DEI Advisors Podcast

Sean Mahoney, EVP & Chief Financial Officer, RLJ Lodging Trust, interviewed by Lan Elliott

November 09, 2023 David Kong
DEI Advisors Podcast
Sean Mahoney, EVP & Chief Financial Officer, RLJ Lodging Trust, interviewed by Lan Elliott
Show Notes Transcript

Sean discusses how his curiosity helped him to rise quickly.  He explains the importance of including others along the way to build support for initiatives – and why hallway discussions are critical.  Sean shares valuable advice on public speaking he learned from friends trained in broadcasting, and he explains why imposter syndrome gets more acute as one rises to the C-Suite.  He also details the “art and nuance” of advocating for oneself.

Lan Elliott:

Hello and welcome to DEI Advisors. My name is Lan Elliott on behalf of DEI Advisors and today I'm thrilled to have my friend Sean Mahoney on and Sean is the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of RLJ Lodging Trust. Sean,

Sean Mahoney:

welcome. Thank you, man. Pleasure to be here. And I really, appreciate the invitation and our long term, but not too long term friendship.

Lan Elliott:

I appreciate that. I feel like that might have been a part of it to strong arm you to come on. So I'm really glad to be able to have our audience meet you. And if you are not familiar with Sean's incredible career, I hope you'll go on our website to learn more about him. But Sean, I worked with you. We won't say how long ago, but it was as we were coming up in the trenches. And I know you've had a really interesting career journey. Could you share some of the inflection points in your career? And if there was a particular factor or factors that contributed to your

Sean Mahoney:

success? Sure. And once again, thanks for having me. So my career started with Arthur Anderson. The first deal that I did. Was the it was when Marriott and HOST spun off in the early 90s, so I will date myself. I was an advisor for hospitality on the, audit side, and when audit could do a little more than from, more advisory work than they can do today. For several years including, helping host and Marriott and others. I then went overseas and, I'm sure we'll talk about that over, over the course of of the interview and then came back and was. I was there Diamond Rock Hospitality when we formed that, that hotel read was there a long time and had a great experience on the principal side which was a great, learning the experience, development experience, cultivating a lot of relationships that I brought in and then adding on to the relationships when I left Diamond Rock, I joined RLJ shortly thereafter. From a great relationship that I had formed with Leslie over, over the years and and, have been a partner of hers here at RLJ for the last five years staying within the hotel REIT landscape, but, a different different flavor within the types of hotels RLJ owns versus where, it's been a great experience. I love the hotel industry, love the 365 day a week. I'm sorry, 365 days a year, seven day a week aspect of of the business, being a public company, all that stuff, it's been a. It's been a great journey for me thus far.

Lan Elliott:

Sean, I'd love if you could dig in a little bit with a part of the journey that I don't know as much about. And that was, I think I was overseas at the time myself was when you decided to move from the accounting side to being on the principal side and joining diamond rock. And I'm just curious about the thought process and how you. Decided to make that transition in your career.

Sean Mahoney:

Sure. And it was a I agonized a little bit over it. In the sense that I always knew that I liked hotels and enjoy the business. I had spoken, I was approached by Diamond Rock and really through indirectly through, Carl Berquist, who was the CFO at the time, but a mentor of mine at Arthur Anderson, as well as Rick Nadeau both of which, I know, over the years who was, still in practice, although I had, left and had a great career elsewhere in the real estate spectrum, but Had were approached about this new company that is being formed. Essentially, it was pitched as host light hosted done the Starwood deal. And the thought within Marriott building is there needed to be another alternative for host that would be good for, would become dime rock shareholders as well as Marriott from a deal flow. And The decision was all about did I want to go and, I was literally right on the cusp of becoming a partner in the accounting firm order that I want to go for this startup where we, had a handful of guys some good ideas, great contacts at Marriott, but, take some level of risk and ultimately it was the best decision that I've made. And, I, I spent a lot of time with those folks that I mentioned earlier, asking about it, agonizing over it at the end of the day. I was told you'd be an idiot not to take this chance. These types of opportunities at the ground level are so rare. You, you're suited to it, take the chance and obviously it's worked out well and the accounting firms are a great career. I, I come from the, my, my father was an Arthur Anderson partner. I, I have great respect for that. It's just, I was ready to do something else.

