Marriott’s Arne Sorenson: 2019 CEO of the Year

How have you been able to speak your mind and engage on divisive topics and not end up immolated as other folks have?

There are two things I would say. One is a great cultural legacy. Some of these crises obligate us to reach into a well of goodwill built up over decades and decades. There are a lot of folks who say, “Marriott is a good company. They’ve been in business a long time. They seem thoughtful.” That well of goodwill that’s been built up over the years is helpful.

The second thing is to be transparent and not just to say, “Here’s why we’re defending our decision, but here’s why we reached the decision we did.” I woke up five years ago to 5,000 emails that had come in the last three hours. That one was about folks objecting to the CAIR, Center for American Islamic Relations, meeting at a hotel in Crystal City near Reagan Airport. There was a group that basically decided that [CAIR] was too Muslim a group to meet in our hotels, and we should ban them. Within a month, we had a group from the left complaining about a much smaller group who believed in reparative therapy. There was the LGBT community basically saying, “How on Earth could you have these people show up?”

In both instances, what we said was, “We can’t stand in judgment on the people who meet in our hotels. You wouldn’t want us to stand in judgment on them. We are in the hospitality business. We welcome everybody.”

You travel more than 200 days a year, but still, how do you bring this company together when you’re trying to lead it? There are a lot of people in a lot of places.
Very deliberately. There are a whole bunch of tools used. The most important is probably to stress that the principal responsibility is not Bill Marriott’s. It’s not mine. It is the [hotel] general managers who have got to pull through the culture. So we tell them. We pull them together. We measure what their people say about their work, do a global associate satisfaction survey every year where we get a department-by-department, hotel-by-hotel input into the way our associates feel about the work that they’re doing, the way they’re paid, about opportunities and about inclusiveness.

It’s an important question, and it’s part of the compensation plan. Last week, we had an Awards of Excellence event, our sort of internal Academy Awards, where we bring in about 15 associates from around the world and honor them with an award and a video that tells their story, and they speak for a couple of minutes. Most of them have never been in the U.S. before, maybe never been on an airplane before. It’s simulcast around the company, and it is to tell stories of folks who have made a powerful impact, typically both with guests and with associates, and typically in hotels. You keep pushing those.

One of the reasons I travel so much—and Bill Marriott traveled so much before—is that even though it’s the general manager’s responsibility, we get out there and the senior team gets out there, and they can see us interacting with our people. Every single hand in a hotel, I will shake. Kitchens, housekeeping, wait staff, front desk, and half the time I think they are looking at me like, “Who the hell is this guy?”
Overwhelmingly people will say, “You know, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand, and I’m a housekeeper.” If you treat people like they deserve to be treated, as human beings with the same kind of dignity that you would treat senior people, it will flow through the organization.

How does that set of values help you shape the selection process for senior leadership? How do you develop that?

The measurement system is going to tell us something about it. You can look at the associate satisfaction directly, but you can also look at the results of the hotel. Turnover is going to be way down if you’ve got somebody who is able to build teams that really work. The guests will tell you it’s a much, much better run hotel because, ultimately, when people feel good about their work, they will welcome you better than they would if they were sour.

You’re in the business of making people feel welcome, and open borders and free trade seem to be something Marriott would support. Are you seeing a pushback against that in recent years?

I guess this is a place where I’m more optimistic, although it depends on exactly how the question comes in. Because if you think about policy, about reading the news, about trade wars or conflict in the Middle East, or the rise of nationalism around the world, it’s easy to get distressed. But if you think about people traveling, people wanting to explore the world, people eager to collect experiences, maybe a bit more than stuff, new members of the global middle class who, for the first time, have the ability to get around and see things, I think there’s a lot more to be optimistic about than pessimistic about.

In 1979, I went to Beirut. My father was a churchman, and he came back and said, “There’s this group getting together in Beirut next summer. You should go.” It was in Lebanon, [when], of course, the U.S. was a great ally of Israel. But everybody who was there was as welcoming as could be. Some of them occasionally would say, “I hate America, but I love Americans.” I think today you pick up some of that in some places, but when you get to a hotel—hopefully, a Marriott hotel—people are still interested in seeing the globe. People are interested in working in the business.

How do you assess the technology landscape—and a competitor like Airbnb—and how do you lead and manage in the face of that kind of technological challenge?

We’ve got lots of technology threats and opportunities, obviously. Technology has helped us a great deal in the way we interact with customers, apps and .com sites.

And we’re selling a massive amount of rooms online through our own digital channels, which has been huge both in terms of ability to know customers and ability to service them cost effectively. So there are real positives here. There are also folks that either are directly disruptors—Airbnb would come up first in that—and folks that have been partners but complicated partners for a while—Expedia, or folks that are juggernauts for whom the relationship is still evolving. Think of Google maybe as the easiest example of that, but there are a few others around the world. They all present different issues.