When Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson was interviewed in early February for HOTELS’ April cover story, he spoke about his love for the hotel business and all the opportunities it has offered him to experience different cultures and interact with associates around the world. A lot has changed since that interview.
While the hotel world has been turned upside down, HOTELS wants to post this interview today to remind readers about what is great about the business and what everyone hopes will start to rebound soon. Here is a profile on legendary hotelier Arne Sorenson:
Savoring the world around him
For someone with the highest-profile job in the hotel industry, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson is about as grounded as they come and not swept away by the trappings of his position. Unlike many chief executives, he almost always flies commercial, frequently in coach. As often as possible, Sorenson prefers to drive for himself.
“I do not want to live in a bubble,” he says. “I don’t want that for myself, nor do I want the impact that bubble has on the way I interact with our people or with the world around me.”
Those are likely among the traits that in 2012 led Bill Marriott, now the company’s executive chairman and chairman of the board, to make Sorenson the first leader of the company who did not bear the family name.
Eight years in, Sorenson emphasizes an enduring love for the job and ongoing focus on maintaining the culture created by his predecessor.
“I still love my work,” says the 61-year-old son and grandson of Lutheran preachers. “I absolutely love it. There’s no part of what I do on a day-to-day basis that causes me to get up in the morning and say, ‘Well, got to go do that thing again.’”
Finding the joy
Not even a May 2019 diagnosis of stage two pancreatic cancer, a battle Sorenson is in the middle of fighting, has changed his approach to work. Instead, he says he prefers to find the joy – something he says he talks to his team about, and while on morning runs with associates at the hotels he stays in while on the road.
“The joy makes such a difference,” he says. “It brings curiosity. It brings stamina… One of the great gifts of both the industry that we work in, but Marriott as a company and the job I have, is I just love it all. I’m curious about the world, so the travel is not a wearying thing. It is an energizing thing. And, of course, I’ve seen people who have either traveled with me or others who are taking a similar beat, and you can see that all they want to do is get home. And they’re not really curious about where they are. They’re not savoring the things that are different from at home, whether that be cultural or food or architecture or whatever. And I just absolutely love that piece.”
The dealmaker (think Starwood) turned team leader says that what pleases him most is seeing his colleagues, and Marriott’s approximately 750,000 team members worldwide, enjoy what they are doing.
“What I am singularly most proud of is that the culture at Marriott is, I think, as healthy and vibrant today as it’s ever been. I’m really grateful to be able to say that as the first non-Marriott CEO of the company. And if you asked me at the get-go what I was most worried about, it would have been screwing the thing up,” Sorenson reflects. “And I mean that from a cultural perspective — not from a business model perspective or from a deal perspective. Not that those aren’t important things, too, but the culture of connectivity within a company and connectivity with each other and this sense that we want to build careers here and build opportunity for each other — that’s still a very vibrant thing, and I’m really grateful it’s still here.”
As a lawyer in Washington, D.C., Sorenson began representing Marriott in 1992. By 1996, Bill Marriott had asked him to join the company, but Sorenson agreed to do so only in a non-legal capacity. He ran mergers and acquisitions and in 1998 became chief financial officer, a job Sorenson says he wasn’t qualified for but did with the backing of his predecessor.
“I think [Bill Marriott] was relying on his gut instincts about my leadership capacity and curiosity,” Sorenson says, adding that his experience has served as a broader lesson for the organization about giving people a chance to prove themselves.
“We talk often about inclusiveness at Marriott, and obviously we have a very strong group of women leaders, and I’ll get asked often about how do you end up with that. I think to some extent, it’s buried in that lesson.”
Marriott himself reflects on meeting Sorenson for first time more than 25 years ago: “What struck me then and what continues to impress me about him is how humble he is while being one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “He is a very good listener, which is critical to being a leader. He is also constantly thinking about the people at this company — how to grow them and continue to provide opportunities. He is a curious person who is passionate about his work and the world around him. Convincing him to join Marriott nearly 24 years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Sorenson says he has been working for years on, among other things, those listening skills. “It is probably with each passing year more important… A lot of the decisions that are made I don’t make myself,” he says. “You have to make sure that the team is making them because they’re better steeped in the facts and background. They’re going to be responsible for the outcomes of those decisions in a way that’s very direct. So, they will learn better and be better successors to me or other leaders in the company.”
