Flophouse Opportunities: The Power of Observation in Leading Innovation

Flophouse Opportunities: The Power of Observation in Leading Innovation image flophouseFlophouse Opportunities: The Power of Observation in Leading Innovation

Sometimes, as the saying goes, opportunity comes along, dressed in overalls, disguised as work. Such was the case back in 1919, when Conrad Hilton went seeking fortune in Cisco, Texas. The 31-year old intended to buy the town bank, but when he arrived for the meeting, the owner upped the previously agreed-upon price. Hilton said no thanks, and huffed off down the road searching for a night’s lodging.  When he arrived at the only place in town, a flophouse, he couldn’t get in the front door. Exhausted oil field workers were lined up, renting rooms in eight hour shifts, some with their heads down on the dining room table, or slumped in chairs in the lobby.

Hilton approached the owner, Henry Mobley, and learned he was weary of the business and ready to sell. Hilton offered $40,000, half of what he’d planned to pay for the bank. The deal struck, he pivoted and spent the next four years of his life schooling himself in the inn-keeping business. As he toiled away, he dreamed of building a chain of hotels; a dream that would eventually take flight, manifesting into a global hotel empire, which became the gold standard in the industry.

I am indebted to, and have stolen liberally from, travel writer Carlton Stowers, who tells this story in American Way magazine. Above is a photo which makes it evident that this guy had vision. The flophouse was a modest, two-story boxy brick industrial building, resembling a 1930′s factory or a 1950′s school. The Mobley Hotel, now a museum, in no way resembles the modern Hilton Hotel of today.

What struck me about Hilton’s story is the vision. It is a timeless story. A guy with a little imagination and a modicum of courage turns disappointment into opportunity.

Leaders you admire, especially in these challenging times, often have this quality. They have a plan, but they acknowledge that things can change. So, they keep their eyes wide open. If things don’t work out, they look around. And when they see it, they take that proverbial leap of faith, knowing they could fail, but believing they can and will succeed.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present a new program on “Coaching for Innovation.” The research we found in preparing for the program shows that one of the qualities innovative leaders have in spades is the power of observation. Innovative leaders have their eyes and ears wide open. They exhibit a genuine curiosity. This leads to insights others don’t have.

The good news is, two-thirds of innovative leadership skills can be learned. You can train yourself to stop and open your eyes. One secret is to read widely, and network outside your usual circles. When you have an inspiration, act on it.

Visitors from across the U.S. and 20 countries have visited the Mobley Hotel in Cisco. I think its because we all want to learn to see possibilities, even if those opportunities look like flophouses.

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