Lan Elliott:

Yeah. And I wanted to dig into that a little bit because were there certain skills that you decided to hone that you thought would increase your career advancement as you were going through?

Sean Mahoney:

Sure. I think what was always important to me was, just being curious, right? Intellectual curiosity around understanding the business. When I was working and frankly with, with you and others at host I would spend a lot of time with the asset managers, with the legal team, with the deal folks, even though it wasn't technically part of my job, but I thought that I could be a more effective auditor. If I really understood the business and I was in my 20s at the time I knew that I was interested in it, it was the curiosity to become, more, to have a deeper understanding of the business because my thought was if I understood the business the accounting side of it would make a lot more sense, particularly on the deal and reads who are transaction based, if you don't understand the ins and outs of the transaction, you're probably not going to get. Yeah. The accounting writer be able to, to critically assess it at my role at the time. And so I think curiosity was was certainly a driver. And I found that, I thought it was an interesting business to understand. And so frankly, talking to the deal team, including you talking to the asset managers, that was a skill set. That was different to me because I was not, didn't come from an operation. So having that curiosity to learn the operating side of the business has really, been the start for me of a career where I've always been, I'm now a finance person. I've always, I'm always told people I'm cursed with being a good accountant, but I still have that discipline. But, I also, over the last 25 years, I've learned operations and are able to, and I'm able to. Effectively talk to the operators to make sure that we that we get the best results possible on the principal side.

Lan Elliott:

Yeah, I agree with you. And I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time. We were both really learning a lot. We were both in our twenties when we started working together on some of those fun deals. And I got the benefit of your curiosity. And a lot of leaders have curiosity as being critical to their success. And I love that, I got to know you better as a result of your curiosity to learn more and it brought more, right? What you knew about the deal was exponentially more than if you had just gone head down to do your specific role.

Sean Mahoney:

Appreciate that. Yeah. And we had a lot of fun. That's the most. That's the most important part as well.

Lan Elliott:

We did. There were some late nights and early mornings in that when we were working on that with you in the hotel and me sitting at my desk waiting for the other shoe to drop. Let's move on to taking risks. Because you don't get to where you are today without taking a few calculated risks. How do you think about them? How have you handled them in the past?

Sean Mahoney:

Sure. Listen, risk taking is, it's uncomfortable for everybody. But the, the risk reward if taken appropriately is massive. I think, looking back on my career, certainly. Moving overseas and you had a very similar experience when you went overseas was was unique and different for me. I lived in Ireland. My oldest, who's now a senior in college was eight weeks old when we moved to the. to Dublin. And so there was a little bit of a leap of faith in a different country, a different culture. Thankfully, there wasn't a language barrier, but just taking that chance, knowing that I was going to learn something and I learned different industries. I became a. Expert in infrastructure and mining, which I, being in the depths of a zinc mine was something I didn't expect to have, or an experience. You've never seen darkness like you've seen if you're in a mine without the lights on. It's pretty incredible, and it's very... confining feeling. Same way, wind farms, Europeans have a ton of obviously, clean energy is important in that part of the world. And I got to climb up in the tower of a wind farm and you realize how big each of the arms of those of those turbines are, et cetera. So all of that was, But at the end of the day, I was going to a different country without really any network. And a network's important other than it was with Arthur Anderson to, to figure out that and I thrived and and I, cause I, I liked being different and that's I think, and we'll talk about it a little bit being, being, not being the same as others whereas the Anderson culture was pretty strong. And so having that common bond was also helpful. The other risk was about joining Diamond Rock. We talked about earlier joining a startup that that, had the money but didn't have any hotels. And that was, going and building that from scratch and knowing every one of those hotels intimately, because they're all deals that sort of I had my hands on. Obviously, Dime Rock has evolved over the last five years and is much more resource centric. By the time you know, every one of those deals, everyone on the team was intimate with. Those risks were were uncomfortable when I Yeah. thought about them. And and I was uncertain because I'm conservative by nature. But I think the takeaway, for the audience is it's worth it. And was and I would never give any of it back. And, the growth, the personal and professional growth was invaluable. And I may not directly use Some of this stuff that I learned in Ireland, the confidence I built, particularly as a, mid twenties, mid to late twenties professional to, to realize that I could go to a different country and actually contribute was incredibly important from a confidence perspective as well.

