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Andrew Torriani: ‘I don’t think I could have done what I do today if I hadn’t grown up in a hotel’

Andrew Torriani

Montreal

Andrew Torriani is chief executive and general manager of The Ritz-Carlton Montreal.

We called ourselves "mutts" in our family because I was born in Holland, lived in South Africa and moved to five or six different countries after that because of my dad's job as a hotelier. Moving wasn't too difficult for me because I had three other brothers (and later, a sister) very close in age, so when we were in a new environment we always had somewhere to go. We were all good at sports, and the sports routine introduced us to people.

One of my earliest leadership roles was when I was asked to be a captain on the rugby team. I remember thinking, "Man, this is hard," because nobody listened to me. The first time you get a leadership position, it doesn't always work out the way you had it in your mind.

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Having a little goal takes you through the rough spots. I think "average" is the worst thing, and I tell my Ritz team that all the time. People will come to me and say, "Hey! We did great!" and I will say, "No, we did average." We always have to strive to get one step further.

I think it's important to be active because more and more I find that I'm less tired, I feel refreshed, and if I'm travelling to somewhere where there is a time-zone change I feel good. You get a general good feeling from exercise.

If I look at my life, I had to work like crazy as a student, I never took holidays. When I was going through university, I had to work every day. It was just a fact of life. I didn't look at it resentfully, I didn't actually think of how I'd love to spend the whole summer.

I find it intriguing that millennials have this sort of flippant attitude about staying in their current workplaces. I'm sure there is a much, much higher training cost these days because of rapid turnover. My feeling is that millennials look at their parents and say, "I saw these people working every single day; did they really have something at the end of it?"

I used to come into situations with an answer or solution already in mind.

I was just kind of intolerant, and was that bratty kind of guy that everyone probably hated. Somebody sat me down once and said, "You always know the right answer. Just don't say it. Listen to others, understand what they're thinking and you might pick something up that you didn't know." It's one of those things you learn with time.

Today in business, I find that that people can be too analytical, and forget what is really important: the customer experience. Today, often people hire MBAs and place them right into a management position without putting them through the day-to-day part of the job. You need to take people out into the world to see what's out there. Learning in industry is a good thing; I don't think I could have done what I do today if I hadn't grown up in a hotel.

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I think mentorship is really important. I had the benefit of many people that took an interest in me, and I learned something from every single one. Without mentors such as Calin Rovinescu, I don't think I would have truly understood the necessity of acting quickly and always assessing whether the status quo is good. I was part of a graduate hiring program and I asked people lots of questions. Generally, I learned a lot from the responses and often the manager would be intrigued by the fact that I was curious.

When I'm hiring for my team, I only ask one question. By the time a candidate comes to my office, I believe that if I have the right team, they've already done the assessment of all the technical aspects. So my question always is, "Tell me about yourself." And what I'm listening for is intrigue, a bit of competition and an understanding of the world. Some people are going to answer in a second, and give a flat answer. Some people might take 10 minutes and tell me about all of the things that they've done. Within that you can uncover so much about that person.

The best piece of advice I can give new graduates is to move quickly. I think with technology, if you stand around and sort of ponder things, you end up making more mistakes than testing something quickly. You have to always be watching and checking and moving. I'm always thinking, but I get to a point where I say, "The thinking is over," and I take a chance. Bias for action, do lots of small inexpensive experiments and support the ones that work.

As told to Karl Moore and Sara Avramovic. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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