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EPISODE 192: Senior Vice President, Hilton Worldwide Sales – Americas, Frank Passanante Shares How a Coaching Mindset Has Helped the Hospitality Leader Become Fortune’s Best Company to Work for
FRANK’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Sales is a noble profession. Embrace a coaching mindset and also embrace the idea that everyone should always be learning. If you embrace this idea of an always learning mindset and you want to be better tomorrow than you are today, you’ll have success and you’ll have success in sales.”
Frank Passanante is the Senior VP for Hilton Worldwide Sales – America’s Hilton, and he’s been with Hilton for 28 years.
We conducted the interview at Hilton’s Global Headquarters in Tysons Corner, VA.
Find Frank on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Frank Passanante: First thanks, Fred. It’s really exciting to be a part of the podcast so I appreciate you taking the time and joining us here at Hilton HQ. As you said, I’ve been with Hilton for 28 years, so the better part of my professional career. I’m originally from New York, I ended up in the south at Florida State University where I studied hospitality sales and when I graduated FSU, I had my first hotel job with Hilton in sales at the Hilton at Walt Disney World Village.
For the last 28 or so years I’ve had a variety of sales leadership and sales management opportunities and today I’m sitting here, I’m at Hilton Worldwide. I’m at our corporate headquarters and I have the distinct pleasure of leading a team of about 300 sales professionals. They’re all based here in the Americas, we represent the 6,000 hotels that we are across 17 brands and 117 countries and we work with our customers here in the Americans as shepherds for those 6,000 hotels.
Fred Diamond: Again, we have listeners all around the globe, you mentioned 17 brands. Tell us some of the brands just to make sure everybody knows what is it you represent.
Frank Passanante: Everyone knows Hilton, one of the most recognizable brand names out there but Doubletree, Waldorf Astoria, Conrad Hotels, Embassy Suites, Homewood Suites, Hampton Inn’s, many of us stay in Hampton’s at soccer tournaments, volleyball tournaments so there’s 2,500 of those across the globe today. Many of these brands are global brands, meaning they’re not just here in the Americas and that’s a huge opportunity for us relative to pipeline and growth.
Frank Passanante: First, what excites me about what I do is I work for Hilton. When your company’s mission is to be the most hospitable company in the world and when your company’s vision is to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality, it doesn’t get much better than that. What I have the opportunity to do is to represent Hilton in our 17 distinct award-winning brands to customers here in the America’s to support them with their needs. Meaning, we as sales professionals serve our customers and we help them find Hilton-specific solutions.
The backyard barbecue often goes like this, “Frank, you work for a hotel company. Do you actually sell buildings?” and I’m like, “No. What I specifically sell is, have you ever attended a conference? Have you ever traveled for business as a corporate traveler? Have you ever attended a wedding? Have you ever gone to a soccer tournament or a volleyball tournament or a swim meet on a weekend? In each of those situations in life, there is someone in the hotel sale side that is talking to a corporate travel manager, talking to a sales executive, talking to an association executive director, working in a B to B situation with customers who set those arrangements up. That’s what we do, that’s what we sell and that’s what my teams support.”
Fred Diamond: You mentioned the Hilton mission. Can you tell us a little more about that? Again, the company has been around for what, a hundred years? Over a hundred years?
Frank Passanante: Yes, May of 1919, so one hundred years ago is when Hilton was founded. This is our centennial year, our anniversary year, it’s been an exciting year of celebration as we’ve been looking back at not only all of the innovation that Hilton has pioneered over the years but really a look forward to the next hundred and our continued focus on innovation. Our mission is to be the most hospitable company in the world, it’s really that simple. Many of us who’ve been with Hilton or in this industry for so long, that’s what’s attracted us to it from the onset, is hospitality. That’s what makes this business and that’s what makes sales in this business specifically a little different than selling other things because we are in the hospitality business.
