Lessons from J.W. “Bill” Marriott on Leadership: Developing and Listening to People

05/22/2014

Carl R. Augusto, President and CEO, American Foundation for the Blind, seated onstage next to J.W. Marriott, Jr., Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board, Marriott International, at the AFB Leadership Conference, February 28, 2014

I learned a lot at the 2014 AFB Leadership Conference, but overwhelmingly people tell me that the conversation on leadership between AFB's CEO, Carl Augusto, and the J.W. “Bill” Marriott, executive chairman and chairman of the board at Marriott International, stood out as the conference highlight. Personally, I walked away from that session with some new tools in my career toolbox.

Most of you know what a big fan I am of Marriott International and the Marriott family, but this conversation gave me some new perspectives about generations of leadership knowledge. Most of us think of Marriott as one of the premiere brands in the hotel industry, and the lessons that follow provide some explanation for that success. AFB has made the video of this conversation available to all for free. You can read what I learned from the wisdom shared below, but I sincerely hope you will take the time to listen and watch the video for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Hire Friendly and Train Technical

Marriott said, “I think our biggest challenge is developing people.” He then went to say that at Marriott, “we hire friendly, and we train technical.” This truly makes a lot of sense, as it is about having the right people and personalities first. Then, providing your employees with the right training and tools to succeed is integral.

Opportunities for People

Marriott noted, “We provide opportunities for people.” He explained that 50% of Marriott’s general managers have been with the company for 25 years or more. He continued to say that most of these managers started as hourly employees. Employees don't stay with a company if they are unhappy or feel unappreciated.

Train, Grow, and Develop

Marriott explained that his company gives employees the opportunity to train, grow, and develop. This lesson tells me that a company can only go as far as its staff. For staff to be the best, it takes training and the opportunity to grow.

What Do You Think?

Marriott said that he believes that the most important thing a leader can do is to listen to his people. He stressed the value of listening and getting buy-in from those you are trying to lead. He referenced two stories that helped him to embrace this mantra. In one instance, President Eisenhower visited the Marriott family farm in Virginia with a few top-ranking naval officers. The group was deciding whether they should venture out on a really cold and grim day to do some hunting. The president turned to Marriott and said, “Bill, what do you think?” He thought about the fact that the president took the time to ask the lowest-ranking officer in the room his opinion. He also reflected on a story where he was trying to improve the food on his aircraft carrier by giving the cooks recipes and orders. He felt that he would have been more successful if he had just asked them, “What do you think?” We all should take this advice and spend a little more time listening to our staff and less time talking.

Put Your Employees First

Marriott International has been founded on the principle of caring about their employees’ health and well-being, and this is just one reason the organization stays in Forbes Magazine’s Top Ten Corporations to Work For year after year. Marriott recalled how his father hired a doctor for his staff early on; realizing that keeping his staff healthy kept the business running and provided employees with access to healthcare.

Pursue Excellence

Marriott has high standards, including 66 ways to making up a room correctly. These standards create consistency across the brand. In the early days, the Marriott family kept to their standards by following recipe cards; this commitment to high standards and consistency continues today. I know that my work could stand to have a few more standards around consistency; I will take this to heart and look to create a more standardized process around my tasks or projects.

Act with Integrity and Serve Our World

Marriott lives this in many ways, but one large way was by founding the Bridges from School to Work organization around training and preparing youth with disabilities for employment with businesses in their community around the nine Bridges' locations in the United States. The program has worked to help over 14,600 participants to become employed. The Marriott family has always felt that it is important to provide opportunities, and this program provides an avenue for youth with disabilities to attain employment.

Embrace Innovation and Change

The Marriott brands continually work to update their current brands and create new brands to meet the needs of a growing customer base. The company has a 10,000 square foot space in the lower floor of their headquarters dedicated to innovating new room ideas and layouts. Marriott's customers are changing, and Marriott works to meet their needs. Marriott stated that the millennial, X, and Y generations will make up 50% of their customers in the near future. These customers utilize hotels and their rooms in a different manner than their predecessors.  They tend to use the lobby area more, and would choose a bed or chair over a desk to work on their computer. I have been paying attention to the aforementioned facts about the interests of the growing customer base, and it seems to be quite accurate from my experiences. The big lesson is that it is easy to stay the same, but much more difficult to change and innovate. Marriott continues to push for meeting the needs of customers. We can all listen to that, as our programs need to change with the times as well.

Take the time to view the complete session and let us know your thoughts and take-aways. I promise that you will not be disappointed. All of us can look to embrace these leadership lessons—invest in our staff, listen, and innovate. You can view the video or read the transcript from the session today. Don’t be left in the cold; take the time to ask, “What do you think?”

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