The Other School of Rock: Interview with Jim Knight, Sr. Dir of Training and Development for Hard Rock Café International

Jim Knight In October of 2008, I attended the National Association of Personnel Services conference in Orlando, one of the largest annual training events for the recruiting industry. The audience consisted of executive recruiters from every specialty.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jim Knight, Senior Director of Training and Development for Hard Rock International, was there, delivering a keynote speech about “Service That Rocks.” What did the Hard Rock Café’s head trainer have to say to a bunch of headhunters?

It turns out that Jim’s keynote speeches on the Hard Rock Café’s philosophies and methods are in high demand to a wide group of audiences. He does about ten speeches a year, primarily outside the hospitality industry. It was even more surprising to find out that more than half of speeches are delivered to gatherings of funeral home directors and cremation society associations. Jim granted me a Q&A session to find out some more things you might never have known about Hard Rock International’s training rock star, and how the former middle school teacher is still rocking hard with the company after 18 years.

RP: What are you fired up and passionate about in your work?
JK: I am just not a big fan of acceptable mediocrity. And I see it everywhere. No matter where I go, in retail, hotels, restaurants; anywhere. So many people are just delivering what I believe is just boring, middle of the road type of service. And because not only do I teach it, but just as an average consumer, a regular guest in places, it kills me when I’m seeing something that could easily be turned on a dime to be spectacular, something that would be interesting, and instead they’re just kind of there, and they are just not even trying. So for me, I get fired up when I am around organizations that just kind of allow that that boring, mediocre, middle of the road service to fester and breed out there. That just pisses me off.

RP: What are some things that you do to combat mediocre performance to get the high-level performance that you have in mind?
JK: I would say with anybody that I am a constant believer in making sure you have right fit hires out there. I’m all about hiring for attitude and training for skill. I know people have said that forever. But I think in our organization, you need to have both. I don’t know if it’s a silver bullet, but I can tell you, when you hire the right rock star, is the term I like to use, versus some sort of lip-syncher who is just going by and who is just there to make the donuts, I’m not in love with those people. So that’s one part.
Also in our storytelling, we are pretty good at that. And most of it is because we have a pretty compelling story. I personally tell people regularly, I really do believe I’ve got the greatest story in the history of stories, maybe other than the Bible.

For me personally, it’s about making sure we get people’s personal values to connect to those company values.  So it’s a lot of storytelling, and a lot of philanthropic initiatives… It’s more than somebody just coming in and hitting a time clock. It’s that they actually feel great about putting their head down on the pillow at night and saying yeah, I made some money, and yeah, I served some people, but I also made a difference in the world today. I think our founders originally wanted that in our DNA. It’s part of the juice, it’s part of what the Hard Rock heritage is about.

I spend a lot of time talking about how to teach to the Millennial generation. These kids today, we need to make sure we are talking to them and training for them in a way that they want to learn. So I use this kind of line “train people in the language with which they dream.” And I’m not talking about Spanish or German or French. I’m talking about the way people like to receive information… white space, bullet points, visuals, graphics. I just know if I’m going to have something in print, if I don’t already have it in the elearning, that it’s the way the Millennials want to learn, so that helps out quite a bit in helping with this mediocre service.

And for me, we are just lucky because we have music. Rock and roll is a wonderful palette with which I get to paint. If you can use rock and roll terms, and most people like music and they all connect to music in some way shape or form, I can tend to find the unique characters out there.

RP: How would you describe to the uninitiated the Hard Rock philosophy about serving something bigger than yourself?
JK: Well, I think it’s up on our walls. Our original founders put things up there that are pretty short and easy remember, that most people who have been in a Hard Rock property now for over 38 years have seen like “Love all Serve all,” “All is One,” “Take Time to Be Kind,” and “Save the Planet.”