Fred Diamond: Talking about experiences, you mentioned the Waldorf Astoria. I used to stay at that hotel frequently and I was once in the elevator with the actress Brooke Shields. That is one of my most vivid memories of the Waldorf Astoria, it’s one of the highlights of my life. That was very cool.
Frank Passanante: That’s fantastic. The Waldorf Astoria is the greatest of them all, that’s what Conrad Hilton called it when he had aspirations to purchase it. It is now, Waldorf Astoria, one of our distinctive brands, it’s not just a hotel. With that flagship, New York Waldorf Astoria as the flagship, there’s now 32 Waldorf Astoria’s and growing, huge pipeline all across the globe. In fact, we just added a new one last week in Los Cabos, Mexico.
Fred Diamond: Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. How did you first get into sales as a career?
Frank Passanante: I was at Florida State, I knew that I wanted to study hospitality so I was studying hospitality and quite honestly, I had a leaning towards the culinary side of the business. I thought I wanted to be in the restaurant business or specifically, a chef. I also got intrigued by some marketing courses so I ended up also pursuing a marketing degree. Along the way in my studies, I was introduced to one of the student organizations, the Student Chapter of HSMA, the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association and I became very active in HSMA. It was really through that exposure and through some of the industry exposure that organization afforded me as a student that I really started to set my sight on sales and sales specifically in hotels.
It was about junior, senior year that I had very firmly dedicated to myself that I would be in sales in hotels. My first gig was while I was still in school and it was the Howard Johnson, the HoJo capital center in Tallahassee, Florida and I was selling the banquet room and setting up corporate travel some local companies. When I graduated I ended up with a great job with an opportunity to join an organization that I wanted to work for, and it was in sales.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’re Senior VP for Hilton Worldwide Sales – America’s Hilton. Have you done every job in the hotel industry to get to this point? I’m just curious.
Frank Passanante: My concentration has been largely in sales and events. I grew up in what one would say a more traditional path. My first job in a hotel was a junior level salesperson selling small meetings but also servicing small meetings. We used to call it Book & Cook, you didn’t just sell something, you actually had to service it. You had to work with the customer, with the guest on the logistics and from beginning to end until they checked out. I then progressed through sales management roles where I took on bigger territories, different accounts, moved then into sales leadership in different roles, moved from hotel to hotel, to hotel to hotel which is what we do. Ultimately, landed in the Washington DC area back in the mid 90’s where I was the Director of Sales and Marketing for the Washington Hilton. Then moved after that into regional roles, so I oversaw portfolios of hotels.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the key lessons you learned from some of those first few sales jobs?
Frank Passanante: That’s an easy one. I learned very early on in sales to talk less and listen more. When you’re young, when you’re energetic, when you’re representing a fantastic brand you are uber excited to tell the world, but one of the things that I’ve learned very early on and continue to reinforce with all of our sales professionals is there is immense power in the art of active listening. That’s something you don’t necessarily know when you first get into the business, but you learn over time as a sales professional that talking less, listening more is the key to just about everything.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question for you. That comes up frequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast, to be a better listener. Some people mention the 66% solution, you have two ears, one mouth, use them in that order. Frank, what are some things that you’ve done, that you’ve learned over your career to help make you a better listener that we can pass on to the listeners today?
