Leadership: It's What Happens in Vegas!

Connex Staff |

MGM Resorts International’s Corporate VPs of Human Resources and Talent Management share insight into the company’s evolution as a leader-led, employee centric organization.

Any reader that’s ever visited Vegas – or even just seen The Strip in media – will be familiar with names like the Bellagio, Excalibur, or the MGM Grand. Behind them all is MGM Resorts International, an S&P 500® global entertainment company with 33 unique hotel and destination gaming offerings in the US and Macau, with ongoing work to expand further in Asia and Dubai.

Hospitality took one of the largest hits during COVID, with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics measuring a 49 percent employment decline in the first two months of the pandemic. Plenty of business owners and employees across The Strip and throughout the greater Las Vegas metroplex were panicked that such a hit would mean certain doom for their careers – but then again, not everyone has the same tenacious, collaborative leadership team as MGM.

On that team are Cecile Maino and Yonata Rubin. Cecile serves as the Corporate Vice President of all Las Vegas Property HR Operations and is responsible for partnering with senior Leaders to drive consistent execution of corporate strategies and processes that align to the operation’s needs and priorities; she has a particular focus on talent management, organizational effectiveness, change management, guest service, and culture. Cecile partners closely with Yonata, the Corporate Vice President Head of Talent for MGM Resorts, who is responsible for all corporate talent development, talent strategies, and talent acquisition. They are just a part of the human resources team involved with MGM’s ever-growing, ever-evolving labor strategy, which, thanks to its focus on elevating leaders and employee-centric commitments, helped the organization thrive in the face of the pandemic.

Connex: Can you help us understand the evolution MGM has been continually undergoing?

Yonata: We’ve always been a deeply employee centric organization based on the belief that engaged employees make happy customers, and that’s reflected in our culture, holistic benefits, and long-standing commitment to inclusivity. We wanted to push that vision even further by better leveraging HR strategy as a leadership resource.

Cecile: Fundamentally, HR became more than just ‘HR for HR people’; it became ‘HR for every singleleader’. That is to say that we moved from HR owning the employee relationship, culture, and engagement, to a new structure where the leaders themselves own and drive this focus. We centered the structure around the idea that leaders lead, with HR acting primarily as a catalyst, strategist, and coach behind the scenes. We stressed people strategy first and foremost in addition to operational or financial strategy – those are important, but you’re not going to get anywhere without that solid leadership that can drive - and even more importantly, motivate - teams to do what you need them to do.

This change also meant elevating the role of HR leader at all our properties to a new ‘Director of Talent Management’ role that’s less administratively focused and instead centered around all things talent - to include recruitment, retention, succession, leadership coaching, development, employee engagement, and culture. We’re training the business leaders on how to be people-centric and manage their day-to-day workforce through engagement and empowerment, which helps them to not only run their business well, but have a more direct influence in how their people work, lead, make decisions, and learn, instead of those tasks falling solely to HR.

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Connex: Intuitively, I think that makes a lot of sense – HR eschewing some of that transactional, bureaucratic work so it can be that ‘invisible hand’ that gives leaders the guidance and strategic support they need to get the most from their teams.

Cecile: Precisely. We entered into this ‘Leaders Lead’ movement towards the end of 2018 and through 2019, and then the pandemic forced us to pause – not undo, but pause – as everyone was getting comfortable with it. Once we got our bearings, we were able to use it as a further catalyst to drive our culture strategies. I had the good fortune of trialing this approach during a three-year rebranding project of the Monte Carlo which included a $650 million total rebranding into Park MGM. The challenge of this project gave us a lot of insight into how you get leaders and employees - both new and tenured - to get comfortable with adversity, fall in love with a new brand, and learn how to change their culture through the ideology of leaders leading and driving employee empowerment to directly solve guest issues. I didn’t know it at the time, but that project prepared me as much as anyone could be for 2020.

Connex: How has this ‘Leaders Lead’ movement changed what you look for in a leader?