Save the Planet is one I can pick out more than anything, that we’ve been saying for almost four decades, before it was even popular to say it in the late 80’s, and certainly now with people focusing on green initiatives and being massively socially conscious. People are paying attention to where things are made these days, and if they are using organic products, and what were the business practices that got it to the market. And do these people recycle and give a crap about the community. All that stuff really matters, and for me, I think we’ve been very lucky because they are emblazoned on our walls and have been our part of our DNA from the very inception.

It isn’t about writing a check, it isn’t about all of the sudden the leadership team going on a retreat and saying OK, this is what we are going to start doing. It’s always been there for us. And I think for instance when you have the words “Love All, Serve All,” or “All is One,” I don’t think it is a mistake to think these are religious undertones. I really think are two founders made that as an overtone; they really did think that business and religious philosophies could be married together. They thought, let’s go make some money and let’s provide a service, but at the end of the day, let’s go out and change the world.

Every single month we have something in our sales and market tent poles where everything is activated around some kind of charitable cause. All of our live music events, hardly any do we make money off of. All of that stuff is to produce PR and put eyeballs on the brand. It’s not about making money, it’s about trying to give back to a cause. We have retail shirts that we sell, our signature series, where we work out with an artist where they produce the artwork and we sell the proceeds all go back to their charity of choice. Right now we are doing stuff with Bono, and Bon Jovi, and Green Day.

There’s just a ton of things we do in the community as well. These are just national or global initiatives. All the local things that happen at each café, hotel and casino are pretty big. I’m not so sure our employees buy into initially, but pretty soon they start to realize, holy cow, these people are pretty serious about making a difference in the world.

RP: With what you can influence on the front end of the hiring process, how would you say that you evaluate the person’s attitude, since you say you want to hire for attitude and train them later? How do you identify and recruit the right people?
JK: It’s definitely an art form. I teach at our corporate university, and one of those courses is called Rock 101. We teach a lot of branded things as well, things you can’t get anywhere else, but we do teach some technical skills, and ironically, I think one of the things in hospitality that people do the worst, and the think they are actually pretty good, is in interviewing.
First of all, we have no lack of resumes. People are lined up to get a job. We just have to make sure we are making the right hire. We have a series of activities. We do some pre-employment screening. We have an online competency based testing, so that kind of weeds out some people if they are not hitting some basic, fundamental competencies. Some of the positions are experience based, but not a lot of them.

We really hang our hat once we get through that sort of scrubbing off to make sure they are going to get through the job, then we move into some honest to goodness behavioral, even cultural interviews, where we use interview guides, and we ask questions on there that you perhaps might not here anywhere else, along with some experience stuff. We will ask what was your first rock concert and can you tell me about that, and if you could book any band at our location, what artist would it be and why.

No matter how much people have probably planned for their interviews, they are probably going to give us something that will indicate whether they are going to be able to think on their feet and talk about what they are passionate about or even talk about music, which is critical to our brand.

If it’s a manager, we will do a day in the life interview, where they spend a day job shadowing and provide comments and feedback about how they would do things differently or what do they notice about it. There’s a litany of things that occur to make sure we are going to hire the right fit.

At the staff level, we hope to do a lot of internal hiring, and I would be lying if I said we didn’t look at other people in the industry when we are at there dining and shopping. We look to see who we can pillage and bring over to our brand. I really do believe we have become the island of misfit toys because we are literally looking for the people who are broken out there. Maybe they couldn’t even get a gig in our industry because of the way they act, because they are so diverse in their thoughts and actions, or even the way they look. People that are tattooed and pierced and mohawked and colored hair. They are not really working in hospitality. They are working somewhere else, so we have to go and mine for them. So for those freaks out there, there is a home for them, and that’s hopefully us.

We look at social networking sites. I think that’s where a lot of the Millennials are playing today; My Space, Facebook, Twitter. Every once in a while, we get some good staff from tattoo and piercing shops. Improv acting schools comes to mind. In Orlando especially, we try to get tour guides who have those organic, natural acting abilities. Online, also we do some stuff with Craigslist. But probably more than anything else, it’s referrals. If we have a unique person working for us, I will do everything in my power to get more of their friends. Until we can get into real cloning, that’s probably the best thing we can do.

