Marriott’s Arne Sorenson: 2019 CEO of the Year

Megadeals! Hacks! Strikes! Protests! Airbnb! In a very crazy time for Marriott International, CEO Arne Sorenson excels by focusing on his people—and sticking to his principles.
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson

How do you spend your time? What do you focus on?

I focus on people, on strategy and on the decisions that usually, obviously, would need to be made by the CEO. They’re not always obvious because sometimes the decision is not that big, but there’s something about it which is controversial enough that the organization is going to have sort of built-in biases that conflict with each other. So, those decisions might need to percolate up. Sometimes they’re like the Starwood example, which is sort of an obvious decision that needs to get made. But the focus on people is a big deal. There’s another story with Bill. The Marriott transition for Bill Marriott was moving much more authority outside of this building because you can’t make the kind of decisions here that were made here even 15 years ago.

We were [opening] 20,000 rooms a year or something like that. We’re now doing 120,000 rooms a year. We’re opening about one room every 14 or 15 hours, but we’re signing even at higher volumes than that. Bill Marriott might have been able to say, “I want to approve designs, not necessarily of the Fairfields but of the full-service hotels.” Today, you couldn’t do it if you wanted to do it. By the way, you shouldn’t want to do it because if you’ve got one person approving designs, you will have a sameness across the system that you really don’t want—and you’ll end up without the breadth of leadership that you need to have spread around the world.

All you have to do is let go.

You have to let go, but you have to let go in a way that doesn’t suggest you don’t care. One of the things I’ll get traveling or when the team comes back here is a deep conversation, including about individual hotels. You hear the way the decisions are being made, I get a chance to have input into them. It doesn’t mean I’m making those decisions necessarily, and it doesn’t mean that I’ll be engaged with the next one that comes along the next month. But it does communicate that the details are still really important. And I think that works fairly well.

You’ve put a lot of emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Can you talk a bit about why—and how?

I’ll say a couple things, particularly about gender. I’ve gotten more credit and more attention for the number of women on my direct report team than maybe I deserve, or we deserve, and maybe more than is really important. We were 50/50 until January, when one of our senior women execs retired. We’re now 60/40 basically, six men and four women, and that’s good inclusiveness around the table. But much more powerful is that 42 percent of our 873 senior executives—a bunch of VPs—are women. We’re global where gender actually can be sometimes more difficult in many other markets around the world. We’ve got a real shot at gender parity for a community that’s that big.

Why does all this matter to you so much?

We are literally a community of people from everywhere, welcoming a community of people from everywhere. To do that well, we’ve got to be that as well. I actually think the smaller you get—this gets me into maybe more dangerous space—but the more you start to say, “Okay, but around your [leadership] table 50/50, or 60/40, don’t you get more diversity of view because of that inclusiveness?” I actually think in the smaller group, there is no similarity of the points of view of the women, no similarity of the points of the view of men. I don’t see our chief commercial officer, Stephanie Linnartz, as expressing a woman’s view about a particular issue any more than I see David Rodriguez, our HR lead, communicating any Hispanic view.

They are fundamentally creatures of their own sets of talents, capacity and points of view. Yes, some might be influenced by who they are or their gender, but none are coming with that agenda to the table. They’re coming with the agenda of, “What is the CFO’s role? What’s the right thing for us to do?”

When you get to a bigger community, I think you start to see the power of those different voices coming together.

The real power of diversity is in getting it baked in throughout the company.

The real power is in making sure that you can deliver a fair expectation of people that they can grow, no matter where they come from, and that the opportunity is available for them. It didn’t require them to look a certain way. It didn’t require them to go to a specific school. It didn’t require them to have a particular background. Everybody has got a fair shot at it. If you get that and it’s about substance leading, you will get diversity in the ranks because people will be drawn to it. Then you’ll get those voices, too, that are there because when you get to a bigger community, particularly, those voices will come in. This diversity of experiences will come in. And you’ll make sure that you’re not blinded to some things that you might be blinded to otherwise.

You had an unusual upbringing. Your father was a Lutheran minister, a missionary. You traveled a fair amount. How much did that upbringing influence the way you lead and the way that you see the world?

I don’t have a real sense of that. We traveled. Even when we came to the U.S., my father was on the road all the time around the world and with people in the house from around the world. There is one thing that I know to be the case—I love travel. I love seeing what’s happening around the world. I love seeing the cultural differences. I love all the food. There are folks who are in international business who hate to travel. You can see it. They’ll get to India or they’ll get someplace else, and you can just sort of see the scowl on their faces, and you know they’re not having a good time. I’m the opposite.


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