EPISODE 623: Conscious Leadership for Organizational Growth with Hilton’s Kim Napolitano

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Kim Napolitano is Executive Director for Industry Relations and Intermediary Group for Sales at Hilton Worldwide. Gina Stracuzzi, Program Director for the IES Women in Sales programs, conducted this interview.

Find Kim on LinkedIn.

KIM’S TIP: “If you are sincere about growing in your space in a leader or whatever that looks like, feel free to get a professional coach. There are so many out there, great organizations that represent these coaches. They do a lot of great work and they’re able to speak to you from a position that more than likely your own leader either may not be aware of or may not feel comfortable speaking to you in a certain way. This is a great way for you to get some additional feedback.”


Gina Stracuzzi: Kim Napolitano is Executive Director for Industry Relations and Intermediary Group for Sales at Hilton Worldwide. Welcome, Kim.

Kim Napolitano: Hi, Gina. Thank you so much for having me today on the podcast. It’s lovely to see you.

Gina Stracuzzi: I like to ask my guests to tell us a little bit about themselves and how they got to where they are before we get into what we’re going to talk about today. Tell us how you got to be where you are in Hilton.

Kim Napolitano: Well, it’s a journey and I will say it’s been an amazing journey in this career path with my company for three decades. I currently serve as Executive Director for Industry Relations and Intermediary Group Sales, which you just shared. Ultimately, my responsibilities are overseeing an incredible group of eight sales professionals who are focused on being the most sought-after sales partner in hospitality, and ensuring that Hilton remains as a trusted advisor to our customers worldwide.

I’ve started off my career in the front office at the front desk, so I was the person who greeted you and warmly welcomed you to our Hiltons around the world. I absolutely loved being the hostess with the mostess, greeting our guests as they checked in or checked out. What I found with being in the front office is that you really were the central hub, because that was the one spot when I started my career where customers would always go to for either questions or concerns or anything that was coming up during their stay. It felt like I was the connector. Through my journey, I’ve always somehow been a connector, which is interesting that theme carried through my career journey. What it is I have done through other roles that I’ve had, or into my current position, is connecting people into Hilton.

From the front office, I had a general manager who saw something in me and said, “You know what? Let me be your Dutch uncle,” a term I’d never heard before. He goes, “But, Kim, I’m going to create a position for you in sales,” because I had an opportunity to go to the West Coast for one of our hotels to be the reservations manager. He said, “No, no.” He goes, “You’ll be great.” He goes, “But you’re a salesperson. I see it. I see it in you.” I said, “Okay.” Sales never crossed my mind, Gina. I had no thought, no inclination for it. I just was a person at the front desk giving these salespeople the room keys for the showrooms thinking, “Wow, isn’t that lovely? They’re having a nice breakfast,” or, “They’re having another nice lunch.” Unbeknownst to me, the actual amount of work it takes to create relationships, work the relationships, own the relationships, and garnering great strategies with the different customers and the organizations they work for, and ultimately helping Hilton achieve its goals to be the hotel of choice.

Started off in sales, worked my way into working at Hilton Anaheim, and then national sales from there, and have climbed the ranks within national sales from being an individual contributor managing accounts. Then ultimately leading two of our largest third party relationships. Managed those relationships for a number of years, and then went into leadership helping the company stand up the association group team as their managing director of sales, and then shifted into my role as intermediary group sales, and then now a focus on industry relations. That’s a little bit about my journey with Hilton.

Gina Stracuzzi: I love that term, Dutch uncle. I wonder if it’s like a sponsor now, someone who lifts you up through the organization and has your back and puts you forth perhaps not known to you initially.

Kim Napolitano: Yes. To me it’s the need that as we grow in our roles, we need to be that person that brings people up and has to be in the lookout for that bright, brilliant light that is next to us and just help them along their journey. I’ve been very blessed that I’ve had so many leaders within Hilton who have seen that spark in me, that’s afforded me that opportunity to continue to grow. I consider myself to be very blessed, that’s for sure.