RP: Tell me about how you started working at Hard Rock.
JK: I started off as a host during a summer job. I had three years of experience as a host at Olive Garden when they were with General Mills. That got me enough experience to when the Hard Rock was opening here in Orlando, which at the time and still is the largest Hard Rock in the world, I thought Ok, I’ll go and do that. I had some experience, and I just wanted to make a little more money, and honestly, I wanted to grow my hair and meet chicks.

It was literally going to be a summer gig. It was not what I intended to do with my life. I actually went to college to be a professional singer. I was a music major, and I got my degree in music performance and education. But then I found out you had to be good, and that changed careers for me, and they said those that can’t do teach. So I went into education, and I was a middle school teacher for six years. I actually started off as a substitute teacher, and that was fun because I was doing that during the day and I started working at Hard Rock at night. Hard Rock was just to make money on the side, and I thought I was going to be a teacher fulltime.

Ultimately I was sort of a dean of students, and I was in charge of in-school suspension and discipline. It wasn’t a lot of fun for me after a while. I ended up falling in love with hospitality and wound up becoming a manager pretty soon after I started and got to travel with Hard Rock and opened up Mexico City and Madrid, and worked in Paris for a little bit. The next thing you know, as of tomorrow, it’s my 18th year anniversary with Hard Rock.

It’s been a great ride and a wonderful career, but definitely not what I expected or signed up to do. Now I get a chance to use a little bit of the music and education in my current role. I just fell into it by accident. I would like to think we could do a much better job at doing more school-to-career type of stuff. We need to get in front of kids in high school and college and let them know that whether it’s Hard Rock or just this industry in general, we need to let them know there is a wonderful opportunity for them out there.

RP: Are you still singing?
JK: A little bit. I do some at church, but my voice is classically trained. I do a lot of stuff that is choral at church, so weddings and funerals are about all I’m relegated to these days.

RP: What is next for you?
JK: This is going to sound really corny, but this is the job I’ve always wanted. In the last two decades, this is what I’ve been focusing on… the job functionality I’m doing is exactly what I want to do. There isn’t one day in these 18 years that I’ve been driving to work and going, ‘ugggh, I have to go work today.’

I’m still extremely giddy that I still have the gig and that I get the chance to travel for the company and impact and influence not just the 22,000 people that work here, but we serve in some form or fashion about 65 million people, and that’s just a great high for me. When you have service and music at its core, and you are working around some unique, off-center freaks that are still likeminded and on a common mission, for me that’s just pretty empowering.

I think if I left Hard Rock, my next Hard Rock would be to work for myself to write and speak professionally for a living.

RP: It sounds like you’ve found you’re calling. What do you think your calling is?
JK: For me, it’s to impact and influence as many people as possible. I think my personal values are aligned with the company mission. Our company mission at Hard Rock is, and I was a part of putting this small, one sentence together which epitomizes everything we’re doing, is “to spread the spirit of rock and roll by creating authentic experiences that rock.”

So I talk about spreading the spirit of rock, and the way that rock and roll came into the world, which it that it was supposed to be a fad, and parents told their kids not to listen to it and that it was the devil’s music. But the spirit that it came into the world, which was that it was unpredictable and irreverent. And I love the fact that Hard Rockers are out there around the world trying to spread the spirit of rock and roll, and they are doing it by creating real, honest to goodness authentic experiences.

All the time we compare Hard Rock to ice cream. There’s nothing wrong with the middle of the road, vanilla ice cream, but every once in a while, people need a bit of chocolate in their life and we get to be the chocolate. My calling would be to spread the spirit of rock. I want to be authentic as much as I can. I want to be known as the guy inside my company and outside my industry that I leave a legacy of something that people think was good and they want more of it.