Lan Elliott:

That's a great point about what you gain from taking risks. There's another kind of risk that I don't know if everyone knows that you used to take, maybe you still do. And that was your volunteer firefighting job that you used to have on the side while you were at Anderson.

Sean Mahoney:

Did that, I still do it. You still do it.

Lan Elliott:

You're being trained to run into a burning building. Does that impact your risk taking being a conservative auditor by training? How does that impact how you,

Sean Mahoney:

It's interesting. I it's a, I compartmentalize that part of my journey, but I was I was just talking with one of my team members here earlier about some of the post audits, if you will, when things go well and things don't go on, I actually use that as the example. After every time, we have to, we cut somebody out of a car, have fire, everybody sits in the back of the bays and you have a very candid what went well and what didn't go well conversation. And so what I've tried to do, the guys at the station really don't know what I do and that's fine. I don't ask them to know that they know I'm in hotels. I know different than, a lot of folks. don't, I don't really talk about what I do, in, in Prince George County, but there are things that I bring from both, both the sort of as an adult executive to, a business, which tends to be folks a lot younger. than me. It is definitely a young person's game. From looking at things, not just rushing in, because, I can accept what recounting is today. If you're in your 22, you don't to problem solving and working as a team in the fire ground that works in the corporate world. So I, I try to do both of those things and get the best, but it's definitely, a somewhat unique perspective. laugh tell people nobody dies in our operating tables and read land. That's true, because I'm often an environment where that actually can happen. I try to avoid it.

Lan Elliott:

Absolutely. And I love especially what you mentioned about That reflection to take as a team, to look back at an event and do an analysis and think about what you can do differently. It's something that we don't really do as much in business on a project by project basis. But I've heard that also from Jay Kayafa at IHG, who was a former Air Force fighter pilot. And he also mentioned doing those kinds of debriefs and making sure that there's learnings to take you forward.

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah. And the key is it has to be safe for everybody and ego free, right? Absolutely. And as long as you've realize that we're all, in, in that world, not to be cliche, somebody messes up there, it puts others in real harm's way. And, but more so obviously in the, in, in the military background. But yeah there's no ego. It's this is what went well and this is what didn't go well, and let's not do the part that didn't go well. Again, in the future, which, by the way, things never go well because you're in a highly volatile situation that you can't control. Business is easier to control.

Lan Elliott:

Hopefully sometimes things don't go as planned. And I actually wanted to talk about that next. Have you ever had a setback or something that didn't go the way you had hoped and you found it was an opportunity to learn new things about yourself or about a situation?

Sean Mahoney:

Sure. More than we have enough time on this panel. I think the thing that I've learned over the years, particularly the thing that I struggled with as I got my sea legs underneath me as a more sort of Gray haired executive type was I was always pretty effective at managing down in the sense that I think I don't have a huge ego and and I must roll your sleeves up type of person, and so I've always managed down. Pretty well, and I've managed up reasonably well. The area where I struggled with was peers, and that's a, that was a lesson to me and I learned it, 15 years or so ago, that you have to manage those as well. I took the mindset earlier in my career. That if you're a peer of mine, you should, you're an adult and you don't need handholding, et cetera. And when I, and what I learned and the setback was that if you don't bring your peers along with you, whether it's a critical decision, whether it's, feeling included or whatever it is, and it's never, there's never anything with areas about it. It's just a bunch of, they, they want to be included and they want to feel that they're part of the decision. And so that was a. A setback that I learned when I didn't do that that, if you don't include somebody or make them feel part of the process, there's a chance that they will try to undermine your process. And and so the, the critical success factor was, is make sure you bring everybody along as you're going through and the first time that they know what your recommendation is, probably shouldn't be in the meeting. And the hallway chatter and hallway discussions are critical to making sure you get from A to Z as quick as possible. And so that's probably less because I didn't focus on that because I assumed if you were if you're on the same level, you didn't need somebody at the same level bringing you along. That's that is not the way forward. That's

Lan Elliott:

so true. I remember the first time I learned the hard way that the meeting doesn't happen in the meeting. And I thought, what do you mean that the meeting happened? Everyone goes and then we talk about it and we agree. But I learned the hard way that exactly like you said, you need to make sure you know who the stakeholders are and bring them along and make sure that they are on board before you ever walk into the room. It makes a huge difference.