Yonata: Our evolution of HR being laser-focused on talent, managing it, and developing it has had a significant impact on what we look for at all levels of the organization. There are really two branches of this depending on the type of leader in question. For most leaders, this meant empowering them to focus on the employee experience as a whole, as opposed to just specific managerial tasks. All the elements that make up the employee lifecycle, such as recruitment, onboarding, and succession, were aspects we wanted to support our leaders in optimizing. For HR leaders, it’s meant having the operational business knowledge required to understand what the business itself needs and how to deliver on that in the most effective ways.

Cecile: A good example is actually a Director of Talent Management position we recently had open, which would lead HR at one of our properties. We’re essentially looking for a bit of a unicorn because we’re now looking at HR through this strategic operational lens. It’s finding a strong leader that understands the importance of performance management, development, coaching, and succession. The people that we found to have greater success in this type of role tend to have more operational backgrounds as opposed to traditional HR, and they understand that the true scope of a leader should be in developing people. A leader looks for talent, knows how to find the nuances that make their people successful, and then nurtures those so that they can grow into the best version of themselves. So the new standard for our HR people is those that can involve themselves - when needed - in strategy, understand it operationally, and then execute on it through a talent-driven philosophy.

Connex: I can see how finding people with that skillset would be challenging as most of the industry is still going through the growing pains of moving HR out of that transactional bucket. You’re really talking about fully evolving the mindset of not just HR, but leadership on the whole, and that can’t be easy.

Yonata: It’s a work in progress, and COVID didn’t help, but it gets better each month. We knew this evolution would be challenging because what we’re effectively doing is modernizing. The modern customer experience has moved in the direction of enablement and self-service as opposed to that more traditional, concierge style, and we’re seeing that same mindset shift within the labor market. We’re transforming the way leaders interact with their teams, helping them to be more independent by providing the tools and resources they need to be hands-on with talent strategy.

Cecile: To put this change and its impact on leaders into perspective, during the Monte Carlo transformation we had twenty percent of our leaders who transitioned themselves out of the company during the first six months of that project due to evolving our expectations of leadership. You have to be transparent and be very clear on what you expect from your leaders, and if they are not ready, or willing, to lead in this type of style, then make it OK for them to exit. When we communicated our expectations at the start of the Monte Carlo transformation and saw the twenty percent drop out then and there, for me, that was the most impactful inflection point. Not that we wanted them to leave, but it meant that those barriers were out of the way. People that would have struggled, or that just weren’t ready to give the kind of agility that a chaotic transition like that would bring, were able to leave gracefully.

Yonata: Tying back to preparing everyone, it’s really been a constant partnership with management. Moments where you say, “Yes, I can help you with that, but also let me teach you how to do it and a new way to do it differently.” While the goal is greater leader independence and empowerment, that’s within the context of a team, so our job as HR is to make sure they feel supported.

We’ve done a good job of embedding this in the business case, and helping leaders understand that by scaling leadership skills, growing your talent internally and making employees happy, you drive the business collectively and we have happier guests. That also took reskilling our talent professionals at the property level, because it’s one thing to understand all this in theory and another to put it into practice. If they were going to make decisions that were good for the business, they had to really understand the business, and speak its language, which meant outfitting them with tools that make it easier to really live that service-profit chain that’s always been a core tenet of ours.

Cecile: This idea of the service-profit chain has always been there – you take care of employees that take care of guests, this then drives the guest to want to return so you capture a greater share of their wallet. What shifted the focus on who is taking care of the employee. We always understood that the employee needs to be cared for and respected, but it was assumed that HR handled all of those soft skill pieces while the operational leader manages the revenue streams and costs. And to be fair, some of our amazing leaders already understood that those softer, humancentric elements were important and had always approached hospitality that way. But we had to make sure everyone saw it that way, so we could achieve the consistency we needed to actually deliver on our employee value proposition.


