Cornell’s Hotel Administration Dean Connects Humanity, Hospitality

Kate Walsh is less than four months into her two-year run as interim dean of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration (SHA), but that doesn’t hinder her ability to jump in and hit the ground running—she has been training for this role for her entire career.

After studying accounting for her bachelor’s degree and passing the CPA exam, she found herself more drawn to the hotels she traveled to for her work than the actual numbers she was crunching as an internal auditor. She pursued a masters degree at the premier school that would later become what she calls “home”—SHA. While at Cornell, Walsh saw two possible paths before her: apply her financial knowledge to hospitality, or delve into the human side of the industry.

“I found myself drawn to studying people, learning about how I could reach and motivate them, and understanding what it means to be a great employer,” she says. “So that’s the career path I took.”
An educator at heart from the beginning, Walsh did a stint as training manager at the former Harvey Hotel Company before serving as Nikko Hotels International’s corporate director of training and development.

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Those positions led her right back to academia. “It seemed like when I was training, I would go into a property and energize and excite the team around the concepts we were teaching, but after I left, everyone would go back to their jobs and nothing seemed all that different in a sustained way,” she says. “I started doing some serious thinking about service delivery and I decided I wanted to study and understand the concept in a much deeper way. So I went the research route.”

With the advice that she should obtain a Ph.D. from one university and then take that knowledge elsewhere to teach, she studied at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. At the back of her mind, she always hoped she could return “home.” As luck would have it, when she was on the job market, SHA had an opening. That was in 2000. Now, sixteen years later, Walsh has developed specialties in teaching organizational behavior and leadership to freshmen and career planning to seniors.

Walsh loves to study careers and career paths, especially for professional women. She examines what hospitality organizations can do to keep their team members from leaving and grow them into top leaders. While over half of industry’s young managers are women, Walsh is troubled by the low percentage of women who actually make it to the top.

“Many professionals leave the hotel industry because it’s not a sustainable way to live your life. So I look at what hospitality companies can do to keep these professionals, map out a career path, make this path happen and tap into the expertise of their talent over the long run,” Walsh explains.

After studying the careers of women leaders, she now is living her research. Walsh’s goal is to lead the School of Hotel Administration, as it becomes part of the Cornell College of Business, with its sister schools: the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

“We have scale that we’ve never had before and we can use these resources to build on the school’s premier positioning,” she says. This positioning all goes back to the industry. “We constantly ask the industry’s top leaders, many of whom are our alums, what pressing issues keep you up at night? How can we make sure we are doing the research that helps address those issues? And how do we make sure we’re continuing to prepare tomorrow’s industry leaders?” At the time of LODGING’s interview with Walsh, she was just 90 days into her term, and already working on the answers to those questions.

“My benchmark is if in a year from now, our curriculum innovates in such a way that we are continuing to shape tomorrow’s leaders through what they study today.”

So far, she is poised to achieve her goals without breaking a sweat—after all, she has been educating and working to improve work environments her entire career. “How often do you get the chance to actually go do something you been studying and practicing for your whole career?” she asks. “I am so excited to be a part of creating our future and carving out SHA’s mark as the hub of the industry eco-system.”

Good Advice
Kate Walsh, Ph.D., Interim Dean at the School of Hotel Administration, shares how to prevent turnover.

Measure it.  “If you pay an employee more than the competition does, how much longer on average do they stay with you? How long have these employees worked with you?”

Cultivate a long-term employment relationship.  “Find out what it will take to keep your professional talent. Work with them as they navigate challenges associated with work-family integration.”

Talk about it.  “When you have new young managers come on board, what are the potential career paths or job opportunities you can identify for them? The most important factor to keeping young professionals with you is, believe it or not, challenging work opportunities.”