Women Of The C-Suite: Audrey Oswell of Atlantis Paradise Island On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive
We need to be open to the input of others. Management at every level takes support. You need good people and people who believe they can be honest with you. That comes from you, not them.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Oswell.
Audrey Oswell is the first female President of Atlantis Paradise Island and has served as the President and Managing Director since 2017. Prior to her role, Oswell was the Chief Operating Officer at the resort since the end of 2016 and had previously been the Chief Gaming Officer at Atlantis from 2011 to 2013. Audrey brings more than 30 years of experience in the hospitality and gaming industry to this role.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in Philadelphia, have two sisters and I am the middle child. My parents raised us to be independent and work hard for what we wanted. The funniest part of my personal story is how shy I was as a child. I can recall my mom giving me money to buy an ice cream at our swim club and the temptation of the ice cream was not enough for me to overcome my fear of going up to the window by myself (I did eventually overcome my fear by getting my grandmother to go to the window with me). When I started traveling for business, and started traveling globally by myself, my mother could not believe it. I’m not sure how or when I overcame my shyness, but I obviously did.
My undergraduate degree is in education. After graduating college, I took what was intended to be a summer job at Caesars Atlantic City and ended up working there for 21 years — it was a long summer. I eventually became President and Chief Operating Officer of the property after holding various positions in finance and marketing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
By far the most interesting thing part of my current job has been learning about our marine life. My knowledge pales in comparison to our team of professionals that cares for our animals. I have learned a lot since I have been here. I never really got past cats, dogs and horses as a kid but learning about Atlantis’ marine life and their habitats has been absolutely fascinating. Even more intriguing to me is learning about the relationships that our specialists have established with these animals and hearing stories about their different personalities.
Did you know that turtles do not reach sexual maturity until the age of 30? Then they come back to the beach where they hatched to lay their eggs. After 30 years…I cannot remember where I was 30 days ago. Dolphin calves nurse for 18 to 24 months and have been known to stay with their moms for more than five years.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been many people who I learned from throughout my career. I never really had a mentor that I identified with, but there were people that stepped out early on in my career and gave me an opportunity. When I started my career there were very few women in senior management in the gaming industry. Some of the people that supported me in those days were ironically all men, a few that I still keep in touch with today. I consider myself fortunate to have started my business career working at Caesars. While it has been a long time since I worked for the company, back then my experience was that it was a conservative company with a keen eye for compliance.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am not one to worry or stress over things. I learned a long time ago that worrying doesn’t really change anything, and it does suck the energy out of you. I try not to dwell and hit situations that cause me stress head on. I exercise regularly which is my form of meditation. I put my headphones on, listen to music and zone out. During the day if I feel stressed or need a break, I just take a walk. Walking around talking to guests and team members is very uplifting for me. I also like to watch the marine life. Whether it is at Dolphin Cay, The Ruins Exhibit or Sharks — it helps clear my mind.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
For starters, why wouldn’t you want or have diversity, equality and inclusion in your organization? The world is full of people with different backgrounds and beliefs — why wouldn’t you want that representation in your organization?
It has always been one of my fundamental beliefs that it is important to have diversity throughout your entire organization. Cultural, gender and age diversity results in a healthy mix of backgrounds and life experiences, which in turn creates a mix of ideas and practices, and ultimately contributes to the success of an organization. Input, shaped by cultural, gender, age and geographic differences, facilitates learning, and the sharing of new ideas and more thinking at every level. Growth and creativity tend to follow the makeup of your workforce. The broader the diversity, the broader the perspectives and alternative solutions that are too often absent when you lack that diversity. When it comes to the executive team diversity becomes even more important as executives are the ones leading the organization; they are quite often the primary decision makers on who gets hired, promoted and whose ideas are advanced.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
There are many steps businesses and the general public can and should take in order to ensure our society and workplaces are inclusive, representative and equitable. It starts with tolerance. In business, give everyone a voice, regardless of their position. Quite often you will find that those that are the quietest and in entry-level positions, have the most knowledge of how to please a customer. I cannot tell you how many times a front-line team member will come up to me with a fabulous idea to improve the guest experience, or a cost-saving measure. Front line workers are the key to breaking through barriers and typically you have more diversity at that level of an organization.
In one’s personal life as well as in business, listen with an open mind and an open heart. Understand that everyone brings different life experiences to a situation — some you will agree with and some you will not. It is no different for the people you are interacting with — they may not share your opinions either. I guess it goes back to treating others as you would want to be treated yourself. Be open. In business, one should never take opinions personally — it will hold you back if you personalize opinions and ultimately impact the agility and decision-making process, especially if it happens with management. In terms of treating people equitably, that starts at the top. The most effective leaders lead by example and insist that their management team do the same. If leaders cannot or will not treat people the same, you need to consider whether they belong on your team. I make it a practice of letting my management team know where I stand on these types of issues, and what my expectations are of them. I have a one-on-one conversation with those that cannot or do not get it. I only have one conversation. If you are serious about fairness, diversity and inclusion, there is no room for compromise on these issues. I have encountered one or two people in my career where there was deep rooted negativity toward certain ethnic groups. It is hard change that. Those people just need to go.
I recall having an issue with an SVP that I had worked with for many years who was my right hand. He just could not bring himself to treat everyone equally. He had trouble making eye contact with some people and struggled soliciting the thoughts and opinions of others. I knew to let him go would make my job that much harder in the short term. Honestly, I resisted the inevitable for a while. When I finally addressed it and let him go, it was a huge weight off my shoulders. I felt a true sense of relief as I knew he was not being true to the values of the organization and what we all stated we believed in and agreed to.
