Above & Beyond

Transforming your district with a culture of hospitality

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: August 03, 2021

If you ever get a chance to dine in one of Danny Meyer’s award-winning New York restaurants, you’re bound to be amazed. Whether it’s The Modern—the Michelin-starred eatery inside the Museum of Modern Art—or the more casual Union Square Cafe, you’ll find food that consistently garners rave reviews.

But Meyer, whose empire now spans 18 restaurants across the city (plus worldwide burger chain Shake Shack), doesn’t credit his success to his gorgeous locations, his business acumen, or even his food. He believes his restaurants do well thanks to a defining secret ingredient: hospitality.

Throughout his book Setting the Table, Meyer draws an important distinction between customer service and hospitality. “Service,” he says, “is the technical delivery of a product.” It’s what you do to meet a customer’s needs, whether it’s bringing them another glass of wine or answering their questions over the phone.

Simple customer service, though, is no longer enough to wow your district’s families. “Today’s customer is smarter than ever before,” says Shep Hyken, a New York Times bestselling author and customer experience expert. “They know what good service is—because great companies teach them. They promise customers a good service experience, and they deliver. So whether it’s Amazon or Apple or any other place, they’re educating customers, and those customers are now expecting that kind of service from everyone.”

In a world replete with business transactions, taking care of your district families’ needs is the bare minimum. A server at a restaurant doesn’t impress guests by being polite or checking on diners; after all, that’s just their job. You won’t build loyalty, strengthen relationships, or boost enrollment by simply doing what your community already expects of you.

What is hospitality?

As Meyer sees it, hospitality is closely entwined with service, but goes a step beyond; it’s “how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.” Service, in other words, is what you do; hospitality is how you do it.

According to Meyer, “virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction.” This is true for schools, too—perhaps even more so. When families interact with your district, they’re not looking for something as low-stakes as a delicious meal and a nice night out. They’re trying to ensure fulfilling lives for their children, not just in the future, but right now. In the end, it won’t matter if your food at a restaurant turns out to be just fine—but you’d be hard pressed to find a parent willing to settle for “just fine” when it comes to their child’s experience with school.

Providing hospitality is one way to show your community that you’re not content with “just fine”—not when it comes to academics, not when it comes to day-to-day experiences. It’s not just meeting needs, but meeting them in a way that makes people feel like they matter to you. More often than not, that means going above and beyond what’s necessary in a given situation, making someone feel special not because you have to, but because you want to.

As you interact with your community members—whether students, families, or even staff—your goal should be more than just delivering services. Providing hospitality means meeting a deeper need: the inherent human desire to feel important, cared for, and valued.

Consider, for example, an elementary school nurse treating a sick child. You’d expect them to check the student’s temperature, ask what feels bad, and offer an ice pack if needed. That’s service. It’s necessary, but it won’t impress anyone.

But suppose they do more: offering a piece of candy, maybe, or pulling out a sock puppet to talk to the child. That’s hospitality: doing more than you have to in order to make someone else feel valued. In practice, hospitality can take many forms, from a teacher showing up to a student’s dance recital to the superintendent bringing a sick principal chicken soup—anything that shows another person you care.

The benefits of practicing hospitality are astronomical. When you go out of your way to show people you care, you build loyalty and trust. You cultivate genuine relationships. You might even boost your district’s reputation with the outside community. You won’t reap those benefits working alone, though. To really make a difference, you need hospitality to permeate every school building and every staff member. You need a culture of hospitality across your entire district.

Practice curiosity.

In his restaurants, Meyer makes a point of observing his guests to collect as much information about them as possible. Sometimes, this intel gathering is more overt—making conversation and asking them questions about themselves. Other times, it’s simply noticing subtle clues, like an impatient glance at a watch or an untouched plate of food.

All these details, great and small, are what Meyer calls “dots”—information that allows him to provide great hospitality. “The more information you collect, the more frequently you can make meaningful connections that can make other people feel good,” he writes. Asking a customer where they’re from or what they’re doing in town provides an opportunity to make a personal connection; maybe the guest shares a home state with their waiter. On the other hand, noticing dissatisfaction allows Meyer and his team to go above and beyond to make a bad experience a good one: comping a meal or sending over a free dessert.