Sean Mahoney:

Absolutely. Along

Lan Elliott:

those lines is developing a network and One of the things that I don't think I fully appreciated until later in my career is what's wonderful about hospitality is people tend to stay in this industry for a long time. And that doesn't happen with every industry, which I didn't know. But the great thing about that is that you end up working with people and they stay in the industry and you have the opportunity to meet them again and work on projects again, like we did 20 years later, we get to work on a project together a few years back and an interesting part is that a lot of times people will meet and work on projects in the hospitality industry, but then friendships develop and go from there and they can be very long standing relationships. But not everyone is super comfortable meeting people, walking into that cocktail party at a conference. How do you build your network in a way that's Natural and authentic for you?

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah, it's a great, first of all, I totally agree with the point, right? It's the network's critical. We're blessed to be in an industry of, if you're in the hotel industry, the chances are that you're wired a certain way that is gonna, be more accommodating to people. That's what we do for a living. But for me. I am I have to work hard at taking over a room because I'm much more comfortable and I always have been in smaller groups than I am in larger groups. And so as I've progressed and and built the networks is that I've I prefer to build my networks through, two to three people interactions. And build the network that way versus going into a large group and trying to be the loudest voice that is not my, my, my style at all. It's important, though, to have a wide network, right? So how do you do that? It's finding like minded people you trust, people, that at the end of the day are Advocating for you. While you are also right, everything with this is work at the day, right? It's a two way street. You want people to advocate for you and you want to show that you are going to go through walls for that. And so the way I've built my network is to, through a series of transactions over my years, conferences, et cetera. But I tend to do it in a, in, starting with a smaller group and then it gets the big group. Now, when you see me on stages and things like that, you look, you think I look very comfortable and I've worked hard at looking comfortable in front of a large group because it does not come naturally to me. At all.

Lan Elliott:

No, I appreciate you sharing that. Any tips that have worked for you in terms of public speaking?

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah so I went to Syracuse, which is which has got the Newhouse School, which has got lots of broadcasters. So I've got a lot of personal friends who have been news broadcasters, etc. And what are they? And this was an early advice I got from a friend of mine who was a sports anchor was for public speaking. Just know that your audience is rooting for you to be successful, right? And so as you think about that, like when you're giving a speech, if you're giving a best man speech at a wedding, if you're talking to somebody, the audience doesn't want you to fail, right? They want you to be successful. And so to try to take that positive energy that is in the audience and not assume that they're out throwing darts at you, but they want you to win. You gave me the confidence to be able or gave and gives me the confidence to, to be able to get in front of folks and convey in a, in a confident, although not boastful way, but that's some of the best advice that I've been given by those that are trained to do it in the newscasting business.

Lan Elliott:

That's great advice. I love that as a great confidence booster along those lines. I want to talk about overcoming self doubt because often we're our biggest critics. And that noise in our heads makes us doubt ourselves. And I know you and I have talked about it actually doesn't go away. And I used to think when you were younger, you had Imposter syndrome. And then you grew out of it when you learned a few things and then it got better and it didn't come back. But what we found is that it comes back again and again. And I think you've actually said it's even worse. The more senior you get. Can you share some of your thoughts about that? And some of the strategies that you have to stay positive and overcome that internal narrative? Sure.

Sean Mahoney:

To start, everybody has imposter syndrome. That is just, it's human nature. No matter how confident you are, you know that there is somebody that is smarter, better, whatever than you are. What I found the more senior I've gotten over my career the reason the imposter syndrome has gotten more acute for me is there's less safety nets underneath you. And when, and I tell this to my kids who are about to enter the workforce. I'm like, the thing is when you become a, a C level executive, nobody brings you good news anymore, right? It's just your job is to solve problems that, that a bunch of smart people below you have tried to solve or are at an impasse or whatever. And so your day is filled with trying to solve those issues. And that's okay. Like the experience, the gray hair, all that is is helpful, but what's uncomfortable about it and dovetailing into the to the imposter syndrome is you look at you're like, okay, They're going to do whatever I tell them to do without really questioning it. And that's an uncomfortable feeling because we all know that we've all, we all have human frailties. Like I'm not right all the time. I just hope that I'm right more often than I'm wrong. And that, that's a successful career. And so that's why, as I've gotten more senior and older, it's actually become more acute for me. Whereas when you're, when I was younger. There's always that sort of, it's the free rider syndrome where you know that there's always somebody else behind you that that might get it right. And so you can be a little more, opinionated because you're not the final decision maker. When you're the final decision maker, it's very uncomfortable but rewarding when, you get the right, answer and you post audit it and you're like, okay, I made the right call. And. Obviously the opposite. You want to learn from it when you didn't make the right call.