Frank Passanante: It’s about really being deliberate about the understanding of what active listening really is. Active listening is not waiting for your turn to speak, it’s actually engaging with whom you’re talking to, acknowledging that you’re hearing what they’re saying and then responsibly responding to them in a way that allows them to understand that you’ve heard what matters most to them. It’s being deliberate, it is a discipline and what we say is active listening, great questioning skills, this all sits up under the Socratic Method. This is Socratic selling, many of us who’ve been through sales training courses for many years understand it. Socratic selling is essentially a discipline that really embraces active listening through great questioning to better understand a customer’s needs. Being deliberate in understanding that is probably the best tip that I can give someone.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk a little more about you. Why don’t you tell us what you’re an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Frank Passanante: I’ve been known as someone who drives performance significantly through motivating teams to want to perform so we call it performance excellence. I’d say that what I am most passionate about and what I firmly believe in is what I’ll classify as a coaching mindset. I am a huge believer in the power of coaching, the power of great coaches and the power of people being coachable and that mutual commitment that creates truly beta performance, alpha performance, significantly better performance. If I had to characterize what I have really embraced over the last several years is this idea of building out a coaching culture and the power that that coaching culture delivers to the organization.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious. We have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the globe in many different industries and working for many different companies. What would be some of the features of someone who would excel? You talked about coaching, so someone who’s really good who would be working in your organization or in hospitality sales, what are some characteristics that they would have to help them excel?
Frank Passanante: We talked about active listening. Anybody that is going to perform and excel in one of these roles is going to be an active listener. They’re also going to be solution oriented, the idea behind asking great questions, listening attentively is to create Hilton solutions, to serve our customers up with distinct Hilton solutions. They’ve got to be solution oriented, they’ve got to be consultative. In our business you’ve got to be hospitable, there is a price of tea when you’re in the hotel business that you’re not just selling something but there also is the sense that we represent a hotel company, a hospitality company. That does require a certain type of personality, a certain disposition, so to speak that is going to make someone successful or not in our part of the business.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they influenced your career?
Frank Passanante: Without a doubt, I’ve had a lot of successful or very impactful mentors. It’s really hard for me when I think about this to name specific people. I have been, as I’ve said, 28 years with the company, have progressed through multiple roles over the course of these three decades and it’s only because I’m working in an organization that supports an environment where people can grow and develop, and that’s because I’ve had great coaches. The mentors that have been the most impactful to me are the ones that challenge me the most, that demonstrated to me early on that they were willing to extract the best out of me by being a great coach, but also were the ones that would challenge me and push me into uncomfortable places, that would allow me to self-identify where I needed to grow. There have been so many over the years. That’s how I would characterize them, they are great coaches and they challenged me.
Fred Diamond: We definitely get the flavor here for the coaching culture and the mentoring. Do a lot of people come to you looking to be mentored? I’m going to ask you a follow up question to that. If someone were to come to you and ask for mentoring, how can they put themselves in the best position to be coached or mentored?
Frank Passanante: Yes, people come to me and ask for mentorship and I am happy to do that always. I think that the best advice that I can give anyone is by asking for help, they’ve taken the first step, they’ve demonstrated that they are coachable. Being open-minded, being flexible, being willing to understand where there might be gaps and then actioning around those gaps. That’s often the conversations that I’ll have with someone that I’m mentoring, “What are you trying to accomplish? Where are the gaps in what you’re trying to accomplish? Now let’s talk about what we can do together or what you can do to try to fill some of those gaps.”
Fred Diamond: Frank, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Frank Passanante: I’m absolutely certain that nothing I will tell you is something you haven’t heard from other sales leaders. We all struggle with talent acquisition, we all struggle with a whole lot of things, but I’d have to say that one of the things that has really stood out to me as a challenge both for myself and for our teams is what I call the marketplace of time. It really is about managing the enormous amount of priorities and especially in a digital age, in the way that we communicate with our customers both internal stakeholders as well as our external customers. Managing the marketplace of time is really challenging.
We focus on a conversation that we have about really prioritizing to-do’s, the things that sit on that to-do list everyday versus the must-do’s, the things that should live there because they’re going to move you or your organization forward in a meaningful way and ensuring that you don’t let the to-do’s knock the must-do’s off the list. That’s the kind of conversation we have, again, that’s very high level but managing that marketplace of time is really hard.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got to imagine also, the people that you’re selling to, there’s a lot of stress in those jobs especially for having a multi 10,000 person convention, there are so many moving parts, there are so many factors, micro, macro, things that might be out of your control. Is the customer typically stressed? Obviously it’s very demanding, everyone knows when something goes wrong and when something goes right.
