Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson On Navigating Complexity and Learning From Bill Marriott

At a gala dinner at the Nasdaq Marketsite in New York on July 25, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson was honored as our 2019 Chief Executive of the Year. Photo: Ben Hider

At a gala dinner at the Nasdaq Marketsite in New York on July 25, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson was honored as our 2019 Chief Executive of the Year. In accepting the honor, Sorenson spoke about what he learned from 1988 CEO of the Year, Bill Marriott; the role his team has played in making his company more successful; the power that comes with being a CEO; and the emerging complexities of the CEO job in these uncertain times. Below is an excerpt from his speech.

My boss, Bill Marriott is here, a 1988 winner of the CEO of the Year award. It was just a few years after that I first met Bill Marriott in the summer of 1992. It was a fascinating time for the company. The company ultimately announced and closed a fairly controversial transaction where all of Marriott International was spun out to the shareholders leaving behind owned hotel real estate, which became Host hotels. It was front page of The Wall Street Journal. We were fired by our investment bank, if I remember right, not long after announcing the transaction. It was a gift to me to be able to start to learn immediately from Bill Marriott. I was a 34 year old kid, partner at Latham and Watkins, a law firm in Washington, D.C. and was brought in to deal with all the disputes, the litigation, in that context.

Even very early on, Bill Marriott would call me at home in the evening and say, “What happened today? What’s going on tomorrow? What are you thinking about renegotiation of the deal? Have you thought about going to a depose somebody in England who had forced him to be deposed?” He thought turnabout was fair play. But his reaching out to me was what he did across the company, which was to reach out to everybody and get input and listen. So, at that time it was a big deal. He had, of course, a general counsel who was in the middle of it, he had a CFO who was in the middle of it. He had litigation counsel inside. He would take soundings of all those folks to hear what they had to say.

In doing that, you obviously accomplish a couple of things. One, you learn if you keep your ears open because you’re listening to what your team has to say, and you get great substantive input. You really have got to keep your ears open though. And you can’t go through the steps without really meaning them. But secondly, you build the team because everybody feels like, “Oh my opinion matters. He cares about what I think.” Maybe they will pursue a decision or an approach which is different from what they suggested, but they still feel like they’ve got an input. So, people have said for decades at Marriott, we want to perform well in part because we want to satisfy that man. He inspires us.

It was about four years after [working with Bill as outside legal counsel], he convinced me to come out to Marriott in a fairly brief set of conversations….But interestingly, there was no plan. There was no plan for me to become the CEO of Marriott. Instead, he basically said, “I’ve got somebody here I like, and I’m impressed by, I don’t what he’s going to ultimately do long term but come join the team and be part of it.” It has been a stunning ride the last 23 years. Bill, you are a mentor. You’re a friend. You’re family to me. I’m of course grateful for all the opportunities that you’ve given me, but also all of the leadership lessons that you’ve taught me over the last 27 years. Thank you.

In thinking about tonight, the role of the CEO sort of pops up as something that I think all of us wrestle with a little bit. It is a role that continues to evolve and to some extent, there are new complexities in those roles today. But it’s a role that I want to make a couple of comments about.

I was at a conference in Philadelphia a few years ago and we had three CEOs on the stage and a moderator and the moderator was saying right before going on the stage, “I really want to talk about the burdens of CEOs and how much of your lives you give up and how challenging it is for you to do your work.” And I said to the moderator, “That doesn’t compute to me, doesn’t compute one bit.” These are extraordinary jobs to have because you are involved in so many things.

I think about Marriott and the complexities of our business. Of course, on one level it seems simple. We welcome people into our hotels every day. We want to provide as good a service as we possibly can, but at the same time, we are opening a new hotel every 14 hours around the world. Every one of those is a deal. It’s a real estate transaction. It’s a financing transaction. And increasingly we are engaged in technology and how technology is impacting our business, both with the Marriott Bonvoy program, but also for all the other things that we do. But even more than that sort of intellectual challenge, if you will, is the fact that this job is so powerful. It’s something I am so grateful for the opportunity to be engaged in creating opportunities for our people around the world.

We think we have about 730,000 people that wear our name badge every day. What we aspire to is that every one of those associates, no matter how senior or junior their job is, deserves to be treated with the kind of dignity that every human being deserves. They deserve to be able to grow in their job if they want to grow in their job. They deserve to be able to take pride in their work. If they take pride in their work, they’re going to deliver something that’s even better for our guests and customers.

I get interact with that group of associates around the world all the time. They do work, which is much more important than the work that I do, but they do it with pride, with energy, and with a desire to win. If we can create that kind of sensibility across a platform in 130 different countries, it is an amazing thing to be a part of.

We are in a time in which we are untrusting of each other. We are cynical about things. In too many parts of our society, we can see that our self-interest will be enhanced if we are driving conflict as opposed to driving people together. And we want very much to be an example of something different, where everybody is welcome to our company to be an associate with us. Everybody is welcome to be a guest in our hotels. If we can be an example of genuine hospitality and create opportunities for folks, it is obviously something that is important and a one powerful reason why I love this job so much.

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