Gina Stracuzzi: We talked about that in the forum the first session about sponsors and mentors and how we really need to lift each other up. Maureen could not have spoken more glowingly about you and just how on her side you’ve always been. You’re definitely giving it back. I am super excited to talk about our topic today, which is conscious leadership. I’m excited that you’ll be doing a session on this at the conference in October, but let’s dive into it a little bit and start right at the beginning in telling us what is conscious leadership?

Kim Napolitano: It’s something that I feel like is starting to finally get some traction. But it’s been around for so, so long. Conscious leadership is referring to how leaders are guiding others with full awareness of their self and cultivating and growing an organization by supporting the people that they’re serving. It’s definitely taking the ego-centric of me attitude away, and it’s focusing more on the inclusive or we approach. If you look at it like this, it’s the leadership approach that emphasizes self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, and a commitment to personal and organizational growth. For me, conscious leadership is about being in the moment, being present as you’re engaging with a team member, and it’s embracing the softer skillset that’s needed to help team members and organizations continue to lift up and be successful.

Gina Stracuzzi: Tell us how you use that in your own leadership approach and how it helps you to get the most out of your team.

Kim Napolitano: I started this journey about five or six years ago, because I recognized there was something more that I was missing, and I wasn’t aware of. The journey for me and how I now incorporate it is how can I be present with my team members? Some of the tools that I’ve learned along my personal growth journey is, for example, clear is kind. We should never have team members going into mid-year reviews, annual reviews, and not being prepared for what the conversation is going to be about. I think it’s so easy for us to do the compliment sandwich, the bottom piece is a, “Hey, you’re great, you’re amazing. By the way, I think it’d be really great if you maybe sort of, we need you to focus in on this.” Then, “I just love what you did the other day.” They’re like, “I got this beautiful sandwich. I’m really confused what was in the middle, but it tasted great because it was so filled with love and joy.”

It’s something that if we don’t understand boundaries, if we don’t understand the importance of our role as leaders, that leadership is not to be taken lightly. It’s literally not for the faint of heart. I know there are so many that say, “It’s so easy and you just do this and you do that.” But for those who aren’t in the space of driving culture and driving culture that enhances a doubling down on strategies that are created, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of personal sweat equity that’s put in because it’s all about the team member. My other recommendation is incredibly transparent when you can, and recognize as leaders, there are times that you may not be able to share everything, but you can certainly give maybe a high-level overview, help them to understand the why.

At the end of the day, if we can help our team members understand why there is a different approach in our strategy, why there may be a different approach on whatever it is we’re talking about, it allows them to feel like they are now a part of the conversation and then seek their input and have that thoughtful dialogue about, “Well, how do we move forward? What recommendations do you have?” Because as they are included into our conversation, the success rate of adoption is so much higher and it’s so much more enjoyable to watch as a leader and to celebrate, and then the team, it creates a stronger bond, I believe, within the team and strengthening the culture at the end of the day.

Gina Stracuzzi: I was really thinking about how leadership has changed over the last even decade. Leadership, at least in the environments that I worked in, it was a lot of, “We’re just doing it this way because I said we’re doing it this way.” Like your parents, “Because I said so.” Now there is this holistic approach where people realize if you give your team members an opportunity to have input, there’s so much more buy-in and they’re so much more successful because they have a stake in the game, rather than operating blindly. I love that, Kim.

Kim Napolitano: I do too. I found such great success when my leadership style started to shift and really doubling down on trusting the team members who I’ve either hired or are in my organization because they were hired for a reason. They’re incredibly smart, incredibly talented, and they’ve got such great heart for our company’s vision and our overarching mission for not only our hotels, but also for our customers. Why not lean into that resource? I think that’s the biggest challenge we’ve been faced, Gina, because as were raised, you and I were raised in the, “I’m the boss, this is what you’re going to do. This is how you do it. This is when you do it.” To now shifting into this approach that maybe I don’t know everything. That’s where the importance of vulnerability is. It doesn’t mean you have to feel any shame that you don’t know everything.

