In an incredible tale of entrepreneurial success, a single root beer stand opened by J. Willard Marriott in 1927 blossomed into one of the world’s largest global hotel enterprises. Perhaps more amazing: Until last year, Marriott International remained family-run. The founder passed his CEO role down to his son, Bill Marriott, who oversaw the expansion to more than 3,700 properties.
When Bill Marriott retired in March 2012, the company needed someone extremely capable to take over as CEO. In a monumental shift, that person was not born into the Marriott family. It was Arne Sorenson, who was handpicked by Bill Marriott over his four children.
SUCCESS wanted to know how Sorenson, 54, has maintained consistent growth and global quality standards across an empire that spans 74 countries and territories.
Q: Marriott has warranted a place on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list for 16 straight years. To what do you attribute that?
A: We’ve always said, “Take care of the associates and they’ll take care of the guests, and the guests will come back again and again.” It can sound soft and squishy or a little paternalistic, but what we’re really talking about is being deliberate about building careers for our people, and allowing them to grow to the extent of their ability and effort and not holding back any opportunities. As a consequence, we see people who have spent not just 10 or 15 years, but 25, 35 or 45 years at the company and are still feeling good about their work.
In the boardroom and executive staff meetings where we’re talking about what’s going on with our teams, we never talk about the fancy pedigrees of our people. We talk instead about what they’ve accomplished or how they’ve grown. We brag most about the people who have come the furthest, and so I think that focus on helping people build their careers is what causes people to feel differently about their jobs.
Q: With thousands of hotels in 19 brands across six continents, how do you manage to achieve the consistency that keeps guests coming back?
A: Consistency gets harder and harder with global expansion and a substantial presence in the luxury and full-service space. We need to embrace hotels that look different from market to market and really reflect the local culture, so that when you’re in Shanghai you know you’re in China, and not some hotel that looks exactly the same as a hotel in Orlando.
So in some respects we need to embrace a lack of consistency, but at the same time continue to strive for consistency where it’s most important—in the quality of the food if not necessarily the recipe, the friendliness of the welcome, and the quality of the fire and safety systems we have in place to protect our guests.
It’s a matter of training and of using the different systems that are in place to identify the areas where consistency is most important, and then just constantly being out there with messages about that.
Q: Marriott doesn’t own most of its hotels. Doesn’t that make consistency even harder?
A: It does, but I don’t think it’s dramatically different. Whether we own the hotels or manage them or franchise them, ultimately we still have to train and convince each property team and general manager that this is a worthwhile way of doing business, that it makes sense for them and that they’ll run a better hotel and have a better result.
Q: What’s your secret to communicating with team members and trying to bring them along to do things the right way?
A: Listening to our people… and never being satisfied that you know all the answers. And even if you have a deep, well-formed instinct about a particular issue, make sure you’re soliciting input from others, because they may look at it with a different lens. They may improve your own understanding in a way that’s important. And even if it doesn’t change your answer, they will feel ownership of the issue if they’ve been allowed to co-own it with you.
Q: Like your predecessor, you’ve been described as extremely accessible. Is there any downside to being so available?
A: The only downside is time. I don’t know how many emails I get a day, maybe 250, and there are members of the team who have suggested we set up my email address in a way that is less obvious to folks so I don’t get as many emails. But I don’t want to be shielded from a direct line of sight into what people want to talk about. Whether it’s customers and their positive or negative experiences or it’s our associates, I want to be available to them and hear what’s on their minds.
Q: In running a company with so many tentacles stretching across the globe, how do you stay well-rounded?
A: Be curious about everything. Be observant about what’s going on in other aspects of the enterprise and make sure you understand them—not so that you’re interfering in areas that aren’t part of your job, but so the curiosity and understanding and context you get allow you to be valuable.