Marriott’s Arne Sorenson: 2019 CEO of the Year

Marriott is the second company to have produced two Chief Executive of Year winners in the award’s 34-year history. Back in 1988, it was Bill Marriott on the cover, celebrated by his fellow CEOs for his ability to lead the sprawling, fast-growing hotelier with $6.5 billion in annual sales and franchises in 24 countries. The secret, Marriott told Chief Executive: “We’ve developed a climate of listening,” he said. “The more I listen, the more effective I am—and the more my people will contribute to solving company problems.”

I think the faith thing, it was comforting to the Marriott family that we were traditional in that sense. My wife and I have four kids. We’ve been together all our lives. There’s comfort in knowing that maybe the lifestyle is not too far towards the edge, and faith is a piece of that.

Again, I’ll apologize for sort of self-analysis here, but I think there is a bit about faith that keeps us in our place, which prevents us somehow from thinking that we are uniquely gifted, that we deserve credit for so many things that happen. It’s not as if I feel passive. I’m intensely competitive and put a whole lot of effort into trying to make sure we do as good a job as we can.

But I don’t think it’s my work alone. I’m not suggesting for a second that I mean it’s the divine hand that’s working on it. But I do think there is a strong recognition that a whole bunch of people are engaged in this and things happen that you can’t necessarily take credit or even blame for.

What do you tell your kids about business and about leadership?

The youngest is 24, and the oldest is 31. I think probably more important is what happens earlier in life. What do they see you doing? How do they see you balancing your work with your attention to them? How do they see your relationship with your spouse or partner, and what lessons do they pick up from that?

I’ve always been a hard worker. I [was] when I was practicing law, and I’ve been traveling here a lot. But when I wasn’t working, I was basically with them. I wasn’t off on the golf course on weekends without them when they were growing up. I worried that they would think, “Well, you weren’t around enough.” They don’t have that sense at all. Their sense is, “Yeah, he was hardworking, and he proved something about the importance of effort and discipline. But he was also there for us.”

Since you were diagnosed, how has it changed the way you approach your job?

It’s been just about a month since the diagnosis came in, so it’s still early to take much on board as lessons. I’m certain that it’s about looking forward. I’m certain that I’d like to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s too soon to know whether there will be lasting changes to the approach I take.

I’ve probably directly heard from 5,000 of our associates, something like that, with prayers in every faith and picture postcards and little videos that come in with hotel teams singing, various things like that. It’s really gratifying to know that a whole bunch of people are fighting with me.

That says something about you.

Something about the company, too. Something about who we are.