Frank Passanante: Without a doubt. I think there are some stats that say on the meeting side of the business that a meeting planner’s role is one of the most stressful occupations out there. So yes, those are customers that some of my teams are working with. Some of my teams are working with procurement professionals, some of my teams are working with corporate travel managers, some of my teams are working with Vice Presidents of Sales. Run the gamut of what those customer external and internal pressures might be. Part of what we need to do is to be able to be there for them, we’re there to serve our customers so part of our managing our marketplace of time is certainly acknowledging that there’s external and internal pressures that our customers are dealing with.
In our roles within Hilton Worldwide Sales specifically, we’re the above property sales organization. At each hotel there might be sales staffs, we work above property so our customers are certainly our travel managers, our meeting planners but we’re also here to serve multiple internal stakeholders. We mentioned we have 17 brands, those brands are relying upon my teams to deliver business into those hotels. The other people within our commercial teams rely upon us. The hotels that we support, they rely upon us every day. Every one of those stakeholders – and we classify 5 or 6 different stakeholder groups – they’re all drawing upon our marketplace of time. It’s about managing that marketplace of time so that we are still delivering what we’re tasked with delivering which is building meaningful connections and driving performance.
Fred Diamond: Marketplace of time. Frank, again you’ve been with Hilton for 28 years, it’s one of the biggest brands, one of the best brands in the world, one of the most well-known brands. You must have had some amazing successes along the way, why don’t you tell us about one of your biggest or most specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of?
Frank Passanante: There have been so many great successes and I can think specifically of the very first sale I had when I first started in Hilton. It was a $25,000 dollar opportunity that I booked, it was a small sales meeting for a pharmaceutical company out of Mexico. Or I can think about the biggest single opportunity that I confirmed which was a $25 million dollar deal, but I got to say that especially in the last many years, my most rewarding successes have been those that involved my teams. It is all about a teaming approach at Hilton and some of my greatest wins are teams that have been recognized for their great levels of achievement or as a leadership team. Us really embracing and championing some significant initiatives whether they be giant change management initiatives that reshape how we deploy and cover accounts or other major initiatives like that. I know I’m being a little vague because I just feel like there have been so many successes and I’ve got to say those that really involve the team are the ones that I’m most proud of.
Fred Diamond: As you say that, when we did some preparation for today’s podcast we looked at some of the people on LinkedIn that were part of your organization. People were there for 15, 20, 25 years throughout and a lot of people were new, of course coming from other places so it must be a very strong team. Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, Frank, I’ve got one more question for you before the break. Did you ever question being in sales? Again, you’ve been with Hilton for 28 years, again you’re heading up Worldwide Sales for Hilton. Did you ever question it? Did you ever think to yourself, “You know what? It’s too hard, it’s just not for me.”
Frank Passanante: That is also an easy question, no. I have never questioned being in sales. Sales is a noble profession, everything starts with a sale and everybody is in sales. I wouldn’t think of doing anything else.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever work with Lisa Earle McLeod, the author? She actually wrote a book called Sales is a Noble Profession.
Frank Passanante: Has she? No, that’s great.
Fred Diamond: She’s based down in Atlanta, it’s actually the first time someone referenced sales as being a noble profession. Most people we interview are proud to be in sales, again they’ve reached high levels and they’ve had a lot of rewards from their profession so I’m glad that you said that.
Fred Diamond: Frank, what is the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
Frank Passanante: One of the things that I would advise anyone is to really embrace a coaching mindset. That to me is so key to moving your career ahead, asking yourself, “How do I get better? How do I make an even greater contribution than I do today?” and making sure that you’re flexible, that you’re open-minded and that you really commit yourself to that. Everybody has a coach, whether it’s your direct boss or some peer coach. It’s really just being open to embracing the idea that through coaching I can be better tomorrow than I am today. I think that’s one of the greatest gifts and something that everybody should embrace.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about one of your selling habits that has led to your continued success?
