DEI Advisors Podcast

Aly El-Bassuni, Divisional President, Aimbridge Hospitality Interviewed by Rachel Humphrey

November 28, 2023 David Kong
DEI Advisors Podcast
Aly El-Bassuni, Divisional President, Aimbridge Hospitality Interviewed by Rachel Humphrey
Show Notes Transcript

Aly discusses why he insists on leading a corporate culture which includes self-care. He shares why he and his family have opted to move several times to support his career and how he evaluates those decisions along with tackling other risks and challenges. He talks about relationship building in a small industry and developing leadership skills, especially strategies to manage others as you develop a team. He also tells his younger self to view life as a marathon not a sprint.

Rachel Humphrey:

I am Rachel Humphrey with DEI Advisors, a non profit organization dedicated to empowering personal success within the hospitality industry, and I am delighted to be joined today on the program with Aly El-Bassuni, the Divisional President of Ambridge Hospitality. Aly, welcome to the

Aly El-Bassuin:

program. Hi, Rachel. Thrilled to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Rachel Humphrey:

We are going to jump right in and spend about 30 minutes today. And I wanted to start off with one of my favorite questions because there are so many unique paths to leadership within the hospitality industry. Not one of us has to follow any set trail. Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got to where you are today.

Aly El-Bassuin:

It was really a function of where I grew up. Spent time in northeast Pennsylvania in the Poconos and what was initially a part time job, summer job. And if you lived in that part of a country, it was likely in hotels and hospitality. And what was initially college excuse me, high school, summer job, eventually became a college part time job and eventually turned into a career. Out of school, I went to work for Marriott. Learn so much working there joined their supervisory program or first with an internship, then their supervisory and management programs placed at a couple of different properties. And then I think it was when you and I first met, I went to work for what was sending at the time later became Wyndham quite a bit of run there, 17 years and really grew up there and in a lot of different ways. And, and then eventually find my way to Radisson Hotel Group in Minneapolis. And then outside of the industry for about two years, a very brief stint. And then back to my love and purpose and my passion here with InBridge Hospitality.

Rachel Humphrey:

You have touched on some really important themes in there and some things that we're definitely going to follow up a little bit on. And I want to start actually with relationship building. You mentioned having been at Marriott and then at... Send it now Wyndham and then at Radisson, now Ambridge. And as you and I were talking in preparation for this call and you were looking at prior interviews we had done, you were like, Oh, worked with that person, work for that person. That person used to work for me. And I was reminded how small the hospitality industry is and how. It is to maintain and build relationships, not just as you enter a new role, but even as you're leaving that role, because you just never know where you end up and who you end up there with again, talk a little bit about relationship building and how you have suited that maybe to your personality or to your strengths in really deepening those genuine relationships.

Aly El-Bassuin:

You're right. It is a small industry, isn't it? And the longer you work in it, the smaller. It gets but I, one of my mentors, when I first started working at Marriott used to always say that any success and, or career growth. Or advancement, if you will, is a byproduct of relationships and I was just fortunate over the years. So I've made some really great relationships. Some of my closest friends to this day, I met working for Marriott in my early twenties some of my best friends to this day, I met at Wyndham. And at Radisson. And those experiences in those relationships can be long lasting outside of that close circle if you will building that network is very important as well. And having had an opportunity now to work for a couple of different companies along the way, you meet great people. That make an impact on your career that you learn from that you work with, that you work for and ultimately, when you talk about hotels and hospitality, it's what really drew me to this business is the people aspect of it and those relationships. Really important, whether they're brief or longstanding.

Rachel Humphrey:

I think that's great advice and I appreciate you sharing that. I'm going to tell you one of the reasons I am drawn to my relationship with you. And one of the reasons that I asked you to join us as an advisor today, there's a saying that I do not like at all, which is that you can't be both kind and effective as a leader. And when I first met you, I was really drawn to your kindness. And over time I learned about your effectiveness. But when I think about. Relationship building, I think about the way that you draw people in just by being a good human. And so I thank you for that. And I share that with you. We have not talked about that before, but really an important lesson as to being your authentic self and not having to be different as a leader or perhaps more aggressive or some other term like that. So I think that you can add that to your description of one of the ways that you build relationships is through your genuine, authentic self. I really have appreciated that.