When it comes to equality in pay, one way to address this is to look at what value a position brings to an organization, regardless of who fills the role. If you start there then you are on even ground. You might add some compensation for experience or years of service. If you start with a level playing field, it will be easier to stay on course.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
CEO’s typically take ownership for the strategic direction and long-term growth of a company. They tend to be more focused on big picture issues such as economic climate, competition, new trends, environmental impact and how to exceed shareholder/ownership expectations; all this while taking into consideration the impact an organization has on its people (guests and team members) and the community they operate in. They are future looking and reflective, while the executive team who support the business and by extension the CEO, provide recommendations and insights to further the company, manage profitability and other goals of the business. They tend to be more “hands-on”, although every organization is different. I read somewhere that organizations tend to take on the personality of its leader. At first, I thought that a peculiar statement. Now I see it in both public and private organizations. That is why it is so critical to have open mindedness and commitment to equality at the top. As President and Managing Director of Atlantis Paradise Island, a global resort destination, it is in my hospitality genes so to speak, to connect with our team members and guests as often as possible — and I do that by walking around the property every day, observing and speaking with team members and guests directly. I lead by example in that way to make sure our management team feels comfortable soliciting input — good and not so good — so we are constantly improving. Team members know their input is welcome. You usually hear from guests whether the feedback is good or bad while team members need to be told it is ok to share. This is one of the most important things I do to feel the pulse of the resort. I focus on the future by observing and listening to everyone around me which informs my thoughts, decisions and business direction.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I have never been one to focus on “myths” or fantasies so I’m not really certain what they are. I can tell you that people that do not know me are surprised by my approachability, given my position. I guess one myth is that CEOs are not friendly or easy to talk to. I think often folks are intimidated by the title and what they perceive may be tied to a title. I didn’t start my career as a CEO and I will never forget where I started and the people who supported me along the way, both personally and professionally. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings around CEO’s and some think that we are all overpaid. While there are benefits to being a CEO, CEOs and executives carry a lot of responsibilities — business and social. We work long and hard and, for the most part, we are never off. Like in anything, there are sacrifices and difficult choices along the journey. It is rare that I am not reachable, even when on vacation or at a family event. Plus, you must be aware that you are always being watched whether at work or out with family and friends. If I had to do it over again, I would want the same career (maybe with a few changes). It has been fulfilling and enriching getting to meet so many people. The best part is knowing that if you choose to do the right thing, you have the ability to make a positive impact on many lives. That makes it all worth it.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There are several challenges women executives face such as equality when it comes to salaries compared to their male counterparts as well as opportunities to be in positions of leadership. Other challenges include women who are mothers being viewed as perhaps not 100% committed to their job, and possibly having to juggle work and life in a way men are not; and men seem less likely not to be judged under a proverbial microscope among their colleagues and bosses. However, that is what makes women stronger and, in many cases, more empathetic. Unfortunately, many women like men, forget where they came from and how hard they had to work to get to where they are. I do think that one of the biggest challenges facing women of my generation was not having the confidence in themselves to speak up or to even expect to be advanced to senior management. It is a different world today in terms of expectations. Although the world may not have caught up terms of living and delivering on full equality, women, minorities, and physically challenged people throughout the world have a “YES WE CAN” attitude and are making inroads and pushing through barriers professionally. There is much more energy and momentum around these issues and that is where it starts.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe there are many traits a successful executive can have including strong communication skills, courage, drive, and listening skills. Be open minded about everything and admit that you may have been wrong. The personality traits that can hold someone back from being an executive include not being able to handle constructive criticism and negative feedback, being rash when it comes to decision making, and not tapping into the resources and knowledge of your team. All of these traits can be worked on in order to make a person more suitable for an executive position. It is also ok to take some risks and fail too — that is how growth, creativity and sometimes re-invention happens. In my experience, the best executives are those that are true to themselves. Know who you are and never forget where you came from.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
The first piece of advice I would give to other women is to surround yourself with good people with varied experiences. Some of them might be men and that is a good thing. We need to be open to the input of others. Management at every level takes support. You need good people and people who believe they can be honest with you. That comes from you, not them. Finally, remember at the end of each day and at the end of your career, you want to be able to look yourself in the mirror and feel good about the decisions you made. Start with doing the right thing. It sounds basic but unfortunately so many miss it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Over the years developing my team has always been a top priority. I find a lot of pleasure in giving people opportunities to succeed. I have been good at assessing individuals’ limits and pushing them in directions that they may have never considered. Especially those that feel stuck. My greatest achievements have been those that were close to being fired and those that never felt they could go any further in their career. The next thing you know they are superstars. It gives me great satisfaction to give people the opportunity to succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Always do the right thing. It has served me well throughout my career and been a guiding light in my decision making — both professionally and personally.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Without sounding too political I would love to meet Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I admire them both for their tenacity, intelligence and accomplishments but mostly for overcoming the many barriers they confronted throughout their lives; Hillary Clinton as a woman and Barack Obama as a minority. Regardless of how you may feel about them politically, you have to admire what they’ve accomplished. Plus, I just like smart people.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Women Of The C-Suite: Audrey Oswell of Atlantis Paradise Island On The Five Things You Need To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.