RP: Most of your speaking engagements are to funeral home directors. How did that come about?
JK: Probably about six years ago now somebody asked me to speak at a conference about Hard Rock history. I gave a variation of our new hire orientation. Somebody in that audience happened to be with some other organization, and they contracted me to do their annual conference. Then it snowballed. And never once have I had to do a hard, cold sell. I get 2 or 3 more engagements for every one that I do, and I probably do about 8 to 10 per year.

Eventually, somebody at one of these sessions was a licensed funeral director, and from that they asked me to do something in Las Vegas for the National Concrete Burial Vault Association. And someone in that audience happened to be from the cremation association, so I went and did that, and that had about 800 people. And that had a bunch of state associations affiliated with it. And honestly, now, out of the 8 to 10 sessions I do a year, half of those are in the funeral industry. My first time, I thought what in the world do they want to hear from me, but I learned very quickly it wasn’t just about the Hard Rock history, it was about the philanthropic message. It was about the service and culture, the things that seem to resonate with our loyal fan base anyway. And now I’ve developed 10 different sessions, and they are all very specific, but the one that the funeral industry wants to hear more than anything else is my “Service that Rocks” class. That one seems to transcend, regardless of what the company or what the industry is. Everybody is looking to deliver a product or provide a service that is unique and different than their competitors.

And funeral homes, believe it or not, are massively competitive, and almost all of them are internally bred. You have someone who starts a funeral home and then the kid inherits it from his father, and they don’t seem to change quite a bit. They are going through a lot of struggle right now because more people want to do cremations. They want to be more socially conscious and leave a smaller footprint, so they don’t want big services or they want it to be more about entertainment. So they’ve got to pay more attention to lighting and great quality sound systems and overstuffed furniture, and stuff that you would never think about when it comes to a funeral. But hey, they are looking to change their industry, so if I can be the guy to get in there to just do something unique and different to help them out, I continue to get other speaking engagements.

By the way, it’s money that I take and put into my department income. I don’t make that money on the side. It is a revenue generating initiative. It feeds the beast in me, and it is my personal way of spreading the spirit of rock and roll, probably to a bunch of guys who are mostly male, mostly white, and mostly over the age of 60 and 65, and they are not hanging out at Hard Rock that much. And now I have an opportunity to sell the story of what we’re doing to a group that wouldn’t have walked in on their own. So it’s a win win for everybody.

RP: What are some ways that Hard Rock is keeping the rock and roll spirit alive in this difficult business climate?
JK: Just like everyone else, we are protecting profits as much as anybody, but I do believe personally we are sticking to our mission. I think we are focusing on a bigger picture. We know that if we do it right, unique experiences that you can’t get anywhere else are going to be created. I think if we just focus on that big mission and think about what the end user wants when they walk in, we can’t go wrong.

I don’t know if we are going to be driving huge sales. Right now, people are not traveling. They are not spending as much. I like to say that flat is the new up, if you can just protect and hold you’re prior numbers than you’re pretty much in a good place. But I like to believe we have a mission that is bigger than ourselves that makes it easier for Hard Rockers to show up each day to work, and think that’s been able to help us out quite a bit.

I think this is the time that great companies are going to start leapfrogging others. And it’s not because of the technical bricks and mortar, I think it’s all driven around the people, the service, and the culture. I think those are the ingredients where you can truly differentiate yourself.

RP: What are you rocking out to in the last 90 days?
JK: I’m really into indie power pop. I’m into a lot of UK based import bands. I’m into a lot of bands you probably wouldn’t know; the Tories, a band called It Bites. The Feeling. Stereophonics. Starsailor. It’s very keyboard driven, clear lyrics, a lot of harmony. As far as more US based, I like Keane and Guster. Probably the hardest band I like is Mae. All of these bands I rotate on my Ipod, and I play this music at a lot of my corporate functions, and people wind up wanting to get my playlist.

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