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Connex: Speaking of employee value proposition, growth is one of the top things employees are looking for in today’s market. How have you evolved succession planning within this new paradigm?

Cecile: Firstly, I think our leaders really understand what that phrase means now. (laughs)

Yonata: In truth, succession planning has always been in play at MGM, but it has evolved alongside the ‘Leaders Lead’ movement to become more formalized. There was some hesitation from leaders that felt they had a strong, intuitive sense of their plan and bench strength, because they were concerned it may not be impactful, but they’ve come to see the value in a more systematic succession process. We’ve actually reached a point where the organization looks forward to it. They’re hungry for it and want to go even deeper into the hierarchy with it. I think the business has surprised itself with how ingrained it’s become; we’re going down to the managerial layer at our properties. We’ve always had a strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program, but now that’s increasingly involved in the succession conversation to make sure diverse talent is getting the visibility, penetration, and development they deserve.

Cecile: And this all ties back into performance and competencies. We’ve aligned the business around a shared set of behavioral and cultural competencies, what those mean, how we measure them, and what they look like day-to-day. We’ve done a lot to get leaders speaking the same language, and crystalized what drives our business, what drives our culture and engagement, and how we expect leaders to show up and cultivate their teams.

Connex: Related to both succession and competencies, how are you facilitating skill transfers between levels of talent and really preparing groups like high-potentials to take on new roles within the organization?

Yonata: We believe very strongly in the power of mentoring, as well as sponsorship; those two have a lot of similarities but have to be seen as distinct given that sponsoring is more focused. We have formal programs in place for both and have directly tied them to our DEI goals. For mentoring, anyone in the organization is eligible to raise their hand and request that they be mentored, and then individuals above a certain level are asked to step in and provide that guidance. There’s also a formal process for matching mentors and mentees based on their personality profiles, job titles, career goals, capabilities, and skill sets. That’s then supported on the back end with several tools and resources that keep the partnership focused and progressing forward.

We are working to cultivate a culture of sponsorship at our company. At present, our formal sponsorship program focuses on our highest-potential leaders. Mentoring is expected as part of that process, but more importantly, there’s an advocacy element that focuses on getting that high-potential leader in front of the right people, on the right stretch assignments, etc.

Cecile: Another piece that’s becoming vital to our strategy has been how we’ve shifted the development conversation. Growth has traditionally been seen as solely vertical, but at MGM, we’re talking about growth sideways – the ability to grow into new roles and gain new skill sets that either blossom into a new, unforeseen opportunity or help the individual round out their capabilities. We’ve gotten excellent feedback from our early cross functional development pilots, with many of those that tried out something completely new coming back and saying, “I never knew I had that in me.”

We want our people to know that there are a ton of new opportunities within the organization, and that all these different tracts could offer rewarding careers. But getting them to realize this takes concentrated effort to socialize the idea and expose said opportunities. Because most people are still stuck in this way of thinking that says, “I go for Supervisor, then Manager, then Director” and so on and so forth. If you don’t change that lens, your high-potential talent gets stuck in that way of thinking, and you’re all but guaranteeing they’ll grow up and out of the organization because you can only stay in one single lane for so long.


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Connex: Last question: for anyone reading this that might be thinking they too should elevate their leadership and talent strategy along a similar trajectory, what would your retrospective advice be?

Cecile: You know, I think if I could go back and redo our whole transformation process, I would have spent more time on the actual change management strategy, as it pertains to getting everyone aligned and on the same page early on. You have to get people to believe that this is the best thing for not just the organization as a whole, but for their team and their daily life. You have to learn to communicate in their language of business, not just HR-speak. We also, due to Yonata’s team’s hard work, have all of these amazing systems and processes where we can track our progress and really frame our actions through data. It’s important to be very data-capable because telling stories through data is one of the most effective ways to get a seat at the executive table, have HR be respected, and to get everyone believing in your plan.

