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A Q&A with J.W. Marriott, Jr.
Reflections on leadership and legacy
On May 6, 2022, J. W. Marriott, Jr., long-time Chairman of hotel giant Marriott International, formally handed off the title and the job to his 48-year-old son David, a change that places a third-generation Marriott at the helm of the Board of Directors. A few days before Marriott retired, we sat down for an hour to reflect on the 25th anniversary of our first collaboration, The Spirit to Serve: Marriott’s Way (HarperCollins, 1997). In 2012, we wrote an update: Without Reservations: How a Family Root Beer Stand Grew into a Global Hotel Company.
Kathi Ann Brown: What are the biggest changes to Marriott International since we wrote the first book in 1997?
JWM: Size, of course. We’re up to almost 8,000 hotels. We had fewer than 2,000 in 1997. We’re now in 130 countries. And 800,000 employees wear Marriott name badges. The international growth has been tremendous.
Technology is another huge change. Our brand-new headquarters is designed to be as paper-free as possible. And, of course, social media has been a huge change. I think it is way overdone and has way too much influence.
Regulation. Not just here in the U.S., but in all the countries we operate in. That aspect of our business is much more complex.
We now have quite a few people involved in cybersecurity—something we never heard of 25 years ago. We also had to respond to 9-11, the Great Recession (2009) and most recently COVID. During COVID, our occupancy rate plummeted. It was just awful. So, we’ve had a bunch of stumbling blocks, but we made it through.
KAB: If we were writing "The Spirit to Serve" today, would you choose the same 12 principles you selected back then to organize the book?
JWM: Yes. Most of the principles have to do with understanding human nature, which doesn’t change. For example, “He Who Listens Well Learns Well” is still very important. We want people to participate in the decisions that affect them. And we need to listen to what they have to say. But then, of course, at some point the leaders need to stop analyzing and make a decision. I think making decisions is one of the biggest challenges for CEOs. The more information they collect, the harder it can be to make a decision.
Something else that CEOs and other leaders need to remember: “Success is a Team Sport.” Leave your ego at the door. If a CEO acts like they’re smarter than everybody else in the room, pretty soon there won’t be anybody else in the room.
KAB: What advice do you have for a CEO or other business leader who is thinking about writing a memoir?
JWM: Tell the story of how you got to the C Suite. (Beyond being the son of the chairman, that is.) What did you do to prepare yourself? What kind of experience did you have? What qualified you to be the CEO? My books are about what I learned on the job and then tried to apply to the business.
KAB: How will David’s role compare to what you did as CEO and Chairman?
JWM: David is only the third chairman in 95 years. It’s a very responsible role, but he’s not running the company. David will be presiding over the Board of Directors and traveling around the world as Chairman. He’s the face of the family now, with me out of the way.
KAB: Marriott International has been publicly held since 1953. Does it really matter that a Marriott is in the Chairman role?
JWM: I think so. Our associates like knowing that they’re working for a family business. We consider them part of our family and tell them so, constantly. They like the fact that David is the grandson of the founder and my son. Also, our international associates and investors like the fact that a Marriott family member is so visible and accessible. As you know, in many countries, most businesses are family-owned, so they appreciate knowing that the Marriott family is involved.
KAB: When you turned 90 in March 2022, you held your first big family meeting as part of the celebration.
JWM: Yes, we had all our grandchildren there. That was the first time they were all together in one place. Together they own quite a bit of stock, so we want to help them see themselves as owners. A couple of teachers did a big presentation on family businesses, how they work. They learned about the history of the company too. Our CFO explained financial jargon that many of them had never heard. Tony Capuano, our CEO, talked to them about the future. We also discussed philanthropy—how to do it well. They loved it. In fact, we’re already setting up another meeting for this summer.
KAB: How about the book title: The Spirit to Serve? Does that still sum up Marriott’s philosophy in 2022?
JWM: Definitely. The core value of this company is taking care of your people, who in turn take care of the customer, and then that customer comes back. That’s been our philosophy for 95 years. Even as technology continues to shape how our business operates, the importance of taking care of our people won’t change.
Bill Marriott’s 12 Principles
· Road-Tested Research: The Benefits of Being a Hands-on Manager
· The Devil Is in the Details—Success Is in the Systems
· Give to Your Employees—And They’ll Give Back to You
· He Who Listens Well Learns Well
· Preserve Order Amid Change
· Preserve Change Amid Order
· No Tree Grows to the Sky
· Never Believe Your Own Hype—Or What the Press Says About You
· Value the Organization More Than Individual Players
· Success is a Team Sport
· Listen to Your Heart—And Don’t Look Back
· Decide to Decide
Kathi Ann Brown is founder of Milestones Historical Consultants, LLC and a specialist in business history, executive memoirs and founder biographies. She is a past Member Advisor of the Family Office Exchange (www.milestonespast.com). A longer version of this interview appears on the Milestones website.