Lan Elliott:

I think that's so important is just to remember that, okay, when you're the, when you're the final say, and it really needs to be right, having a certain amount of humbleness to be able to say, maybe I'm not right all of the time and trying to do the best that you can. I think that's a big part of it and helping you to get through. And hopefully, like you said you're right more often than.

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah, it's funny as a senior, the more senior you get, everyone has opinions, but is that opinions tend to be strongest? This is based on my experience at middle management. Right? Because they're folks that are smart, know what they're doing and can give strong opinions based on their experience level. The things become more nuanced, the more, thank you. Reps you have as an executive. And so what appears oftentimes is, as questions are they being wishy washy or can that make a decision? It's a function of more experience and understanding that there, Similarly, I said, no one gives you good news. The questions are never black and white in business, right? There's not, because if it was a black and white decision, somebody would have already made it. And you, it would never get to your level. It's a, the world is awash in gray. And that's where I think, you, you find the senior executives tend to be less opinionated and more thoughtful, probably a little more deliberate. But ultimately will allow for a more thoughtful answer that isn't, versus that just do this. We all know what the just do this is but that isn't necessarily things think through the other side, et cetera.

Lan Elliott:

Yeah. And I do think that's a great skill to be able to make decisions when the options are all shades of gray and there's not an obvious answer. And sometimes you don't have all the information that you need and you still need to make a decision. So that's also part of it.

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah, and not suffer from because you can always ask for more data at some point, you have to say, I have enough information with which to make an informed decision and not analysis paralysis, which I think we all, fall into that every once in a while, particularly if you're uncertain about a decision. If you ask for more information that delays the decision. And so you have to, I have to always catch myself from doing that because it's an easy trap for particularly data, analytical type folks to To, to lean on.

Lan Elliott:

Absolutely. I've definitely been on the receiving end of that, where we're just running more and more numbers. Not sure we're getting closer to the truth.

Sean Mahoney:

Yes.

Lan Elliott:

Let's move on to advocating for ourselves because a common generalization is that women and also potentially underrepresented groups don't always do a great job of speaking up. On their own behalf, and that could be part of the challenge in seeing them elevated to C suite roles, getting promotions or other things. What would you tell viewers who are struggling to find their voice? And is there a right way to ask for something that they really want? Because in addition to not having any black and white questions you get to answer, you probably have a lot of people coming and asking you for things. What's, how do you handle that? And what's the right way to do it if

someone's

Sean Mahoney:

looking? Yeah. It's the first is. You belong, right? If you get the job and you're working for somebody, you've got the technical skills, right? And so I think having the confidence to know that you are adding value, you are part of the team, like you, the hardest thing is getting in the room, right? Just having that little victory knowing you're there, I think is important. From a confidence standpoint. In other words, don't be afraid to ask for things because, you wouldn't be there if you didn't have the skills. And weren't delivering the value with which should be rewarded. But I think on specific questions, what I've counseled others, and it's usually When I'm advocating for, promotion or job raises or whatever for those that are working with me is to start early. Nobody likes being put on the spot to make a RAS decision, immediately, particularly around HR matters, right? And so what I've what's been effective for me and I would encourage others that if there's something that you want you shouldn't just ask for the time you want it. You should, Preview that with whoever the decision makers are and people that you know are advocating for you you know lay out the plan relatively early on say hey, it's if promotions are done in january, you know The spring before is really when you should say hey What do I need to do to get considered for this promotion? And get alignment right with who that decision maker is and say listen because you're putting a marker That you want the promotion, but you're not demanding it and you're accepting that it's a two way street, right? I, this is what I want. What do I need to do to achieve it? Based on a collaborative process of let's come up with all the milestones. And then if you deliver, then you should expect that outcome. And to me that, that. Gets the, the decision maker in the foxhole with you. It becomes the joint decision. It's an us, not a me asking you. And at the end of the day, I think you get there quicker than you would if you just, at the end of the year came in, I want more money. You just don't, that's, that works in some industries, not this one, right? It's much more long term play. Yeah,

