Article: Company culture can't be put in a box or dictated: Global CHRO, Marriott International

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Company culture can't be put in a box or dictated: Global CHRO, Marriott International

David Rodriguez, the Executive Vice President & Global Chief HR Officer at Marriott International, shares intriguing insights on trends in the hospitality industry that are shaping the future workplace, employee experience and well-being, and leadership in the digital era, in an exclusive interaction with People Matters.
Company culture can't be put in a box or dictated: Global CHRO, Marriott International

David A. Rodriguez assumed the role of Executive Vice President and Global Chief Human Resources Officer for Marriott International in 2006. Dr. Rodriguez was appointed a corporate officer in 2000, and in 2004, to the board of directors’ Committee for Excellence that focuses on advancing employee well-being and inclusion in the company.

Dr. Rodriguez joined Marriott International and assumed the role of Senior Vice President – Human Resources in 1998. In 2003, he was appointed Executive Vice President with corporate-wide responsibility for various human resources functions as well as for the Marriott Lodging division. Prior to joining Marriott International, Dr. Rodriguez held various human resources leadership positions at Citicorp (now Citigroup).

Dr. Rodriguez graduated from New York University in 1980 with a Bachelor of Arts and in 1987 with a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology. He is on the Board of Directors for Human Resources Policy Association and the Board of Governors for the Health Transformation Alliance, is a Vice Chair of the American Health Policy Institute and a member of the HR People + Strategy Executive Advisory Council.

Dr. Rodriguez was inducted as a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources in 2014 and named HR Executive of the year by Human Resource Executive Magazine in 2019.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

You have been in the industry for decades serving as an HR leader. How did you get into HR and what have you learned so far being at the top of people management at Marriott International?

I’m the proud son of U.S. immigrants, studied industrial psychology and started my career in HR in financial services and then moved to hospitality.

As a champion of life-long learning, I couldn’t ask for more. Our industry is thriving, Marriott is front and center, and culture is our greatest competitive advantage. HR is more strategically relevant than ever and I believe deeply in the power of opportunity, community and purpose to transform lives.

This fundamental belief sustains Marriott’s people-first culture during whatever business climate we face. 

If I’ve learned anything it’s that company culture can’t be put in a box or dictated. It has to be an inspired part of the corporate DNA and everyone’s responsibility. It all starts with the conviction that business success begins with the commitment we make to each other.

What are the top trends impacting the hospitality industry and how are they shaping the future of workplace?

There are few industries as diverse, complicated and public facing as hospitality. Every day, our success hinges on the interactions between our associates and guests all over the world and we host more than one million guests every night. While we have 7,000+ properties spanning 132 countries and territories, it all comes down to our people and making sure the ~730,000 people around the world who wear a Marriott name badge are highly skilled, deeply engaged and passionate about their work.

We operate in one of the most significant employment sectors – Travel and Tourism -- which supports roughly one out of every 10 jobs worldwide and accounts for more than 10 percent of global GDP. Recruiting and retaining talent couldn’t be more important.

I take issue with the premise that younger generations are inherently conditioned to “job- hop.” You have to fight for retention. HR professionals need to internalize that, just as marketers do. Marriott Bonvoy ended 2019 with a coveted 140 million loyalty members. Decades of leadership and operational excellence earned that and with it comes permission to expand.

Bottomline: If you’re gunning for growth, make sure you’re instilling loyalty along the way in business and people matters.

How do you envisage the future of work with technology impacting almost all functions of HR?

We don’t view “technology” as a separate dynamic. It’s the way our consumers interact with us (booking on Marriott.com – one of the world’s largest e-commerce sites and apps) and it’s the means by which we operate with colleagues, partners, etc. worldwide and often across time zones. 

Since we spend so much of our waking hours at work and/or on the job, the ability to build meaningful relationships – even if they’re virtual -- is vital to our well-being and to inclusive environments that fuel innovation and performance-centric. 

Inspired organizations that build a strong sense of community will have an inspired workforce with the commitment and enthusiasm required to tackle the changes and challenges all businesses invariably face

Companies too often spend too little time focused on this dynamic. 

