How Ace Pittsburgh GM Kyle Southerlin broke the rules to find success

Photo courtesy of Kristin Sanderson.

The leaders who came of age in the wake of the Great Recession have faced unique challenges in their professional growth—and have had to find original ways to reach the top. Kyle Southerlin, GM at the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, was running hotels before he was 30, but he didn’t get there by playing by the usual rules.

While studying theater at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Southerlin worked as a bellman and shuttle driver for a nearby DoubleTree hotel. Upon graduation, he and his then-girlfriend (now wife) decided to pursue their dramatic dreams in New York City, but had trouble finding work. Deciding that his experience at the Pittsburgh DoubleTree could prove useful, Southerlin began applying to hotels for a job. “One day, I decided to just put on a suit and go to as many luxury hotels as I possibly could and tell them that I had an interview with them,” he said. “I didn't really know what I was doing.”

He ended up in the GM’s office at the Waldorf Astoria and, with the moxie of an actor, insisted that he had an interview for a job opening. “He asked if the front office was something I'd like to do, and only knowing what I'd known about hotels working as a shuttle driver and a bellman, I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I started four weeks later, and I’ve never stopped working at hotels since.”  

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Moving On Up

After returning to Pittsburgh, Southerlin broke another rule by moving frequently from job to job as new opportunities came his way, rarely spending more than a year in each role. Following his stint at the Waldorf Astoria, he went back to the DoubleTree that had first piqued his interest in hospitality and spent several months managing the front office. He moved on to the Home2 Suites by Hilton - Pittsburgh McCandless as an assistant GM for just over a year, and then spent 11 months in the same role at the Hilton Garden Inn Pittsburgh University Place. By April 2015, he was the GM at the Courtyard by Marriott in Youngstown, Ohio, and moved on to the same role at a SpringHill Suites by Marriott for nine months before taking over as GM at the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh—a role he has held for the past year and three months.

The Ace Hotel Pittsburgh is housed in a former YMCA building that has maintained its history.

In every role, he continued to network, grow and learn, and each new opportunity came as a result of someone reaching out to him with an offer—not him looking to “jump ship and move on,” as he put it. As he moved up the ladder, Southerlin was warned by his family and mentors that spending an average of a year in each position could damage his professional reputation. “It obviously has not hurt me so far," he said, and added that he is not looking to move on from the Ace Pittsburgh anytime soon.

“I personally do not think, as a young person in the hospitality industry, that moving around will really hurt you if you're able to explain within [the next job] interview what you did at each position and why you've moved on,” he said. “If you have a specific goal in mind of being a general manager by a certain age—which I did—you certainly can obtain it, but I do feel you have to move around quite often.”

Southerlin also believes that his training in theater has helped him in his hospitality career. “Having a theater arts degree really teaches how to interact and how to talk to people,” he said. A GM’s responsibilities include managing people's expectations, managing people's personalities and helping people communicate with one another. “Being able to dive into different characters and doing different shows and adapting to all sorts of different individuals really allows me to be very close with my employees and allows me to build relationships with [them].” Being a GM, he said, is like working as a psychologist. “You have to understand how people work and why they work the way they work. It’s working with people, relying on people—the same way of building relationships that I had to do in theater arts that translates really well into hotel management.”

Kyle Southerlin's advice for upcoming GMs: “Ask a ton of questions. I asked so many questions—almost to the point where I was probably annoying for the first few years in this business because I just wanted to observe and know everything. I didn't have a hospitality degree. I never sat in a classroom to learn about different terminologies, so I would encourage someone to really take the time to ask as many questions as you can and try to obtain as much information from people who have been there.”

His biggest challenge: Early on, I found myself discouraged because I was the AGM at a Home2 Suites and I had interviewed for the GM role, but didn’t get it.

His success: It really made me think, “Be patient. Maybe you're moving a little too fast.” It actually set up a bigger fire under me. “What can I do? What could I have done to get that role?”

Three Rules for Success

Be genuine with employees: Really getting to know them and treating them more as a family than an employee is one of the biggest things that has helped me create the relationships that create the successful teams that I've had.

Pay attention and ask lots of questions: Listen to your peers, to your superiors, to other general managers to corporate members. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, ask how to do things and ask what would they do.

Have a plan for where you want to go and what you want to do: I had a specific goal in mind [to be a GM by 30]. When you set a goal in mind, that gives you something to work for.