In either case, hospitality requires curiosity: intentionally learning as much about your students, families, and staff as possible. The more you know, the easier it is to create personal moments that show people you care about them as individuals. “If I don’t collect the dots,” Meyer says, “I can’t connect the dots.”

Practicing curiosity often leads to another crucial component of hospitality: empathy. As we learn more about other people, we often can’t help imagining ourselves in their shoes. This creates a kind of chain reaction. The more you know, the more you understand; the more you understand, the more you care; the more you care, the more you show it; and the more you show it, the more people feel that sense of importance and value.

Now retired after more than 30 years in public education, former superintendent Kelly E. Middleton continues to promote the power of genuine relationships in schools, training other educators to think about hospitality and service. He once took a walk in a student’s footsteps—literally.

Just after taking the helm at Kentucky’s Newport Independent Schools, Middleton received a call from a grandmother asking if a school bus could pick up her granddaughter, Lisa. Because she lived near the school, the second grader was expected to walk or ride a bike.

Middleton could easily have cited the district’s transportation policy, closing the case there. But instead, he was curious; he visited their home to look at the path himself. What he found was a series of busy streets, abandoned buildings, and an unmanned crosswalk that would have been terrifying for Lisa to navigate alone. After learning more about this student and seeing things from her point of view, Middleton made an exception. Lisa mattered more than the transportation policy.

Had Middleton not practiced curiosity—and opened himself up to empathy—he might not have reached the same conclusion. But by taking the time to see things from this family’s perspective, he did more than was expected of him.  As is so often the case, that made all the difference.

Hire with hospitality in mind.

You’ve probably visited a restaurant or store whose employees all reply to every “thank you” with a rote response, like, My pleasure. By training waiters and cashiers to parrot these scripted answers, companies are often attempting to systematize hospitality. But here’s the problem: Hospitality can’t be scripted, and it can’t be expected. When we get a response that we know is required, it falls flat—because to be impactful, hospitality must be genuine.

As a school leader, you can set an expectation of hospitality, of going above and beyond for students and families. You can model hospitality to your employees, showing them how it’s done. But you can’t force anyone to be genuine. The impulse to do more than necessary, to seek out opportunities to make others feel important, has to come from within.

Meyer refers to this impulse as the excellence reflex: “a natural reaction to fix something that isn’t right or to improve something that could be better.” People with the excellence reflex aren’t necessarily experts at hospitality right away—it’s a skill that can be “honed through awareness, caring, and practice,” he says. But “the overarching concern to do the right thing well isn’t something we can train for. Either it’s there, or it isn’t.”

Let’s take this knowledge and turn to your district’s hiring process. As you evaluate candidates, you’re probably prioritizing technical skills, academic prowess, or previous experience. But you may be neglecting to look for the excellence reflex, that inherent desire to provide hospitality—and that may well be the most important skill an employee can have.

Harvard social psychologist Dr. Amy Cuddy argues that when we evaluate a first impression, we base our judgments on two primary factors: warmth and competence. Most of us tend to think it’s most important to prove that we’re competent, that we know what we’re doing, but Cuddy’s research suggests people actually focus more on our warmth. They want to know that we care. School-specific research corroborates this claim. The team of researchers behind Beyond the Bake Sale, a book on increasing family engagement with schools, says that a family’s sense of welcomeness—in other words, the degree of hospitality they’re receiving—is “the number one key to their connection with a school.”

In Setting the Table, Meyer shares his formula for the ideal employee: “Potential for technical excellence would count for 49%, and innate emotional skills for hospitality would count for 51%.” Academics and experience should still play a huge part in your hiring decisions, obviously—but the skills someone needs to be a teacher, counselor, or custodian can, to some degree, be taught. The excellence reflex can’t be; someone either has it, or they don’t.