That approach doesn’t mean he’s getting less active or less engaged in the day-to-day. “But I do think that recognition of the importance of team and the importance of delegation and the importance of empowerment is something that I was pretty pitiful at when I started working, and I think I’ve gotten better with each passing year. I’m certainly not necessarily where I want to be in that regard every single day. But I think it is a lesson that has been a very steady one to me.”
Power of family
The role of CEO for the world’s biggest hotel company also requires balance, and for that Sorenson says he makes time to read every day and make time for himself — even if just for a few minutes.
“Most people would say I’m an extrovert. I’m probably a bit of a hybrid,” Sorenson says. “I love being with people. But I like getting grounded and having a chance just to catch a breath. I’m also decidedly not a four-hours-of-sleep-a-night person. A lot of people say they get by on four or five hours of sleep, and I think often that’s extraordinarily exaggerated. I’m a proud sleeper.”
Sorenson is also a proud husband of nearly 40 years and father of four adult children. “They’re all partners in my life, and they will give me input sometimes that I don’t even ask for. In many respects, they keep my feet on the ground and provide a tremendous base. If you feel good on your base, it allows you to take a little bit more risk in other places.”
Looking ahead, Sorenson wants to create more jobs, grow into more countries and generally have better-performing hotels. “But creating opportunity for people is the thing that is probably the most powerful in that, and we get to do that every day. And I can’t imagine ever getting tired of that,” he says.
When asked to make a prediction about the hotel business, Sorenson says for companies like Marriott it’s becoming more and more important to compete as platforms. “And we marry an excellence of service, design and cleanliness with an excellence in technology, loyalty and branding,” he says. “We’ll see that our competitors increasingly become not just other hotel companies or hospitality companies, but that they will be companies that are trying to come from a different place to be relevant, somehow, in the space of travel. Some of those will be partners of ours and many will be competitors, and some will be both. But that fluidity in terms of the competitive landscape is going to continue to be a fact of life and, to some extent, be a confusing complication in the way we assess whether or not we’re succeeding.”
Technology and branding continue to make for good intellectual challenges. “Marriott has said for decades and decades that success is never final. We’re driven to get better and I think we can continue to get better,” he says. “There are a lot of things we do very well. But I think there are lots of places where we can be even stronger, and we continue to learn about how we can do that. And that pursuit of getting better for our associates and guests and our hotel owners sort of drives us every day.”
Arne Sorenson was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer nearly a year ago. HOTELS asked him how he is managing through the ongoing treatment: “It’s still a little early to give you a complete answer to that question. I was out for a run with my daughter the weekend after I was first diagnosed and I hadn’t started any treatments yet. So, the irony is I felt good and didn’t feel like I had cancer. It was still kind of this diagnosis coming in from Mars. It felt like a real jolt to our lives — but still very much surreal.
“I said to her, ‘How are you doing?’ She says, ‘I’m angry.’ And I said, ‘Don’t be angry.’ She said, ‘Well, it’s just not fair.’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s not fair to anybody.’
“I mean, the notion that it’s not fair to me implies somehow that a diagnosis like this would be fair to somebody else, and it’s not fair to anybody. It just is. And don’t burn emotion on something that is not going to make any difference at the end of the day. It actually may hurt you in a way. But I said, ‘We’ll learn from this. And it might take us a while to learn.’
“I, in fact, said to not just my family, but to many of my closest friends, ‘We’re going to fight the battle. We’re going to work together to do everything we can to get through it.’
“And there will be lessons that come from it. But those lessons probably don’t come until … not that there’s ever a final resolution. I’m not actually sure you can ever say, ‘You’re cured of cancer.’ But there will come a moment to reflect at a transition time. And while we’re making great progress, we’re not at that transition yet.
“Now, in the meantime, there are lots of other things I’ve learned. I’ve learned that the team at Marriott is extraordinary. And the way that they’ve stepped up to help me has, in many respects, proven my irrelevance. Because they lead without missing a beat — absolutely without missing a beat… And I’ve learned that I can say no to things, some things that I would have said yes to before, and it makes zero difference… These are small lessons, but it does help you start to say, ‘OK. What’s really important that I do, either for work or personally?’