Extreme Accountability: The Attack On The Taj

26 July 2017 | Sutton & Rao provide a case study on extreme accountability of the brave Taj Hotel employees.

On November 26, 2008, the Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel in Mumbai, India, was one of the targets of a terrorist strike that killed 175 people across five locations.

As the bullets were flying, Unilever board members, executives, and their spouses were dining at the Taj to bid farewell to CEO Patrick Cescau. Taj employees jumped into action to protect their guests. They drew the curtains, separated wives from husbands to reduce the danger to families, and asked guests to lie down under tables and switch off cell phones. They comforted the guests and served them water and snacks until they were rescued the next morning. Mallika Jagad, a twenty-four-year-old banquet manager, led the thirty-five brave Taj employees who protected these guests from Unilever.

Elsewhere in the hotel, a telephone operator tipped off Thomas Varghese—a forty-eight-year-old head waiter at the Wasabi by Morimoto restaurant—that the terrorist attack was in progress. Varghese calmly instructed fifty-four hotel guests to lie down and asked other employees to cordon off the guests. All escaped down a staircase the next day—except for Mr. Varghese, who insisted on being the last to leave and was gunned down at the bottom of the staircase.

The Taj’s general manager, Karambir Singh Kang, directed operations throughout the hotel—even as his wife and two children died in a fire on the sixth floor. Kang refused to give up his post. After learning the terrible news about his family, he vowed to his father, “If it [the hotel] goes down, I will be the last man out.”In the chaos of the terrorist attack, most employees were cut off from their superiors. Yet they took independent initiative without waiting for orders or asking permission to do what they believed was right.

Telephone operators elected to stay at their desks, manning the phone lines (even though they sat just a few feet from the terrorists); kitchen staff formed human chains to shield guests as they were evacuated. Such bravery was not limited to a handful of the Taj employees. It permeated the entire organization.

The exemplary behavior of the Taj employees helped some 1,500 guests escape on a tragic night when thirty-one people, including eleven hotel employees, were killed by gunfire and twenty-eight people were seriously injured. Why were these employees inspired to such noble acts during this terrible crisis? How were they able to embrace such an extraordinary level of accountability and to ignore their own safety, far beyond any conventional definition of customer service?

It starts and ends with a mindset, one that the Taj Group strives relentlessly to sustain: employees are advocates of the customer, rather than ambassadors of the company—their job is to look out for the customer first, last, and always.

Can you imagine such a mindset at United Airlines? Here is what happened to that disillusioned United captain we wrote about at the outset of the chapter: “I had the gall to apologize to my 150 passengers for a delay of 45 minutes one day. I was asked to write a letter of apology TO MANAGEMENT for mentioning the problem.”

So how does the Taj support the opposite mindset? They start by selecting employees who are predisposed to be customer advocates, young employees from small cities where the common attitude is “The guest is God”—villagers who display respect for elders, consideration for others, and positive energy and who are keen to prove themselves. They look for young employees from humble families who need the income and are eager to make their families proud.

In other words, the Taj seeks new hires who are prewired with the values and motivation to embrace and live its mindset. These new employees are indoctrinated for eighteen months; most hotel chains train newcomers for twelve months or less. Every trainee is taught to make decisions without supervision and told that anything they do (within reason) that “puts guests front and center” will be supported by management. Trainees are especially encouraged to exhibit these values during the forty to forty-five “moments of truth” that occur each day—the typical number of daily interactions that a hotel guest has with Taj employees during a stay. And trainees are surrounded with coworkers who live this mindset, which reinforces and creates social pressure to put the client’s interests first.

The Taj’s reward system reinforces this mindset. Employees receive points based on compliments from customers and colleagues, self-reports of their accomplishments, and their suggestions for making improvements at the hotel. Every day, the hotel general manager, the HR manager, and department managers review this information and post the points awarded to employees on the intranet. By accumulating points, employees can achieve any of five performance levels ranging from the managing director’s club to the silver club—visible and valuable rewards that generate kudos from coworkers and their families. Taj senior executives emphasize to supervisors that “the timing of the reward is more important than the reward itself,”that offering it as soon as possible—and doing so in person—is crucial.

In short, those Taj employees didn’t see themselves as heroes on November 26, 2008. They just did what they always do—putting the guest first. It is the first order of business for them every day. The Taj is a place where employees live this mindset because, like other organizations that scale up excellence, it is brimming with people who have the skill to do exemplary work and who feel obligated to do the right things to accomplish some greater good.

One comment

  1. […] The same accountability that Taj employees demonstrated that awful day is evident in the ordinary things they do (and have done for years) to put “guests front and center.” This mindset was revealed when John Thomas (now a vice president at Rambus) and his family stayed at the Taj in 2005. After the long flight from the United States to India, they were greeted at the airport by a driver from the Taj. Their three-year-old daughter, Aaria, was tired and hungry, and despite her parents’best efforts she cried throughout the drive. When they arrived at the hotel, a staff member immediately greeted them with a key and informed them that there was no need to stand in the check-in line or deal with their bags. It was all taken care of, and the family could go straight to their room to tend to their cranky child. When they walked into the room, a warm glass of milk and cookies were waiting. Much to her parents’relief, Aaria gobbled down the milk and cookies at once and was smiling and giggling within minutes. When the astonished John Thomas called reception to thank them, he asked how they had known about Aaria’s unhappy state. The Taj staffer reported that the driver had called en route to inform reception about the family’s predicament, and they had taken care of the rest. […]


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