If you fail to account for hospitality in your hiring process, you might find yourself with a district full of what Meyer calls whelmers. Whelmers aren’t noticeably bad employees—they’re not underwhelming—but they aren’t noticeably good ones, either. A whelmer will be up for the technical demands of their job, but they’ll never go out of their way to make a student or family feel special.

Whelmers are poison to a culture of hospitality. Because they aren’t doing anything egregiously wrong, they often fly under the radar—but along the way, they “infuse an organization and its staff with mediocrity,” Meyer explains. “They send a dangerous message to your staff and guests that ‘average’ is acceptable.” But if you want a culture of hospitality, average isn’t acceptable. You need overwhelmers: people who consistently look for ways to go above and beyond.

Before you hire someone for any position in the district, from custodian to principal, put aside their technical skills for a minute. Does your candidate seem to have the excellence reflex? Are they the kind of person who enjoys making others’ days? Or are they just a whelmer?

Communicate hospitality as a priority.

Unfortunately, building a culture of hospitality isn’t as simple as hiring great people and letting them run free. Even if every employee in your district has the genuine desire to provide hospitality—and the emotional skills they need to make it happen—it’s still crucial for you as the school leader to communicate hospitality as a priority for your district.

Explicitly prioritizing hospitality serves two purposes. First, it shows your employees exactly where you want to go—allowing them to opt out if they’re not willing to come along. “A critically important role for me, as the leader of the company, was to define upfront what was non-negotiable,” writes Meyer. “That way, if employees were not comfortable, they could choose to walk.”

But perhaps more importantly, communicating this priority helps willing staff members intentionally hone their hospitality skills. We’re not suggesting that you give employees a hospitality flowchart, showing them how to respond in each and every situation. Remember, hospitality has to be genuine. You can’t manufacture it. But you can explain the concept to your staff, encourage them to practice curiosity, and make it clear that they should look for opportunities to make students and families feel special.

This is the point at which hospitality becomes not just an idea, but a part of your district culture. Instead of a goal that exists in your head, it’s now a mindset permeating your schools. That creates consistency, a critical part of gaining your community’s trust and respect.

“There’s so much more that educators deliver than just grades,” says customer service expert Carla Johnson. “What they’re selling most is the experience along the way, and a big part of that experience is trust. When you send your child to school every day, you want to trust that they will be treated with respect.” Even if a student receives exceptional hospitality from her teachers, poor treatment from a bus driver could ruin her experience with your district, damaging your relationship and reputation with her family.

But the opposite is also true. When a teacher shows a student she cares, it makes a positive impression on that one family, and that’s valuable. But when everyone across your schools—from custodians to bus drivers to administrators—provides consistent hospitality, it boosts the reputation of your entire district.

Of course, establishing hospitality as a priority isn’t a one-time endeavor. As with any other part of your culture, you’ll need to reinforce the expectation again and again. In his restaurants, Meyer refers to this process as “constant, gentle pressure.” He understands that because nobody’s perfect, his high standards won’t always be met. But when his staff goes off course, he consistently pushes them back onto the path to great hospitality—gently, but firmly. It’s an ongoing process that keeps his restaurants not only on track, but slowly improving over time.

All three elements of this strategy—constant, gentle, and pressure—are crucial. “Leave any one element out,” Meyer says, “and management is far less effective.” If you fail to be gentle, your staff is likely to burn out or lose morale; but without any pressure at all, they’re unlikely to change anything about their performance. Apply appropriately gentle pressure, but only sometimes, and you’ll confuse your team—is hospitality really a priority or not?

At least one of these aspects will probably be difficult for you, and that’s okay—as long as you’re self-aware. “Leaders must identify which of the three elements (constant, gentle, or pressure) plays to their greatest natural strengths,” says Meyer, “and, when necessary, they must compensate for their natural weaknesses.” Working together, those three elements will grease the wheels of your hospitality machine—so it’s imperative to use them all to your advantage.

Turn mistakes into opportunities.

Often hospitality is a way of playing offense; you’re making a great experience out of one that was fine to begin with. But in situations where you’ve made a serious mistake, it’s also an incredible form of defense. By providing hospitality in the face of failure, you can actually flip a mistake on its head, using it as an opportunity to reassure students and families of your concern for them. As Meyer writes, “The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.”

