When values are clear, decisions are easy

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Nearly every sophisticated organization has gone to great lengths to craft a mission, vision, or purpose statement together with a set of guiding principles or values to direct its course, during good times and bad. Even so, in both my formal and informal employee polls (at all levels of the organization), most cannot recall these lofty statements and noble ideals. Being disconnected from the purported “heartbeat” of one’s organization may not always show up in job performance as they diligently execute their job responsibilities during the good times. But today, as the world navigates the COVID-19 crisis, being fluent in organizational purpose and values is a requirement for authentic leadership.

This was beautifully illustrated last week by Arne Sorenson, President & CEO of Marriott International, as he addressed COVID-19 in a recorded video to all associates (Marriott’s preferred term for employees). Throughout the message, Mr. Sorenson reflected the values established by the founder, J. Willard Marriott, last century and revered by the corporation today (noted in ALL CAPS below). As a former Marriott associate, I can attest to these values being consistently modeled and fostered throughout the company.

Mr. Sorenson opened the message by describing it as “the most difficult video message we have ever pulled together.” He acknowledged his “new bald look” resulting from medical treatments he is receiving and reassured viewers that he feels good and, together with his team, is “one hundred percent focused on overcoming the common crisis we face.” (HONESTY, HUMILITY, AUTHENTICITY, LEADERSHIP)

He first addressed the COVID-19 health challenge itself and the impact on Marriott associates: “Across our company, the number of COVID-19-infected associates is low and I’m grateful for this. I want to acknowledge the associates who are dealing with it as a patient, a parent, family member, or friend – and the hundreds of Marriott colleagues who are, at this minute, quarantined. Our well-wishes and thoughts are with all of you.” (HEALTH, CARING, EMPATHY)

He then spoke in terms of business implications, stating that the current crisis “is having a more severe and sudden financial impact on our business than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined. The worst quarter we had in those earlier crises saw a roughly 25 percent decline in hotel revenues on average across the globe. In this case, which began in greater China in January, we quickly saw a 90 percent decline in our business in China. In the two months since, we have seen COVID-19 extend to the rest of the world. In most markets, our business is already running 75 percent below normal levels.” He cited restrictions on travel, gatherings of people, and required social distancing as having an immediate negative impact on hotels by depressing demand. In response to the crisis, Sorenson outlined contingency plans intended to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the business, including: removing controllable costs, such as suspending all non-essential travel; pausing all new hires; stopping all hotel initiatives for 2020; and suspending brand marketing and advertising during this period. He added that both he and Mr. Marriott, Executive Chairman, will forgo salaries for the remainder of 2020 and his executive team would absorb a 50 percent cut in pay. Certain positions would be furloughed for at least the next 60-90 days and others’ work weeks would be shortened commensurate with salary reductions. At the property level, Sorenson disclosed that hotels would be closing food and beverage outlets, reducing staff, and closing entire floors of hotels. (PROACTIVITY, DECISIVENESS)

Sorenson then pivoted to optimism, saying, “If there is any good news visible today, it is the signs of early recovery in greater China. China appears to have succeeded in reducing the spread of COVID-19 through strong counter actions. China is now bringing manufacturing back online and we are seeing some early signs of lodging demand begin to return. If this holds, it may bode well for the course of this (pandemic) in other parts of the world.” (OPTIMISM, ENCOURAGEMENT)

As he transitioned to the conclusion, Sorenson was visibly upset as he confided, “There is simply nothing worse than telling highly-valued associates, people who are the very heart of this company, that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.” He then reassured viewers, saying, “I’ve never been more determined to see us through than I am at this moment. While it’s impossible to know how long this crisis will last, I know we, as a global community, will come through the other side and that when we do, our guests will be eager to travel this beautiful world again. When that great day comes, we will be there to welcome them with the warmth and care we are known for the world over.” (COMPASSION, APPRECIATION, COMMITMENT, COMMUNITY, INSPIRATION, VISION, SERVICE)

Sorenson ended the message confidently, saying, “I wish you good health and a sense of optimism. Together we can and we will overcome this and will thrive once again.” (CONFIDENCE, RESILIENCE)

In total, I observed 20 different values reflected in the 05:49.00 taped message (and I may have missed some that you spotted). It’s clear that Mr. Sorenson models authentic leadership in a time of profound crisis and is connected to Marriott International’s “heartbeat” and its enduring legacy of taking care of guests and associates. As a listener, although I no longer work for the company, I am on board with Sorenson’s assertion that we will overcome this crisis and will thrive once again!

Video credit: Marriott International

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