I think of the President of the United States, regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office, we can’t expect that person to know everything. That’s why he or she, hopefully one day a she, they bring in people that are the subject matter experts within the seats that they are filling. If we can all take a step back and say, “That’s a really good approach. Now let’s lean into that,” it creates greater team collaboration, alignment, cross-functional team success. For me, it’s all about culture. Our CEO said it’s all about culture. If you build the culture, double down on the culture, then all the strategies, the team will lean into the strategies. But without a strong culture, the strategy’s not going to stick.

Gina Stracuzzi: Clearly it’s working because Hilton is always on the great places to work lists. We’re going to get you into the PWISE program too, but it’s clear that you all are doing something right. You don’t lose salespeople at the rates that a lot of companies do. Attrition is a big issue for a lot of companies. This idea of involving people in the strategy and making them part of the planning really does seem to be paying off for you.

Kim Napolitano: Well, and I believe it was Peter Drucker who said, “Culture eats strategy every day.”

Gina Stracuzzi: Yeah, or for breakfast or something.

Kim Napolitano: Yeah. But that is the mantra our CEO lives, and he exudes it. It just infiltrates within the entire organization. That’s another important component, as a leader, are you being your authentic self when you show up? Because people, they’ll sniff it out in a nanosecond. Are you doing what you say, saying what you mean? That approach. Because people now, they want authentic leadership. They want someone who is going to be consistent in behavior, so they know what to expect. That, again, just garners greater performance because people understand, this is who my leader is, I know how he or she will act or respond, and then this is how I need to move forward to push projects forward or help close a sale, or whatever action they are working on at that moment in time.

Gina Stracuzzi: That leads me into the idea of establishing trust. Earlier this week I spoke to a women in technology group about what it means to bring your authentic self to work. The flip side of that is don’t be too authentic. For every article that you can find on why it’s important, you find another article on why you need to be really careful, it’s no wonder people get confused. But one of the questions that came up is, one, how do you know if it’s safe to bring your authentic self to work? That comes to that establishing trust. But also, what do you do if you work for someone who is not of that same mindset? You can just tell they’re not being authentic with you. How do you handle those situations?

Kim Napolitano: How do you show up as your authentic self? For me, it was a lot of inner child work, and it was just sitting in this place of self-discovery coming from a place of curiosity of who am I, what makes me tick, what do I love, what do I not like, and trying new things and just understanding that it’s okay to just be in the space of me. I think some of this has come about because of, I like to say I’m not getting older, just getting wiser. As we continue to become wiser, some of these life lessons really settle in and you’re to a place like, “I’m not going to really worry what they have to think about this.” It’s, am I holding true to my personal boundaries, to my level of integrity, to what I value the most?

We did an exercise in my team meeting this past February, and we talked about personal values. The concept was pair up with someone and tell a story that brings you such happiness and joy. Then the person would be listening to the story and then identifying words that seem to resonate with the person. If it was, “I got to work on this global project, and I was aligned with people who were very collaborative, and my leader was very supportive, and I had autonomy to manage the budget,” whatever the conversation is about, I’m just using a business example here. But then the other person, the note taker, would be saying, “She likes autonomy. She enjoys a global project. She enjoys collaboration and alignment.”

We had the team members then reflect on the words that were highlighted through the conversations and storytelling. Then I pulled back for the team and we threw all the words up on the screen that represented them. Then we talked about, “Well, do your personal values align with your current position and with the company you’re working for?” Because if it doesn’t, that’s okay. It’s totally okay. But this is where I need you to trust me as your leader to say, “I’m not in a good space. I’m not in alignment with either the job or the company.” Then allow your leader to help you and work with you on finding ways to either find another job that might be a better fit, or it may be to say, “You know what? Hey, I support you looking outside the company if this is not the right fit.” That is a bold thing for any leader to do. But if you do this with a team member in such a thoughtful, caring way, you’ll have an apostle for life following you and supporting your efforts as a leader. Because it’s so easy to make it about us and the organization. But when you turn the perspective and make it about getting the best out of the team member and helping them achieve their wildest, bodacious dreams of whatever that is, that’s a whole different level of commitment of leadership.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s a bold move on a team member part too, to have that trust that you can say those things and not worry that you’re going to immediately be booted out. Like, “You’re not in alignment? Well, there’s the door.”