According to a study from the Journal of Marketing, nearly 25% of the positive experiences customers cite with companies stemmed from an initial failure on the company’s part. Going far above and beyond to fix their mistakes allowed these companies to recover and then some, turning negative experiences into net wins.

Disney parks, for example, are pros at this. Say your child waits in line for an hour, only to find she’s not tall enough for  a particular ride. Staff will make sure you receive a free pass that bumps you to the front of your next line. In the excitement of skipping a line, the child’s initial disappointment dissipates; in fact, she’s probably happier than she would have been if the whole incident hadn’t happened.

This general principle applies in a school setting, too, as Middleton notes in his book Competing for Kids. “Most people understand that mistakes will occur,” he says. “Recovering well gives us the opportunity to change a customer who may be lukewarm toward our organization into a customer who is extremely supportive. We must see mistakes as opportunities to win favor with customers.”

While he served as Newport’s associate superintendent, Middleton faced what could have been a major crisis for the district. A kindergartener spilled hot chili on herself in her school’s cafeteria and didn’t make it to the nurse right away. The child ended up with blistering third-degree burns.

The child’s mother texted Middleton from the emergency room. She was livid—understandably so! But Middleton and his staff sprang into action. That same night, he and the food service director paid a visit to the family’s home, bringing three new outfits for the child. They offered a sincere apology and explained their plan to prevent situations like this in the future: new, non-spill lids for chili containers. The family never filed charges against the school. Nothing made it into the local media, and the incident never came up again.

Recovering well from mistakes doesn’t take Herculean effort. It just takes a reaffirmed commitment to hospitality. After all, most people don’t expect you to undo whatever damage has been done; they understand that’s often impossible. They just want proof that they matter, that you care enough to do something. Failures—even extreme ones—provide meaningful opportunities to show students and families that you care. And sometimes, that’s enough to win them over.

Model hospitality for your employees.

As with any aspect of your school culture, hospitality starts with you. “The superintendent needs to become the role model,” says Hyken. “They need to treat their employees the way they want students and parents treated.” That behavior is going to trickle down through the school system.

Just as your families choose where to send their kids, your staff members choose where to work. If you’ve hired top-notch teachers, administrators, custodians, or bus drivers, you have to assume they could easily find jobs with comparable pay at other districts. “I have continued to view people who work for me as volunteers,” writes Meyer. “It’s up to us to provide solid reasons for our employees to want to work for us, over and beyond their compensation.”

In his many years as a superintendent, Middleton understood this concept well. “You want that service all the way up and down your system,” he says. “You can’t expect your people to give great customer service if the leaders don’t give it to the staff.” Middleton expected his principals to check in with teachers who’d been sick for a few days, or even visit them at home—and he’d do the same for his direct reports. “Giving up nights and weekends for employees’ funerals and weddings is the price you pay for being a leader,” he says. Middleton made chicken soup for his teachers, took employees out to lunch, and personally greeted staff members every day for years.

Showing hospitality to your employees, proving that you care, also means going above and beyond to reward them when they intentionally make others feel important. Over the course of his career, Middleton found his own unique way of celebrating hospitality wins, and one situation stands out in his mind as worthy of particular celebration. On a freezing night after a football game, he witnessed a district custodian changing a woman’s tire—even though she was supporting the opposing team.

During a staff breakfast, Middleton diverted from the day’s agenda to tell the story of this man’s commitment to hospitality. He even presented the custodian with his signature award: a stuffed moose. Later, Middleton says, as the custodian got up for more coffee, he took the moose with him, not wanting to leave it for a minute.

There’s a lesson in this simple story: When someone goes above and beyond to make us feel important, it stays with us. In that way, the culture of hospitality you build now affects not just your current reputation, but the way people will think and feel about your district for the rest of their lives. Long after your staff members retire, long after your students learn calculus and dangling participles, they’ll be left with the memories of how your schools made them feel. Let’s make those memories great ones.


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