MGM Resorts: Inclusive Training Programs are the Key to Great Leaders

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Gender diversity is an increasingly common topic of discussion for U.S. businesses these days. Until recently, much of that national discussion has centered around what isn’t working and why it doesn’t work: the types of jobs that don’t offer equitable pay opportunities  for women; the lag in corporate on-the-job training or career advancement for women that has plagued some business sectors; or the challenges that women face in trying to break the glass ceiling.

One corporation that is helping to dramatically change the tempo of that dialogue is MGM Resorts International, the parent corporation to Las Vegas casinos such as the Luxor, New York, New York, Excalibur and MGM Grand. It has received numerous accolades in recent years for the innovative employee diversity programs run on all of its 15 properties in Nevada, Michigan and Mississippi.

In 2012 the company launched its Inspiring Our World production, a 90-minute musical on the value of diversity, presented exclusively for its 62,000 employees. The fact that the concept was pioneered and led by employees, and was enjoyable and engaging, helped to drive home its essential message: Diversity of thought is an important element in creating a cohesive, creative corporate culture. The 70 employee-performers not only talked to their audience about diversity, but they also shared their life stories, their challenges, and their dreams for being accepted and successful members of the company.

The musical helped deliver the message that diversity is not only okay but broadly supported at MGM Resorts. Its leadership, recruitment programs and mentorship programs, which range from summer internships to robust, year-long upper management programs, reinforce that message even further by providing structured advancement opportunities for all staff, irrespective of gender, identity or ethnic background.

To get a sense of how MGM Resorts addresses diversity and women’s leadership opportunities, we talked to Michelle DiTondo, senior vice president of human resources for MGM Resorts. DiTondo’s team came up with the concept for Inspiring Our World as a means of teaching its 62,000 employees the importance of a cohesive and inclusive corporate culture.

Diversity starts with an inclusive recruitment process

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Michelle DiTondo, SVP of human resources for MGM Resorts International.

“We have a lot of focus on pipeline programs: bringing leadership into the company in conjunction with our recruitment program, and developing new leaders,” DiTondo told TriplePundit. The company also tailors its pipeline programs to meet the attributes best represented by the applicants they recruit.

A key example of its pipeline programs, said DiTondo, is the Management Associate Program (MAP), a 12-month program geared to recent college graduates that provides new hires with on-the-job training and exposure to a variety of jobs in their area of interest.

Participants also receive leadership training and mentorship in a cohort setting, where they are encouraged to establish connections with other employees. “The reason we do that is so they get to know one another,” DiTondo said. Forming teams that are supportive and inclusive is an important element of MGM Resorts’ leadership training strategy, she told us.

“We have a number of our senior leaders who entered the company through MAP,” said DiTondo, who noted that the program has been operating for more than 20 years.

The company also runs a Hospitality Internship Program (HIP) which it staffs through yearly recruitment at universities across the country. Hirees attend a 12-week program that gives them wide exposure to the industry, the company’s structure and on-the-job training. As in the MAP, employees have the opportunity to network through regularly scheduled meetings, tours and training.

MGM Resorts’ more unusual pipeline program is Boots to Business, which is open to both external applicants and MGM employees who have served in the military.

“The idea behind Boots to Business is we identify veterans for their personality traits and the skills they gained in the military, like leadership, teamwork [and] discipline,” all qualities that do well in a hospitality setting. Mentorship plays an important role in this program as well.

“We have had some women veterans participate in the program,” DiTondo said. The program helps veterans reach past the standard challenges that many often face after active military service: limited work experience and insufficient on-the-job training. At the same time, it focuses on those characteristics that would be most beneficial in a hospitality setting.

Top-notch casinos and resorts in Las Vegas have their own cadre of professional chefs, and MGM Resorts properties are no exception. Keeping the busy kitchens staffed with talented chefs is essential, which is why the Culinary Associate Program (CAP) serves as an essential network for culinary staff who want to excel in their careers. MGM Resorts recruits at culinary institutes, but it also maintains an open-door policy for MGM staff who want to learn to become chefs.

