Thinking About the Little Things and Trusting Your Gut

Mathieu Jaton, chief executive of the Montreux Jazz Festival since he was 25.

Mathieu Jaton is the chief executive of the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

Q. Do you remember the first time you were a manager?

A. When I was 18, I ran a concept bar with my best friend. It was only open Thursday through Saturday, because we were still studying [at the École hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland]. The bar was lost in the countryside, so to bring people in, the idea was that every night we had to create a different “happening.” Every night we would transform the whole bar, removing the chairs, redecorating. Very early on, we realized we didn’t have the time to do everything, so I started hiring different people, giving them clear responsibilities: D.J., bar, decorations, games. That was my first experience managing and motivating.

At the end we were about 100 people working there, on a rota. That also helped make the bar a success, because the people working that weekend would call all their friends, and we always had new people in.

Q. At the Montreux Jazz Festival, you have 30 year-round employees and 2,000 who work only during the festival. What are the challenges in managing a seasonal work force?

A. You have to motivate everybody and make them feel they are part of it, that this baby is their baby.

To make it work, it’s really, I think, about the little things. It’s not about big speeches and strategy, but it’s more about human consideration.

I put in a lot of energy walking around the building trying to say hello to as many people as I can, talk to everybody, not just the stars. The good thing is that I spent so many years before in operations that I know what people are doing — I probably did part of their job at one stage because when I took the position of general secretary here [in 2001], every year I would take two or three departments and immerse myself for one to two days to fully understand what they are doing. For me, that comes from my hotel business background, where you have to get hands-on experience at every job in the house — not to master it, but to understand what it entails.

Q. Do you feel that having studied hospitality is an asset in managing the festival?

A. Absolutely, every day. The entire festival was built on the quality of the service, the attention to detail — on how we welcome people, authenticity, simplicity but highest quality of service. These are the same values you have in five-star hotels: knowing the customers and anticipating their requests. That’s what we do with the artists. In fact, half of my office staff comes from the hotel business.

Q. You were only 25 years old when Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, gave you the job of secretary general, the No. 2 position. Did it come as a surprise?

A. I had only been with the company for a year, so yes, I didn’t expect it. I remember getting into the car with Claude and asking him, “What does it mean, exactly?,” and he looked at me with a smile and said, “I’m 65 years old, I have to think about the future and I want to build it with you.” And I think that’s the only time we talked about succession.

The job was being his No. 2, but it really felt like a father and son relationship. Claude’s management was very top-down. The festival was his baby, and everybody was working for him before working for the festival.

For the team, even if they had worked for many years with him, it was a bit difficult to sometimes know what he meant and what he expected. Very early on, I had the honor of being his translator, and that helped me a lot. People were a little bit surprised that a young guy was Claude’s confidant.

Q. What were some of the early challenges of being a manager of the festival organization?

A. The most difficult thing was managing egos. In the music business there are a lot of egos, and I really had to step back, observe, understand why certain things were done a certain way, because there was a lot of history.

I learned to tread carefully and I realized that if I wanted to be respected at my age without any experience, I had to really try to understand people, rather than judge them and tell them, “Now you are going to do this like that.” Slowly I gained experience, and very slowly, I think, I started putting my views forward.

Q. You stepped in as C.E.O. after the sudden death of Mr. Nobs in 2013. How did you make the transition from being a manager to being a leader?

A. I had always been used to talking to him, to bouncing off ideas, and when he left, I felt now I was alone and I realized I needed to trust myself.

I think the best advice he gave me was, “Do what you think you have to do and not what the others are saying you have to do.” Claude was very instinctive. He did things not because it was a trend or someone made a suggestion, but because he really felt he had to do it.

And that’s what I’ve learned from him: You really have to listen to yourself.

Q. You are only 41, but are you already thinking about mentoring the next C.E.O.?

A. Actually, we just had a board meeting and had this very discussion. When Claude was alive, they knew someone was being groomed to take over. Now my chairman tells me that even though I’m young, I do need to think about what will happen if something happens to me.

Frankly, it’s all a bit bizarre when you’re in your forties and someone tells you, “We’ve got to talk about your succession!” [laughs] But at the same time, I do appreciate this is something I have to start working on.

Q. What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self?

A. When you have a doubt, step back and think twice. Trust your instinct and listen to yourself.

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