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Lifestyle

For this world traveler, life shapes leadership choices

NEW YORK - James Riley, 59, is used to being on the go as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s chief executive.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group Chief Executive James Riley. Courtesy MOHG/via REUTERS

“I would be traveling 60 to 70% of the year,” said the Hong Kong-based CEO.

Riley joined the parent company, Jardine Matheson Group, in 1993. But since early March, he has been forced to navigate a new normal in which three-quarters of his hotels were closed at some point. All but two have since reopened.

He is optimistic, stressing the need to stay nimble and relevant ahead of an eventual economic rebound. For example, Mandarin Oriental partnered with The Oberoi Group in India in September to offer loyalty program members benefits across both companies’ properties.

Riley spoke to Reuters about the life experiences that shaped his leadership choices in 2020. Edited excerpts are below.

Q. What did your first job teach you?

A. I was working at a bank in the center of London as a foreign exchange clearing clerk after I left school. It taught me not only that I was quite good with numbers but also how easy it was to make a serious mistake.

I made a mistake in a transfer into someone’s account that resulted in a loss of $10,000. As an 18-year-old in 1980 or 1979 that was an enormous sum of money. I had debited it rather than credited it. It was fixed, but I had a couple of nights when I was sleepless, wondering what I had done.

Q. How do you maintain work-life balance?

A. I exercise everyday one way or another, and I do my exercise - whether it’s running, swimming or playing tennis - during the mornings so events during the day can’t interfere with it.

I also maintain a series of interests that don’t relate to work. I’m chairman of the Royal Geographic Society in Hong Kong.

Q. What’s the best piece of job advice you’ve received?

A. However happy you are in your job, always make sure that you are aware of market opportunities and other jobs you could be doing.

Keep in touch with headhunters. When you’re conscious of what other opportunities are out there, you’ll have a sense of how good your job is. It helps you maintain a reality check.

Q. Do you have advice for someone starting out right now?

A. Now is a terribly difficult time to be actually starting work, but we can always use this time to improve, to attain greater skills and train further.

Think about how you can enhance your competitive advantage and positioning with skills, so when the market does start to come back you are in a robust position.

Q. Do you have any new work habits?

A. The main one is that I’m losing my sight. It’s happened over the last 12 to 18 months. I’m largely blind now and can’t read. Being able to use amazing technology like iPhones that can speak to you, or that you can use to dictate or record means I can do anything.

Q. Do you have a favorite business book?

A. I don’t believe in business books. I love reading history. I think I can learn more from reading about Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow or the writings of Cicero than I can from reading business books.

Reading about great leaders like Churchill or Napoleon is incredibly valuable and insightful in terms of understanding the present, and also reading about great mountaineers and exploration leaders and how they achieved their ends.

Q. What advice do you have for those who are trying to navigate this changing world today?

A. Believe that there is a future. We’re going through a temporary change and there will be some consequences. The issues we’re facing at the moment may well stretch on but they will pass. It’s crucial that people don’t lose their self confidence and business energy and passion.

Q. When one can travel freely again, where will you go first?

A. For business, it would be to each and every one of the Mandarin Oriental hotels, to make sure they’re still in a great place.

Where would I most like to go for leisure? India. I would like to travel around and enjoy the sights and sounds and colors and smells of India.

Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang

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