Aly El-Bassuin:

Thank you so much. That's very kind of you to say.

Rachel Humphrey:

I also wanted to talk a little bit and we're going to talk about your moves in a couple minutes because you've moved locations a lot for work. But first, I want to focus on you are a dad of 3 children. If I remember correctly, and 1 of the things we hear a lot is that women are asked to How do you manage demanding careers? A lot of travel, a lot of hours, stress, things like that. But we don't tend to ask dads the same question. So I want to ask you, how do you really manage the demands of both having a successful, impactful career, but also being really present for your family? And what type of lessons have you learned over the course of your career that have really played a role in that?

Aly El-Bassuin:

I love that question. I have to tell you early in my career wasn't something I was good at finding balance. And you're right. I have three children, two in high school one in middle school, bringing up or soon to be middle school, bringing up the rear and I've been traveling as long as they've been alive as long as they've been with us. And so they're in a lot of ways, they don't know, much different than that. Having to travel in the middle of a week and occasionally through weekends or extended trips. But as I said, earlier in my career, placing an emphasis on that balance. Was not always a strength for me. You have, your work, you have your family and, don't forget yourself as well. And that's where the balance comes into play and being good to yourself, being there for your family and being there in, in the very demanding work schedule takes a balanced approach. You mentioned the word present. I landed in Dallas here this afternoon to spend time in the office this week. But my son has a varsity basketball game this Thursday, 1st of the season. And so I've tried to build my schedule around where I can, get back in time on Thursday. early evening and be at the game. And and when I'm home, I'm present. I am not the dad who is going to be at every every game, every practice every everything, but I will tell you that it's very rare that I am home and not present at those events. And so that's where I can give my best self at work and give my best self when I'm home. And also you have to try and find time to recharge the batteries for yourself. And the last thing I'll say there, Rachel, is that my wife has the more demanding job in the toilet. She's full time head of household, CEO of household, and her job, man, is tough. And and I'm fortunate to have that partnership with her where she takes that on and allows me to go out and work and we have a very good partnership. And and making that happen together.

Rachel Humphrey:

I like the intentionality of both the scheduling and being present when you're present, but also having the right support system to allow both of you to thrive in what you're doing. That's so important. And related to that, as I mentioned, I know that you have moved around a lot with your family. For different career opportunities, and it is certainly not for everybody. But how do you evaluate for those out there listening that may have an opportunity come up? That is not local to where they live is not a remote opportunity or maybe limiting themselves in their career advancement by a decision to stay. In the same place, how do you evaluate whether the move is the right one for you and your family?

Aly El-Bassuin:

Everybody has to buy in. And again we moved to Minneapolis from living in New Jersey for a long time. My wife agreed to move their site unseen. She'd never been to Minnesota. And that was, that, that conversation actually went a lot more smoothly than I thought it was going to be. And then eventually moving to Denver. Which was not a big leap from experiencing for Minneapolis winters. But listen, taking a step back it gets a little harder as the kids get older, that's for sure with two now in high school where our home base is where it is for, the next several years to allow them to get through to their high school years and then on to college. But evaluating every move for me. There's always, really three questions that I asked myself. One is, do I think I can contribute? So do I think I can come in and add value? But at the same time, the second question for me is do I think there's an opportunity to learn? That is question two. And then question three is it going to be a cultural fit for me? Am I going to feel great? About where I work, who I work with and who I work for. And if as a starting point, those three questions are resounding. Yes. Then almost always it's well, it's worth taking the risk and uprooting and moving. And we've had a couple of different moves. Now, over the last 10 years, we've uprooted to move 3 times. So the family's a little bit of move to T, but every 1 of them has been worth it for a lot of different reasons. And. You know what? I was born into it as well. By the time I was 11, I'm going to smile when I say this, because those that are close to me, it's almost a running joke. By the time I was 11, I had lived on my third continent. And so as a kid I had a little practice at moving and dealing with that change. And I think in putting my family through that difficulty, I've also given them, the opportunity to experience different parts, at least of the country. And and feel like they're from a lot of different places.