Yonata: To Cecile’s point about alignment of vision, I think I’d double down on the idea of bringing the business with you. MGM’s HR leadership has been crystal clear and consistent from the beginning about what our vision for the organization is, how it will help the business, and how it can help us achieve our strategic goals. But I think there’s always room to tell that story better, bring everyone else with you, and really prep them for what it’s going to mean. In some ways we went from zero to one hundred, and rather than jumping in headfirst, we could have bitten off smaller chunks at a time so that people could have better acclimated.

Cecile: Yeah, as HR, we knew the brand we wanted to become, and we had the marketing data that showed us what to aim for, but we had to really think long and hard about what we wanted our people to be and represent. If you want to be employee-first, you don’t actually start with the employees. You start with the leaders. This is what we learned and executed throughout the Park MGM transition. We had to figure out what we wanted our leaders to be, and though we didn’t label it then, it was the birth of our ‘Leaders Lead’ model. We got them to believe in the brand, to sell the brand, and convince their teams what Park MGM could be and needed to be.

Yonata: And it worked, both then and now. Park MGM achieved strong engagement scores and continues with that trajectory. We were able to take all that work, and in partnership our amazing HR team, really put together an overarching talent strategy that is seeing results and gaining great momentum every day. Our marks on “I feel valued and respected by my leaders” have consistently risen and it is now one of our most highly-rated answers, and we’re able to say our employees feel confident and proud of the inclusive environment they’ve helped us build. People want to stay, so much so that many of our mid-and high-level vacancies are being filled by internal talent that sees MGM as a career. And crucially, we’ve earned the respect of the business because our colleagues at the leadership table are seeing the results of our strategy firsthand. Having won their trust now will enable us to do even bigger and better things in the future.

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Cecile Maino
Cecile brings with her more than 20 years of extensive human resources, business strategy, executive coaching, and leadership development experience. . Her professional career began in 1991 in Detroit Michigan as an HR generalist with Ogihara America Corporation - a sheet metal stamping and production facility - where she gained experience in HR operations management, union negotiations, employee relations and culture engagement, and leadership development.

Throughout her career, Cecile has held multiple leadership roles in human resources with a focus on employee relations, culture, engagement, organizational development, and leadership development at companies including Industrial Steel Treating Co., Wyndham Vacation Ownership, and Orange Lake Resorts.

Cecile joined MGM Resorts International in 2014, serving as Vice President of Human Resources at Circus Circus Las Vegas. In 2015, Cecile was asked to oversee the HR strategy for a $650 million re-branding project of the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino into the beautiful Park MGM, where she was responsible for the strategic planning and oversight of all aspects of the human capital change management process to include culture, talent, training and development, recruitment, leadership coaching, and organizational development.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Cecile earned her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Oakland University, and a Human Resources Management Concentration Program at Michigan State University. She is also a certified Organizational Development Coach through the International Coaching Federation, as well as certified EQ-I 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Coach.

As a former Motor City native, Cecile is an avid fan of Detroit sports, especially the Red Wings and Lions, and loves to listen to Soul, Blues and Motown. In her spare time, she stays active outdoors, traveling and camping with her husband, Tommy and cats Savy and Mia.


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Yonata Rubin
With over 20 years of human resources senior leadership experience, Yonata has been involved in all facets of HR operations at MGM Resorts:
• She joined MGM in 2008 as Director of Training and Organization al Development at Bellagio and later served as Director of Human Resources for the property.
• She was then promoted to Vice President of Human Resources at Park MGM, and led all sides of HR for 4,000+ employees.
• She led and collaborated on the transition of the Human Resources Center of Excellence Model when she was the Vice President of Human Resources Transformation and served as the primary HR leader on the enterprise-wide Profit Growth Plan (PGP)

Yonata has more than 20 years of hospitality and casino gaming experience and in her current role as the Head of Talent, oversees talent acquisition, talent development, performance management, employee experience, and is currently navigating the MGM Culture Journey for the enterprise.

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