Kim Napolitano: Well, exactly. This is where it’s about, are there trust credits in the bank? Has that leader taken the time to build a level of trust with the team member? I know that this may seem very out there for a lot of people listening to the podcast, but there’s no reason why you cannot expect better and demand better from your leaders. It’s okay. There are so many other organizations with so many other amazing people who want to lead like this. If you get the sense that your leader wants to lead like this, encourage them to lead like this. To me, I feel like this is a rallying call for leaders. It is our responsibility to be mindful of the people we are leading. If you’re in a place that you’re like, “No, I’m really not about that,” then maybe you need to rethink how it is you want to approach your career. Because you can still be an incredible individual contributor and help the organization that you’re with continue to grow and evolve in a much more meaningful way.

There’s a podcast that I was listening to, and I think it’s called Freakonomics. It’s a really great podcast. They had someone on there talking about why are there such really bad leaders out there? Think about that. The entire podcast is, what’s your horrible story about your leader and why are there such bad leaders? I think if we as individual humans want to lead people, we need to sit and ask ourselves, why? Why is it that we want to lead? Then make sure that we are living to the value of the why. Then the day we start losing sight of that, it’s okay. It’s okay to make a change. Sometimes I think we feel like we got to be rooted in and can’t change. My responsibilities within my company have probably evolved every three to five years. I’m not working at the front desk after 30 years. I’ve evolved, I’ve had a chance to grow. But within these larger roles, again, additional responsibilities have been added, or we’ve shifted some things, so I can continue to grow as an individual within the company.

Gina Stracuzzi: It is a new way of thinking and it will take time. Personally, I think if we get more women into leadership, this’ll be an easier shift. But I like the idea that taking responsibility for your own values and what’s important to you, that is something that’s really- I think there’s a lot of talk about how millennials really are in tune with that. If they don’t like something, they’re too quick to give up because sometimes you have to find your way and you have to find your path within a company, and it doesn’t happen overnight. That takes us to a question I’d like to ask you, and that is, what are some of the steps that people can find where they can find peace and they can find their way through the chaos of a big corporate environment?

Kim Napolitano: Well, there are a couple of things. I strongly believe that every leader needs to have a personal coach. The best of the best leaders in the world have a personal coach. Some companies can support that financially, others may not. But to me, I see that as an investment in myself. That to me would be step one, because if we are not in a good place with ourselves, then how can we expect to help our team members grow as individuals? To me that would be step one as a leader. In the chaos of everything, we forget about the importance of the breath. I am a big fan of just closing my eyes, doing boxed breathing, where I’ll breath in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four, and repeat that, depending on what’s happening, maybe five, seven times. Again, it just depends. Then that to me helps shift my perspective or helps shift my energy so I’m not in that state of fight or flight, whatever may be triggering that to go on.

There’s also a book by Hal Elrod, and it’s called Miracle Morning. He gives the acronym of SAVERS. It talks about silence is for meditation, A is for affirmation. V is for visualization, E is for exercise. R is for reading, and then the following S is for scribing or journaling. If you just do this, one to two minutes per activity in the morning, you’re going to be doing a lot more than most people do throughout the course of their entire day. How are you giving yourself time throughout the day? For me, it’s very hard to get that time during the day or even at the evening time. I try to wake up a little bit earlier in the morning, try to have my quiet time, whether it’s journaling, or doing one of each of these items, and maybe 60-second to 90-second increments, then at least I know, “Okay, I’ve gotten it done.” But I think it’s that we hear it all the time when we’re on the airplane, “Put your oxygen mask on first.”

