It was tough not to be surprised by the news of Arne Sorenson’s death. From Marriott employees to the CEOs of many of the world’s largest companies, word of his passing after a long fight with pancreatic cancer stunned anyone who knew him or was connected to him.
Sure, pancreatic cancer had taken plenty of well-known leaders, people like John Lewis, Steve Jobs and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (not to mention Aretha Franklin, Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon). Hardly anyone beats this most terrible of cancers.
Yet somehow, we figured it wouldn’t happen to Arne. Some national experts familiar with his case evaluated his chances when diagnosed in 2019 as an encouraging 33%. With all his vitality, energy, and optimism — we thought he would win. Figured he could win.
That was the spirit which Arne shared as an initial suspicion of gallstones led to early discovery of the cancer. He told me at that time that “we’re underway with chemo…then radiation and immunotherapy, then surgery in the fall. The Hopkins team is encouraging. I am both respectful of the disease and eager to continue the battle.”
And he did. Actually, “respectful and eager” would be good words to celebrate Arne. He built Marriott into the largest hotel company on the planet, with a portfolio of 6,400 properties and more than 1.2 million rooms in 126 countries and territories, following his $13 billion acquisition of Starwood hotels in 2016.
Even in crisis, he did it right. In the fall of 2018, Arne set the model for integrity, transparency, and responsiveness on how to handle a data breach when hackers stole the private information of as many as 500 million customers from the Starwood Hotel frequent traveler system.
As soon as the intrusion was detected Marriott identified the possible victims and went directly to customers. Instead of hiding behind lawyers as other firms did, Arne was clear and ready to take responsibility. “We deeply regret this incident happened. We fell short of what our guests deserve and what we expect of ourselves. We are doing everything we can to support our guests and using lessons learned be bet better moving forward.”
Then, when the pandemic erupted last spring, Arne was brutally honest and open about the impact on the business, about the layoffs due to Covid-19 shutdowns, about furloughing two-thirds of Marriott staff overseas, while cutting management wages. In a video message to his employees, he conveyed the dark news with humility and humanity, and once again set the standard for handling a tough situation.
Everyone who worked with Arne has uniquely memorable moments. Deeply concerned about the Trump Administration’s caustic assault on relations with Mexico, he urged me to convene a Yale Mexico CEO Summit on three weeks’ notice. Thanks to his magnetism, 75 of Mexico’s top 100 leaders joined us for a day of candid discussions on a short timeframe.
IBM’s Ginni Rometty referred to him as a trusted, honest mentor who gave her feedback on how IBM engaged with its clients — “simply be the best IBM you can be.” He told her to “‘remember what you are at the soul of your company and stay true to that,'” says Rometty. “That message has stayed with me for years. Arnie feels strongly that if you treat people like they deserve to be treated it will flow through the organization.”
Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson commented that “It seems early in my tenure, whenever I’d go to one of the various CEO meetings, whether it was BRT business council, or this panel, you name it, Arnie was present and engaged. He’s always been that kind of a CEO. And in fact, the more contentious, the more challenging difficulty issue Arnie often more often than not would raise his hand, whether it was diversity, immigration, trade, healthcare, climate, workforce training, you name it. It was a tough problem without an easy solution. Arne was there with a well-considered opinion.”
In accepting the Yale Legend in Leadership award, Arne talked about the changing relationship of business to society—of employers to employees, shareholders to stakeholders, government to commerce. Speaking to an audience of hundreds of CEOs across nearly every industry, he reminded them of the stakes:
“We, collectively, are at an important crossroads for business. As society in the United States and in many respects around the world has a historically low confidence in all institutions, business, maybe for the first time, is being criticized by both political parties in the United States. We’ve got to vigorously debate about what the role of business is led by the corporate purpose statement that BRT put out.
“The most fundamental thing about the BRT statement was, we can have an obligation to drive shareholder return, but we really ought to put that in the kind of long-term context. What drives those returns based on what we do for our communities and what we do for our people, what we do for the environment, what we do for inclusiveness around the world. What I’ve of course fought for at Marriott for many years is that we have got to respect all of our people. They are on the frontline of the work that has to be done in normal times and in pandemic times. They deserve our thanks and respect much as any of us do.
“I know we all believe this, but we’ve got to be transparent. We’ve got to be crisp and clear, and we’ve got to make sure that we embrace and respect all of our people and help lift them up and pursue the kind of opportunities that we know should be available to them and give them that respect no matter what kind of role they are feeling fulfilling every day in the work they do and this society.”
I worked with Bill Marriott on his succession plans in the early 1990s, but things took a different course. Years later, the board wisely selected Arne. He turned out to be a great choice, someone to show us how to lead, and show how to live. He will be missed.