Rachel Humphrey:

I love that as an angle, but also that it takes the buy in of everybody before making that. You mentioned taking risks and moving certainly is one of them. I would say leaving the hospitality industry and now coming back to it could certainly be one. And no leaders get to where they are without taking them. Is the process for evaluating risks? for you in general, the same as the process that you just mentioned in deciding on new opportunities in new locales?

Aly El-Bassuin:

100%. It's the same exact thinking, can I add value? Will it be an opportunity for me to learn? And do I feel like it will be a cultural fit for me? Those are always the three. Points the three tests for me to evaluate on any opportunity. You're probably mentioning my leaving the industry. What in 2021 and stepping away for a little bit, and it hit all of those things. Particularly on the learning side, learning a new sector, learning to work in multiple countries, internationally, globally and the opportunity to experience different parts of the world was fascinating for me. But the other thing I learned is that You know where, and I didn't need to be reminded of it, it was at a time where, we were all going through probably the most difficult times in our lives, let alone the industry and everything we were going through and, climbing out of COVID. Being away also, only cemented for me where my passion and love is. And when Ambridge reached out earlier this year about this opportunity, was thrilled to come back home to hotels and hospitality.

Rachel Humphrey:

We are happy to have you back for sure. You mentioned in that analysis that you do the idea of continuing development, and you've had A lot of different types of roles. I know we were CEOs at the same time, and you've had different roles within the hotels and within the industry. Have you come across new skills that maybe you recognize that as your leadership was developing? You know what? This is not Maybe a strength for me, or this is a strength for me. And I think I could really elevate it even higher. And if so, how did you set about to increase or grow those skills?

Aly El-Bassuin:

I would cite the best examples early on in my career. I was a 21, 22 year old college graduate. And, went from, the college life with roommates and. And everything that goes with that to now I'm in a suit and tie and, I'm a fresh, freshly minted, manager with Marriott and boy, when you talk about leadership and I was not a guy you wanted to work for. I don't mind telling you that. And it was it was a learning experience. And, early on in my career, I realized that, while it's not a strength for me right now, it needs to be as I grow my career. And over time and ultimately it's not, it's, by the way, it's not a manual. It's not a book. It's not a, it's not a a handbook, if you will. It is really understanding how to, connect with people, how to build relationships how to catch people doing great things how to understand what makes them tick how do they like to work, how to learn, what are they passionate about, what makes them want to compete improve And and that that was an evolution for me over time to, settle into a style that worked for me and that also worked for people that I worked with or around or the team that I eventually. Had the opportunity. And leadership skills. Some people are natural born leaders. And and others, work at it. So I've it's been 1 of the areas in my career where I've really I'm proud of stuff in terms of accomplishments is that, being able to make connections with people it's less about, profit and P and L's and other things, which are important too. But fundamental to your career growth is going to be your ability to connect with,

Rachel Humphrey:

That's so interesting because I don't think it's just as a 21 year old. I think for many of us, there are long periods of our career that we are not responsible for managing others. They certainly don't teach it at school or maybe they do now, but so for, I think for a lot of leaders. the, all of a sudden, one day you have a team or a group of people and you don't realize how different it is maybe from the roles that you've had. So that's great advice. And I think one of those things also, that is a constant work in progress. So even as we continue. to go through our careers that there's always ways we can grow our management skills. You also mentioned when you were talking about work life balance earlier, self care and wellness. And I know for me, that is something I would say that was not just not a strength. It was a tremendous weakness for me. And there has been a renewed emphasis on self care and wellness, certainly coming out of the pandemic. What would you tell people on your team in the industry who are really struggling to prioritize their own care as part of their daily routine their weekly, monthly, whatever it is with so many other demands out there?

Aly El-Bassuin:

I think step one is make it a priority. As a as the individual step two is as a leader is you have to facilitate an environment where people feel like. They're empowered to do it and give them the permission to do it. When you come into an organization and you're leading a team, some people feel like, they can't or not the right time to take time off or while they're on the vacation or over the weekend, send emails or get on calls. And I'm the first one on my team that discouraged that. And frankly, times where I just demand that people don't do that. And there has to be a period where. You're recharging the batteries and recuperating and I need that as a natural sort of introvert myself. I need that time to, step away for a little bit and come back and be able to pick it back up again and or rev it, rev the engine higher than I did before. And you have to prioritize it. You have to be in an environment where. The culture of the organization supports it and facilitates it. And then from there, it's up to the individual to find the right rhythm and balance. For me, as I said it's family and self. And I love to play golf. I don't work out nearly as much as I should, but try to get those in and and spend time with family. That's how I recharge and I find balance.