Inspired organizations that build a strong sense of community will have an inspired workforce with the commitment and enthusiasm required to tackle the changes and challenges all businesses invariably face. In the same way consumers are loyal to consumer-facing brands based on their customer experience, it’s interaction with each other – our leaders, teammates, colleagues – that defines the experience we have “at work” (wherever it is and whatever it looks like). 

After all, the best experiences are human experiences. It’s at the very heart of all-important workforce engagement, productivity and loyalty. 

How is Marriott different from other big companies in terms of culture? What are the top things that you follow as part of your culture and how does that align with your business strategy?

We’re laser focused on culture rooted in three things: opportunity, community and purpose. It’s what inspires us to excel, innovate and create memories for our guests.

We deliberately resist the urge to create culture by telling people how to behave in a diverse, fast-changing and disruptive world. Instead, we aim to inspire associates to translate core values into day-to-day culture, ensuring the culture is continuously refreshed and remains vibrant across geographies and generations.  

Timeless core values being constantly refreshed by the people who are genuinely living them is the bedrock of long-term success. 

In an ever-changing world and marketplace, we must rethink the conversation around corporate culture and constantly ask ourselves not, “What should our culture be?” but rather, “What can I be doing to inspire our people and to be a true steward of an evergreen culture of success?”

Can you throw some light on the latest initiatives that you have taken to enhance employee experience (and employee well-being) and customer experience? How do you measure the impact?

Wellness is a topic close to my head and heart. While undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, I used my recovery time to deeply consider employee well-being and evaluate how to best take care of people at Marriott.

In the service industry, you’re only as good as the well-being of your people. While we’re very focused on our guests, we’re equally -- if not more -- focused on our associates, because we know they’re our competitive advantage.

To this end, Marriott’s award-winning TakeCare initiative is a holistic approach to employee well-being based on the universal human need for opportunity, community, and purpose. It’s squarely aimed at yielding a sense of personal well-being, pride, and ownership in the company that leads employees to go above and beyond for customers.

While wellness programs are often aimed strictly at improving employee health and reducing medical costs, we encourage a cohesive focus on things that make employees feel good about themselves, foster relationships within the company, and advance the company’s purpose in society.

While the branded HR program initially launched in the United States, employees spread TakeCare through word of mouth to colleagues at other Marriott International hotels across brands and across the world. As TakeCare grew organically internationally, it melded to the needs and desires of each location. Beyond focusing on good physical health, some hotels emphasized emotional health, while others added diversity and inclusion programs and opportunities for community service. 

A critical barometer of wellness program is how well they engage employees and TakeCare has clearly delivered. Last year, the initiative truly became universal with 99 percent of managed locations worldwide applying for TakeCare Certification. 

The “care” element quickly diversified to care for the community in addition to the employees themselves, a powerful dynamic that exposes prospective employees to the TakeCare philosophy and differentiates the company from other employers. 

Globally, our organization gets more than two million applications in a typical year and hires roughly 70,000 people in that same span. The hundreds of thousands of associates who make up Marriott’s ranks have reported extreme satisfaction and happiness in their work. In fact, Marriott International accepted a Legend Award from the Great Places to Work Institute for having been on the 100 Best Places list since the award’s inception

What's your take on leadership especially in the digital era given that leaders today need to deal with unprecedented changes and an unpredictable future due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution? How does great leadership look like in the digital age?

One of the hardest, but also wisest, things we’ve done is to entrust employees with the company culture. I’m a strong believer in empowering employees at every level of the organization to express the company’s core values in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them. 

The best organizations authentically support their employees in their quest to learn, build new skills and grow personally and professionally. That will never change, especially in a high-tech and high-touch business like hospitality. With a million guests per night and an expansion mindset in a highly competitive environment, our operating culture is pivotal. It requires an inspired approach and shifting from a “training” to a “life-long learning” mindset. 

Continuous improvement is not – by definition – a one and done exercise. People are looking for opportunities to continuously learn and grow. For many of us that may mean embracing new technologies. Research shows optimism toward technology in the workplace. Why? Largely because workers believe technology will improve their work experience just as they’ve witnessed in their personal lives. Digital curiosity and technology adoption are rooted in an appreciation for advancement and the quest for opportunity.

