on mutual trust and respect.”

“There’s an automatic bias towards caring in healthcare which creates real cultural strength.” – Justin Ash, Chief Executive at Spire Healthcare

For Justin Ash, it is this purpose-first mindset which encourages people to stay in the healthcare sector: “as a Chief Executive,” he reflected, “I think it would be harder to go back to restaurants from hospitals. There’s an automatic bias towards caring in healthcare which creates real cultural strength.”

It is this conviction that sits at the heart of the issue. Healthcare is an innately purpose-led environment, one in which the consequences of failure and impact of success have a particular resonance. While there may be an overlap in skillsets between executives in hospitality and healthcare, a successful healthcare leader will underpin their expertise – be it strategic, commercial, financial, or operational – with a genuine desire to help people, whether they prefer to think in terms of “patients”, “residents” or “customers”. Given the nature of the task at hand, a people-first approach to both colleagues and customers is the future of healthcare leadership. | | @TheMBSGroup