Rachel Humphrey:

I like the concept also of making sure as a leader that you are not only emphasizing it, but at times demanding it. I think that is one of the struggles is where the environment or the culture doesn't feel like it is welcoming that opportunity. So I appreciate you sharing that. You also mentioned along the way a mentor who gave you some advice that has stuck with you. How important do you think mentors and allies are in the process of career growth? And how would you suggest that people either seek out mentorship or at some point in their career seek to be mentors to others?

Aly El-Bassuin:

I think it's absolutely critical. And I've I've been incredibly fortunate to have several mentors throughout my career. One or two that I'm still very close to and in touch with frequently where I would call and bounce ideas off, get thoughts get asked for an opinion those moments are, invaluable for someone's career growth. And I've had the opportunity to learn from so many great mentors, over my career. And I think on occasion I've also had the opportunity to be a mentor to someone. And there's personal growth in doing that in, helping someone else and being part of their growth story. It's so rewarding not only to that individual, but to you as as the mentor. And so I would say it's absolutely critical any success I've had has had a lot to do with, those relationships and the people around me. And it's beyond critical. Yeah, you

Rachel Humphrey:

mentioned earlier. One piece of advice that stuck with you. Are there a couple of other lessons that when you think about it, you can in your head point to, Oh, I know exactly where I picked that up from or who taught me that I knew would be so important down the road.

Aly El-Bassuin:

There are so many, some of my favorites, though one being, the art of reentry, one of my mentors. We would travel a lot together and on the tail end of the week, you'd say, Hey, remember not the art of reentry. And the premise was, I'm going to get home, toss the suitcase aside and say, who's ready to go out to dinner. It might be the last thing you want to do after eating out every night, but what it does is it gets you back into the household. Your family, who's who's been. Maybe eating pop tarts. Some nights would be thrilled and ecstatic to do that. That was one of my favorite ones. And it's one that I share quite a bit with with people I work with today and say, remember when you get home jump right into it, resist the urge to get in your sweatpants and sit on the couch and veg because you need to, again, remember that. Yeah. That balance needs to be there. Yeah, that's one of my favorite ones.

Rachel Humphrey:

That's great. 1 of the things we hear most from people is that their biggest hurdle perceived or real is to leadership is public speaking. And I am dealing with a sunset happening here. I can see it all over the screen with is public speaking. And for many, it is the most impactful way of building either. a personal brand or becoming known as a subject matter expert which then leads to other opportunities, other relationships. How do you feel public speaking? Is it something that comes naturally to you? Has it always, how do you prepare for panels and other things? Because you certainly do a tremendous amount of conference speaking.

Aly El-Bassuin:

I do but I will tell you, it does not come natural to me. As an early professional early on in my career, I had, I think your classic stage fright fear of public speaking and, it is, it was never something that came, I mentioned, I'm a natural introvert, so for me, it takes a lot to get on stage and, or be on a panel and, or any type of public speaking. And I, it is something that over your career, you develop like anything else, like a skill. And we aren't, born to read, to read PNLs. We aren't, we don't come out of the womb knowing how to. Build a strategy deck or or any of those things. So I look at it as anything else. It takes practice, it takes preparation. And for me, that's the biggest coping mechanism is is being is borderline obsessive preparation. And when I feel good about the subject matter or the content it facilitates me to. To overcoming that and I wouldn't call it stage fright today. Call it 25 years later. But certainly is something that always I think about before I get up and speak in front of whether it's 10 people or 1000 people and and it never has. Come natural for me, but prepare feel right about the content, feel right about, and by the way, rely on some of your experiences and instincts and know that the stuff, and I make connections with people. But public speaking, make no mistake, was never a natural fit for me. I just had to learn how to do it.