What is Marriott gearing up to build the leaders of tomorrow? What are your talent acquisition and reskilling mantra?

One unique concept we’ve greenlighted is the creation of immersive training designed to build cultural competence and confidence. Developed in conjunction with Marriott’s Multicultural Affairs Team and informed by real scenarios at actual hotel properties, Culture Days give attendees a unique opportunity to experience and appreciate appropriate business and social protocols, traditions, trends, cuisine, and clothing.  

Demand for this innovative initiative has skyrocketed. Conducted in cities around the world, the program is now tailored for 13+ different cultures and countries.

Cultural competence isn’t positioned as political correctness, rather it’s reinforced as a business imperative and unique opportunity to understand key differences, provide next-level customer service, reduce risk and open up new revenue channels. It’s all about having a global mindset that goes beyond culture, race or gender. It could mean knowing how to present a business card to a Japanese guest (with both hands and a bowed head) or understanding major world holidays like Ramadan or even varied sensitivities affecting military or LGBT families or people from urban and rural areas.

In Dubai, for example, participants learn business practices in Korean culture, including how to exchange business cards. Canadian associates learn about Chinese culture and protocols. Indian Culture Day participants absorb the history and significance of henna through the work of an on-site henna artist and learn about Indian attire through a sari tying demo. There’s also discussion around negotiating contracts, family dynamics and decision making, etc. 

Enhanced culture competence allows Marriott International to better post up against notable market opportunities. For instance, it helped us leapfrog the competition in the events business where average spending on an Indian wedding is 3X a non-Indian wedding with large headcounts (400-800 guests), more functions (3-5 events) and large weekend wedding room blocks.

Also of note, ~39 percent of our associates work in Food & Beverage roles – an area of work that traditionally has high turnover. Our recruiting team finds innovative ways to attract and retain talent within this discipline globally. They launched a creative and wildly popular “Masters of the Craft” competition spotlighting our talented F&B artisans and the innovation happening in our 10,000 restaurants and bars around the globe. By seeing the passion, results and career growth many of our associates experience, this content helps attract top culinarians and mixologists to our hotels. Much of the content points users to engage in our Marriott Careers website to learn more about the vast opportunities. 

In the service industry, you're only as good as the well-being of your people. While we're focused on our guests, we're equally - if not more - focused on our associates, because we know they're our competitive advantage

A lot of studies lay stress on the power of parity including the McKinsey study which says that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women's equality. Women's participation in the workforce and presence in leadership positions is still off the mark. What's holding us back to fulfill this imperative?

Central to Marriott International’s sustained business success is providing a world of opportunity for associates, customers, suppliers, owner and many other key stakeholders with meaningful and impactful programs. Here are just a few notable examples of HR-related programs driving mission-critical business objectives:

Women’s Leadership Development Initiative: Designed to develop a strong pipeline of female leaders. Today, women compromise ~55 percent of the company’s total workforce and hold some of the most significant P&L and policy-making positions, in the company.  

The Emerging Leader Program (ELP): More than 1,300 leaders have completed or are currently enrolled in this program. Overall, women have represented 56 percent of participants and minorities have represented 36 percent. Since the program’s inception in 2014, 60 percent of participants have been promoted at least once.

Exchanges: A Diverse Supplier Program – Marriott International conducts business with more than 4,000 minority- women-, LGBT- disabled-, and veteran-owned businesses annually; and has spent over $5 billion worldwide with diverse suppliers over the past decade.

The Diversity Ownership Initiative: This program introduces the hotel business to successful business owners who are women or people of color. Today, more than 1,300 Marriott-branded open hotels are owned by diverse entrepreneurs with hundreds more in the pipeline.

TakeCare Champions: TakeCare Champions drive Marriott's people-first culture lead by example and inspire colleagues to live their best lives. Concerted recruitment efforts led to 13,979 new Champion volunteers during 2018. The current geographic mix of Champions is 58 percent Asia Pacific, 26 percent Americas, 8 percent MEA, 7 percent Europe.

TakeCare Level 30 App: Our people are taking care of themselves and each other as part of a global well-being challenge. In 2019, we set a record with nearly 125,000 app downloads of the TakeCare Level 30 app from more than 1,400 locations worldwide.