If we keep that in the back of our mind, especially as business people, and we’re traveling around the world and we hear that, I hope when you hear that next time, it just makes you chuckle. Because you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself before you can give back in a meaningful way to those who you are leading. Let’s not lose sight of our family members. That’s a whole other conversation.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think all of that was driven home during the pandemic. I had a thought early on in the pandemic that this is… This might sound woo-woo-ish to people, but it was-

Kim Napolitano: We love the woo-woos.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s the universe’s way of saying, “Everybody, slow down.” I remember just before the pandemic, I was thinking, the world is like a big ball of chaos. It just seemed like were all running around like chickens with our heads cut off. I remember thinking like, “God, we just need to slow down. We’re all going to implode if we-” Part of it was living in the DC Metro area. It’s just frenetic, the pace up there. To me, it was like we need to slow down and take a look at what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The pandemic really gave us that. Perhaps by the end a little more than we wanted, but it did give us insight into what motivates us. A lot of us question, “Why am I doing what I’m doing? It doesn’t bring me joy. It takes me away from my family. I am like a hamster on a wheel.” It was conscious personal leadership happened. To me, this is all very important because I think what we want to make sure we don’t do is get right back on that hamster wheel, which would be easy enough to do. The further out we come from this, we could fall into those traps again.

Kim Napolitano: I know we easily could. However, I think our team members would push back in a way that would say no. Whether that’s in the form of early retirements, or just changing jobs within companies, or, “I’m trying this side hustle. I want to work part-time for the main company I worked for so I can do my side hustle.” These are signals that companies need to be listening to, to say, “Okay, where are we at in this?” The companies who are leaning into more of a mindfulness approach, more of a purpose-driven leadership, at the end of the day, their brand value is going to be skyrocketing. Their results for global team member scores are going to be huge and positive. They’re going to be rated best-to-work place in the world and in different regions of the world.

This to me is what individual contributors, what team members are looking for, is that truly the leadership that is led with heart and mind. You’ve got the intelligence, but you’re leading with wisdom. There are a lot of people that are incredibly smart, but they may not have that heart connection, and there are coaches out there who can help these people. Then there are other coaches who are solely heart driven and you’re like, “Okay, how do we bring it up to the intellectual side too?” Again, there are coaches for those people as well. At the end of the day, our team members will tell us if we’re hitting the mark or not, because either they’re going to stay, so your retention is going to be strong, or they’re going to be leaving. Those to me are indicators as to if you’re hitting the mark or you’re not.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, Kim Napolitano, we are at that point in the conversation where we like to ask our guests for one piece of final advice that our listeners can put into place today to take their careers, their selling, their life to the next level. What do you have for us?

Kim Napolitano: Well, I don’t have one thing. I just have a few. The first would be if you are sincere about growing in your space in a leader or whatever that looks like, feel free to get a professional coach. There are so many out there, great organizations that represent these coaches. They do a lot of great work and they’re able to speak to you from a position that more than likely your own leader either may not be aware of or may not feel comfortable speaking to you in a certain way. This is a great way for you to get some additional feedback.

I also encourage us to be open to shifting our perspective. It means so much. We can immediately go into a conversation with a certain idea or certain opinion, but how do we step back and be in a place of non-judgment to hear all of the details and to say, “Well, if I shift my perspective one or two degrees, what does that mean in totality for my overall opinion?” Then also when we have adult conversations, do it with childlike curiosity. Be curious. Really dig in. That’s something Jay Shetty talks a lot about, but just lean into the, “Tell me more. What were you thinking? How does that work?” Really just be curious to fully understand. Then when people are engaging like that, you know that they’re listening and they’re fully present.

Last but not least, don’t forget to breathe. We can easily go through the process where, go, go, go. But we just need to slow down. Inhale, exhale, and just move forward from there.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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