Rachel Humphrey:

You wouldn't know it from listening to you today or even on any of those stages. And so I think that's really something that other people can look to too, to say, whether you're nervous or whether you're natural at it or not, it's something certainly that can be developed.

Aly El-Bassuin:

Believe me, if I can do it. Literally anybody can do.

Rachel Humphrey:

I want to turn quickly to overcoming obstacles. We think about leadership today and not any leader has gotten to where they are without setbacks, challenges. We can call them failures. Things that did not go as we hoped that they would. And for most people, they will say that those became learning lessons for them, either some way to do it differently or never to make that mistake. When you think about overcoming obstacles, what is the process that you think about for your personality and really how you tackle challenges when you have a setback or something that could be perceived as something less than as successful as you hoped?

Aly El-Bassuin:

Rachel, I'm not sure I can draw to a process, but I can tell you there are some basic fundamentals that I, fall back to one is, calmness, steadiness resolve tenacity. And also understand that it's a team sport and and, countless examples where I've been faced with challenges, some of them, moderate to hard to existential to the business and and the formula is always the same, like I just said, it's a team sport and some basic tenants are Staying in the moment and, managing that reaction, the emotion and be, programmatic and how you approach it. And we all went through what we did with, in the industry and other industries, with COVID and I'd say the best example I can offer is, Radisson hotel group. When we received the call from the the U S department of justice regarding our then ownership. And we had to, as a team work with all of our resources across all functions, all layers. There's a A skiffed article about that experience from a few years back that I was contributing. Editor, if you will. And that was an incredible experience. I didn't appreciate it at the time. The in hindsight, when you think about an experience like that and what that does from a learning perspective, I think that's another way to approach challenges, is opportunities to learn. And in failure there's learning. I think that was, that's probably the most, the, certainly the most recent, but probably the best example I can offer. I'll have to

Rachel Humphrey:

go find this gift article and Anna recording first for me. I have no idea what's happening with the sun and the lighting right now, but they be that as it way. We are running short on time and I want to wrap up with one of my favorite questions, both to answer when people ask me, but also to ask others as advice to our younger selves. And I mentioned earlier that I do believe we are all works in progress and that. Our life is a lot of continual learning and reflection. When you think back to 21 years old, and I know you talked about graduating from college and having to be an adult in the work world in your suit, what would advice would you tell your 21 year old self either about how things played out or something you wish you had known then that, now,

Aly El-Bassuin:

The first thing I'd say to my younger self is that, Your career progression is a marathon. It's not a, it's not a sprint and you can't sprint a marathon. And it's not an original thought. It's advice that was given to me over the years. And then another very unoriginal thought is, and it's one that it came naturally to me and it's how I ended up in this business is do what you love and love what you do. I almost became, I started out pre law I almost became a CPA and then almost went into. Computer science, none of those things were necessarily a passion for me, and I don't know what I'd be doing today if I went into any of those tracks, but I'm sure it wouldn't be one of those tracks if I pursued them. And find something you're passionate about and, and go with it.

Rachel Humphrey:

I love that. I'm a big believer in sliding doors. So when I hear that you've had a couple of paths, you could have walked down and didn't. I think it all plays out how it's supposed to. So well, as we are wrapping up, considering the D. I. Advisors motto of empowering personal success. Is there one final thought you'd like to share with our listeners?

Aly El-Bassuin:

First of all, thank you so much for having me. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. This 30 minutes went by so fast. But but I'm going to come back to the marathon versus spread conversation. Find the time to focus on what's important to you your work, your family, your loved ones, your relationships, your hobbies, your self interest, your self care. You can't be good at 15 different things, but, find those three, four things that are the most important and find the balance. and be really good at those.

Rachel Humphrey:

I love that. What a great way to end. On behalf of myself, on behalf of the hospitality industry, both welcome back and thank you for your incredible leadership and all that you do. To our listeners, I would say thank you so much for tuning in. You can hear from other great industry leaders at DEI advisors. org. You can also stream. Always podcasts as well as the podcast up all of our other interviews on your favorite streaming service. But Ali, thank you so much. For all that you do again and for joining me today.

Aly El-Bassuin:

Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you.