Lan Elliott:

those are all really good points is to give it a lot of time. Don't expect it to happen overnight that someone can just make a decision and turn on a dime. It's not really how it works and gaining alignment. I love that idea of sitting down and agreeing what are the goals that I need to meet in order to have you support me in reaching this goal. The other thing I didn't really realize until later in my career is that your boss doesn't always get to make these decisions in a vacuum by themselves. Usually a committee, right? And so that's part of the process as well. It's not only you convincing your boss, but it's also your boss advocating on your behalf to the people who need to make that decisions and agree with

Sean Mahoney:

him and her. Yeah, absolutely. But at the end of the day, if the work is there and the effort once again, we're talking about. So there's a tangible product that you deliver and we get paid to work because work is work and we're delivering value. If, we probably wouldn't be doing this for free. Maybe we would, but it's, so you got to make sure that you're doing your end of the bargain, right? On accountability. And as I said, I assume people are but you should never feel bad about asking You get remunerated for it because that's how capitalism works and so don't be bashful about advocating for yourself. The other thing is, if you're not advocating for yourself, it makes it easy for your manager to choose somebody else, right? You got, if you're not advocating for yourself, nobody's going to advocate for you. There's a way to do it in a, in a less harsh manner, right? But. You got to look out for yourself. And that's not meaning don't look out for others. It just means that you need to make sure people know, Hey, I'm doing X and I want to make sure that we're that's being recognized without a, look at me mentality. There's a art and a nuance to be able to do that without it being off putting. Most people have those soft skills.

Lan Elliott:

It's really great additions to how to advocate for yourself. Sean, as I expected, we're running short on time as because I always learn from you as I have for many years, but I had two last quick questions. If I could, the first one is around What advice would you give to your younger self?

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah, I'd say, I'm sorry, go ahead. Don't interrupt people.

Lan Elliott:

It's one of my favorite questions. I know you're excited. Go for it. What's your advice to your younger self?

Sean Mahoney:

Enjoy the journey, right? It's gonna work out. I think the, don't take yourself that seriously. Enjoy what you do. Because it is at the end of the day, if you're not enjoying what you do every day, then you probably need to do something else. Great advice.

Lan Elliott:

And one final piece advice. If you would keeping in mind that D. E. I. Advisors mission is around empowering personal success. What if one last piece of advice you would offer to people who are looking to advance their careers?

Sean Mahoney:

Yeah, I'm gonna I'm gonna do three things which are all related. One is just affirming that you're valuable and you belong in the room. The second are people are advocating for you. So just know that. And if you go in with that attitude of people are All right. Believe in me and want me to be successful. You tend to be happier at work and then pick a mentor or mentors. That's critical. For success and make sure that those mentors know how appreciated they are from a standpoint of your time, et cetera. And those mentors can be senior, they can be junior, they can be peers. It doesn't matter. But I think that's also critical,

Lan Elliott:

incredible advice. I love the, especially the advice about look for mentors, not just more senior than you but to your side and to others. So thank you for that. Thank you very much, Sean. I so appreciated this time to talk with you. I know we've been talking about doing this interview for a long time, and I'm glad we were finally able to find a time to do it. And I so appreciate your friendship over the years and also. All the things that you do to encourage others and to lift others. And you've just been, I know you've been a wonderful mentor to many people in this industry and help them advance along the way. So thank you very much for sharing your time and also your vision for the industry.

Sean Mahoney:

Thanks. Appreciate. I really enjoyed the conversation. Appreciate the invite. It was flattering just even to get the invite. So thank you. Thanks,

Lan Elliott:

Sean. And for our audience, if you've enjoyed this conversation with Sean, I hope you will go to our website, DEI advisors. org to look for interviews with other great industry leaders. Thank you.