Internal leadership programs nurture growth

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In some companies, training programs are only open to supervisory and management level employees. MGM Resorts offers training to all levels of its staff, from hourly workers who have their eye on supervisory career, to managers who wish to further their career as directors, vice presidents or presidents of MGM properties. The Aspire and the Management Academy programs, for example, provide training for hourly employees who wish to move up the ladder, while the Management Institute is MGM Resorts’ equivalent of an MBA program.

“The intent of the Leadership Institute is to take people who are great leaders [such as front-desk supervisors and hotel directors] and give them exposure to a broader perspective of the company,” DiTondo told 3p.

The program gets a high amount of interest from women looking to move up the managerial ranks because it helps to address a common factor in the hospitality industry: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 45 percent of the 1.1 million food service managers in the U.S. were women in 2014. Fifty-five percent of the 146,000 lodging managers fit within that category as well. Leadership training that allows women to break out of low- and mid-management jobs is one of the perks of working for MGM Resorts.

But that isn’t the only way that women are able to excel in their respective areas of interest. According to DiTondo, mentoring and sponsorship create powerful mechanisms for ensuring high-performing employees and managers get the training and opportunities they seek.

“In every one of our programs you will find a mentor,” said DiTondo, who added that upper management are required as part of their jobs to have one or more mentoring relationships.

“In the gaming industry, formal talent management hasn’t been a big part of how people were promoted through an organization,” DiTondo said. Up until the 1990s, a job search in Las Vegas was most successful if you knew someone in the respective company network who could vouch for qualifications. “It was largely who you know,” she said. “To change that culture and to promote people on their experience and their knowledge and competencies … we have had to put into place a number of formal development programs and tools to help us.”

Mentoring nurtures the management skills of the leadership trainee by pairing the individual with seasoned managers. It also provides a means by which corporate management can identify new talent for up-and-coming positions.

Many of those leadership promotions come through sponsorship, in which an applicant is recommended for career advancement. “Sponsorship is what comes out of mentorship,” said DiTondo, and it is a valuable tool for career-oriented hospitality managers. At MGM Resorts, approximately half of those who apply for sponsorship are women, increasing the demand at the corporate level to ensure that the opportunities at its 15 properties reflect the diversity of the applicants.

“We do work very hard in the recruitment to make sure the programs are diverse in representation,” DiTondo said.

And while MGM Resorts’ history of women leaders demonstrates that these strategies work, sponsorship in the global work sector hasn’t always been as available to women as it has been to men. The Harvard Business Review reports that, as recently as 2010, women still found it much harder to get sponsored in their line of work than men. In contrast, MGM’s sponsorship structure is available to both women and men, DiTondo said.

Employee networks reinforce inclusiveness

Perhaps one of the most powerful offshoots of the Inspiring Our World was an appreciation of employee networks. MGM Resorts has 18 employee networks that serve to connect people with similar interests, backgrounds and identities. But most valuable, said DiTondo, is the personal reinforcement and support that comes from employees knowing there are others in MGM’s expansive population that hold similar views, interests and backgrounds.

Being part of a network, and knowing that it’s okay to be who you are, gives empowerment and tells employees that they can have the courage to pursue their career goals.

MGM Resorts’ Women Leadership Conference is open to all

WLC panel 2014_resizedThis July, the MGM Grand will host the company’s most renowned management program, the Women’s Leadership Conference. It is MGM Resorts’ only gender-directed leadership program, and the turnout it received last July suggests that it is filling a void for women who seek more networking and more opportunities in their fields. The conference is well-attended by MGM Resorts employees (both women and men may attend), and provides another venue for women to fine-tune their leadership knowledge and skills.

And, like many of MGM Resorts’ other novel programs, it is helping to redefine leadership in the hospitality sector. With increasing studies showing that leisure and hospitality companies actually win by building diversity into their ranks, MGM Resorts’ management programs are setting a standard that improves opportunities for both companies and their future leaders.

Images courtesy of MGM Resorts

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.