Global Challenge The TakeCare Triathlon, a component of our annual global challenge is designed to help associates meet their personal well-being goals over a 4-week period by participating in one of three well-being tracks: Move, Nourish, Balance. Over 29,145 associates from 426 locations around the globe participated.

I'm a strong believer in empowering employees at every level of the organization to express the company's core values in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them

As HR becomes more strategic, can they help drive business outcomes? Are there parameters to measure and quantify this? Do large organizations have measures to gauge HR's performance in terms of numbers?

Absolutely. Understanding business strategy is paramount to being an effective steward of human capital. Beyond that and in concert with leadership, you’ve got to lead by example and encourage others to do the same, especially at a time and in an environment when the very definition of the purpose of a corporation is being redefined.

Case in point: Marriott International is taking on an unfortunate and pervasive global issue – human trafficking. Backed by the steadfast leadership of our CEO, it’s a revelatory example of having the courage to take on the tough stuff.

To date, more than 670,000 managed and franchised associates have been trained to spot signs of human trafficking, marking a watershed moment in the global fight against this multinational crime and a meaningful learning and development (L&D) initiative. The mandatory training has directly resulted in rescues and the removal of young people from dangerous situations. To develop and test the human trafficking awareness training program, we spent nearly a year collaborating with ECPAT-USA and Polaris – two specialized, leading non-profits. We’ve since arranged for the program to be translated from English into 16+ additional languages and ensured it can be taken either online or in a classroom setting in the 130+ countries and territories where Marriott operates. 

The instruction pinpoints signs to watch for, explains effective response, and is broken down by role because the signs that a front desk clerk sees may differ from those that a housekeeper or bartender sees. Most hotel workers wouldn’t necessarily witness a human trafficker visibly restraining a victim; they would typically see a scenario that is much more nuanced and harder to detect. 

This two minute video -- A MILLION EYES -- highlights the collective power of 500,000+ Marriott associates – collectively more than one million eyes – on the unconscionable crime which disproportionately affects women and children. 

In an ever-changing world and marketplace, we must rethink the conversation around corporate culture and constantly ask ourselves not, 'What should our culture be?' but rather, 'What can I be doing to inspire our people and to be a true steward of an evergreen culture of success?'

The training is having an impact far beyond Marriott International’s workforce, a source of great pride for our associates. Law enforcement officials indicate the training helps enhance overall community security as greater awareness leads to greater responsiveness both inside and outside of hotel walls. With this end in mind, we’ve donated the training to academia and to the industry through the American Hotel & Lodging Association Education Foundation with proceeds from training tools bought by other lodging operators going back to support ECPAT-USA and Polaris.

Looking ahead, you’ll see us continue to take – empowered by Marriott Serve 360 – a comprehensive look at where and how our company can best make an impact on the most pressing issues of our time, including sustainability and environmental impact with a particular focus on food waste.

Can you share some instances of challenges that you might have faced in terms of team building, creating the right culture or anything else? How did you get over them? What are the top challenges for HR today and how do you as a global HR leader see them panning out in next the five years? 

Overall, commitment to company culture and mission is never more important or apparent than during rough times or exceptional circumstances. In our case, it could be anything from a disruptive natural disaster affecting on-property operations and the personal and professional lives of hotel staff; a complex industry or humanitarian issue with broad-ranging safety, security and reputational implications; or the world’s largest hospitality business merger.

Our acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts led to one of the biggest challenges any CHRO could ever encounter. It meant not only integrating our global business operations but also extending a strong culture dating back to our founding into 1927 to the largest influx of employees in company history. Clashes of culture have doomed countless mergers, but we prevailed by successfully identifying, emphasizing and leveraging commonalities in our respective cultures. The end result: our brands continue to enjoy top performance with customers, owners, developers, and lenders. At Marriott, our founders’ foremost business principle was: “Take care of the employees and they will take care of the customers, and the customers will come back again and again.”

The best organizations authentically support their employees in their quest to learn, build new skills and grow personally and professionally

This timeless legacy reminds us that sustainable business success is dependent on engaged associates who are inspired to serve, achieve, innovate and grow.

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Topics: #ExpertViews, C-Suite, Strategic HR

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