How We Do Business Is as Important as the Business We Do
“How we do business is as important as the business we do.” This concept and quote―by Erika Alexander, Chief Global Operations Officer for Marriott International, at the first of four MODEX 2022 keynotes―was an underlying theme behind many of the ideas and insights she shared on Monday morning. Alexander, “who is known for her authentic and inspirational leadership,” per moderator Katie Kirkpatrick of MetroAtlanta, repeated this idea a few times (as did MHI President Bryan Jensen in his closing remarks) to ensure the attendees understood its value and how its relationship impacts how Marriott does business and defines success.
This concept is especially applicable when it comes to Marriot’s culture and how this incredibly large corporation with 8,000 hotels and 30 brands in almost 140 countries encourages its leaders, franchisees and partners to show empathy, incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion, practice sustainability and grow. Alexander said that in their agreements they embed a standard of not only diversity but sustainability as well. And, when COVID-19 hit and the travel industry watched a sort of “apocalyptic doom” descend and Marriot had almost 90% of its revenue stop overnight, it was the people that were top of mind for the leaders. Alexander said, “What was most difficult to process and reflect on is what was happening to our people.” They were losing jobs, their livelihoods, their ability to support their families, pay for college.
But, COVID hasn’t been all doom; it has also given businesses the opportunity to learn. It served as an important lesson for leaders, teaching them:
1. You can’t try to figure out who you are while a crisis is bearing down on you. You have to know that going into it. Companies have to know who they are and what they believe in. “For us, that was the people,” said Alexander.
2. It taught us the notion of courageous leadership and being able to change course on a dime, being nimble. Don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. To lead this way, “you have to have a reservoir of trust” in others, said Alexander, which is borne of authenticity, transparency and openness.
3. Crisis impacts everything and everyone differently. The people who are making decisions are not always the ones who are going to be impacted by those choices, said Alexander. Decisions don’t always land equally; be mindful.
Plus, know that you can’t always know the right answer. Just “be hyper mindful of trying to do the right thing with the information” in front of you, said Alexander. If you are coming at it with the truth as you know it and see it, people will be understanding.
Alexander also shared some insights on what she thinks are vital pieces for success, such as: surround yourself with the best and brightest talent, know when to empower them and get out of their way, create an environment where everyone is heard, and have a diverse team. “Companies that have more diversity in executive leadership and boards, outperform their peers… One stat said they made better decisions 85% of the time,” said Alexander. And, while there isn’t a path forward to optimum performance, she believes there is no way to do that without having women at every level.
When it comes to DEI practices, though, every company needs to find its own way. “You have to focus on your own house,” said Alexander. Some suggestions she had, as a starting point, were:
1. Think about how to make jobs flexible. “Where do people need to be to be effective?” As a Harvard Business Review article said, turn the great recession into the great reset.
2. Leaders who don’t value DEI don’t create environments that are diverse. Diverse teams drive better outcomes. Pick your leaders wisely.
3. Take emotional intelligence (EQ) over IQ every day.
4. High potential talent needs to know they are perceived as high potential. “You have to be intentional about that,” said Alexander.
5. Establish partnerships to cultivate the next generation of diverse talent.
6. No one thing is the answer. It takes leaders at every level. “What gets measured gets done,” said Alexander, sharing a Marriott motto.
Alexander, who has been with Marriott for 32 years, had some tips for young people just getting into the field, as well, including a tweezing tip that had people “yelling” at her in a recent blog. She recommended finding your voice and using it early, instead of waiting for the right time or title. Don’t “over-tweeze” as the road back is impossible. Instead, try to not be consumed with being perfect. Practice curiosity and be a student every day. Be bold and take risks. In short, “Ask questions, find your voice, practice it, take risks and don’t get consumed with trying to be perfect. There is no such thing.”