Frank Passanante: When I think about coaching, I immediately think about what we call scrimmaging. Scrimmaging is very similar to practice because that’s what it is, but here’s the thing. Over the years, every one of us, myself, many sales leaders I know, all the sales folks on my teams, we are all making incredibly important, impactful calls, appointments and meetings with customers and other stakeholders every single day.
The truth is we often run into those calls and appointments without having practiced those calls and appointments. We wouldn’t think of going out and playing a baseball game or a football game without really spending time scrimmaging and practicing, and yet somehow we’ve accepted in business that you can run out and do it the first time perfect. We as an organization, me as a personal habit have really embraced the idea that if I’ve got an impactful conversation – whether it be an internal team member, a coaching conversation or an external client appointment – anything that I feel that might be a bit challenging, we should scrimmage.
Scrimmaging is practicing but it’s done in a real time environment, it’s being done with your coach or a peer and it’s being done with the spirit of improvement meaning it’s not role playing, it’s actually stopping, its stopping and starting and trying different words out until you feel like you’re ready for game day. One habit that I have absolutely embraced over the years is the idea that listen, mom was right, practice may not always make perfect but practice certainly makes you better.
Fred Diamond: A quick question, how would you do that? You said it’s not role playing. You do it in a conference room, you go to one of your hotels and rent a room? In actuality, how would you see that happening?
Frank Passanante: One of the other habits or rituals, as we call them, that we embrace is a weekly coaching conversation. Everybody on our sales teams has a coach and there is a regular weekly coaching conversation. As a part of that weekly coaching conversation, one of the things that we always do is what do we need to scrimmage today? If I’m talking to one of my sales leaders and I say, “What do you need to scrimmage today?” They’re going to share with me a challenging customer appointment or a challenging team member situation that they have, they’re going to set the stage and we’re going to scrimmage.
I’m going to play one of the roles, they’re going to play the other and we’re just going to start trying it out and often times we’ll reverse roles because sometimes you get a different perspective. That’s what I’m doing with my players and that’s what they’re doing with their players, and their players are doing with their players. That really is what starts the ladder up to what I call this coaching culture, it’s all about practicing, scrimmaging and the weekly coaching conversation is an important ritual to enable that.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Frank Passanante: So I’m just going to keep rolling because as you can see, I have some passion around coaching. One of the things that we’ve done that has really helped culturalize the way we approach our teams is we’ve implemented an initiative that we call our multi-coaching conversation. There are coaching moments calls where we bring all of our leadership teams together, it’s embedded around a topic, it has a little bit of education meaning I’ve got some learning and development partners that provide some education to my teams.
There is always a monthly topic we’re tackling, so it could be building your pipeline, it could be coaching for excellence, meaning coaching isn’t always about coaching for development. Sometimes you’re coaching to get people to replicate the greatness that they’ve exhibited. We’ll identify a topic, we’ll have some L&D and then we’ll have hand-selected people from my teams who will do real time scrimmaging for the 50 or 60 people on the call, on the coaching moment’s call. This has been a regular diet for the last 18 months or so and we’re re-energizing it. It’s a major initiative that we think is really powerful.
Fred Diamond: What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Frank Passanante: Everything starts with a sale. I think that underlying principle is probably what keeps me going, what makes me enjoy it as much as I do is the unbelievable connections that we get to make. We are focused every day on developing meaningful connections and those often translate to meaningful relationships, friendships. We’re in the hospitality business to boot so add that on top of sales and it’s just a really exciting place to be, and I’m passionate about it.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Frank Passanante: Sales is a noble profession, embrace a coaching mindset and also embrace the idea that everyone should always be learning. If you embrace this idea of an always learning mindset and you want to be better tomorrow than you are today, you’ll have success and you’ll have success in sales.