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Lessons in corporate culture from a New York City restaurant empire

MIT Sloan MBA student studies what hospitality means for work environments.

By Kathryn M. O'Neill  |  September 13, 2016

2016-Alden

Lissy Alden

Lissy Alden, MBA ’17, was working in corporate education when she realized that the biggest problem executives face isn’t technical. Instead, it’s structural: determining how to create an environment where people can thrive at work.

This challenge is what drew Alden to MIT Sloan, where Professor Deborah Ancona and others conduct leadership research. This summer, Alden interned at Hospitality Quotient, a consulting firm that helps companies like Delta Air Lines and Kiehl’s develop positive, employee-first work environments.

For 10 weeks, Alden worked with fellow intern Anni Ylagan, MBA ’18, and together the two prepared a strategic growth plan for the company.

Alden recently shared what she learned about creating an employee-first culture and the benefit of tasty food at work.

What does Hospitality Quotient do?

Hospitality Quotient is the organizational consulting arm of Union Square Hospitality Group, a group that owns some of the best-known restaurants in New York, including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. The firm works with Fortune 500 companies to help them develop what we call an employee-first culture. The idea is to create a great environment for the people who are creating great experiences for your customers, with an eye toward better returns for the bottom line.

How does the company do that?

Hospitality Quotient works with teams and the leadership to help them understand and develop opportunities, policies, and procedures to improve employee satisfaction, with the intent of improving customer service. For example, the team at Hospitality Quotient develops courses on how to be a positive member of the team with tips on how to avoid behaviors like “skunking”—or creating a toxic environment through spreading a bad mood. This is particularly important for managers, because the effect of the wake they leave when they walk through the office can be exponential. Hospitality Quotient also emphasizes the importance of hiring the right people to begin with—people who have strong inherent skills, like emotional intelligence.

What did you do for the company?

Anni Ylagan and I worked on a project to diagnose the state of the business and create and find opportunities for Hospitality Quotient to explore for the future. This was a really incredible task because part of my goal for the summer was to blend what I learned in my first year of business school—skills like accounting and statistics—with my genuine interest in people and organizations. We interviewed past clients, and we did an analysis of Hospitality Quotient’s financials. Then we were able to present our findings to the executive team.

Hospitality Quotient was my first choice for an internship because I believe that creating great working environments is good for business. I also believe that service is going to be a key differentiator moving forward. The work that Hospitality Quotient does combines these two important ideas. I also have a secret passion for food. Since the company would sometimes bring in food from their restaurants, Shake Shack or Blue Smoke, we got to eat our way through the summer.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from the internship?

The internship further strengthened my belief that culture is a function of structure, and it’s important to tie culture to the bottom line. The second thing I learned is that I like working on small teams, and I’ll be looking for something like this opportunity in the future. The third thing I learned is that I have a lot to learn. I talked to 60 companies to find this internship, and I will probably talk to 120 to find something full time. This will be a big year of exploration and I can’t wait to get started.