What, exactly, did Sorenson do that elicited such an outpouring of favorable comments? In short, Sorenson lowered the shield. He was candid, vulnerable, humble, emotional and hopeful.
—Carmine Gallo, Forbes
Of all the industries negatively affected by COVID-19, perhaps none has been so deeply gutted as hospitality, including the hotels owned and operated by Marriott, the third-largest chain in the world. In a recent video, Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson—newly bald from recent cancer treatments—took six minutes to put a human face on the crisis confronting his organization. In a Forbes article, author Carmine Gallo extolled this brief video as an exemplary instance of a leader sharing terrible news with his associates in a deeply consoling and inspiring way.
The worst economic seasons are, in many ways, the most important tests of leadership. You can guide your organization to success in a booming economy, but what should you do when something completely out of your control decimates your industry?
Gallo focuses on five qualities Sorenson exhibited in the short time he had to communicate with his workforce: He was by turns candid, vulnerable, humble, emotional, and hopeful.
He was candid. He neither sugarcoated the bad news facing Marriott nor glossed over the negative effects on staffing that would result from the literally erased occupancy of hotels worldwide. Although the situation is bad, with business down 75 percent from normal—as impactful as 9/11 and the 2009 recession combined—his clarity in providing details helped reduce the greater anxiety that results from vagueness and misinformation.
He was humble. He did not resort to bluster in his assessment of the current situation or the future, saying simply, “I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one.” He announced that he and Bill Marriott would not be taking a salary for the remainder of 2020, while his executive team would be taking a 50 percent cut in pay—as a reassurance of the universal efforts being made to cut costs rather than a self-aggrandizing demonstration of noble sacrifice.
He was vulnerable and emotional. He was visibly and genuinely moved, holding back tears by the end of the video. But what emerged from this vulnerability was a renewed strength in purpose: “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. I’ve never been more determined to see us through than I am at this moment,” he said.
Finally, he was genuinely hopeful. After citing China’s successes in stabilizing the coronavirus outbreak, he mentioned tentative signs of increased demand in lodging as that country’s manufacturing industries begin to resume. Toward the end of the video, he asserted, “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 the care we are known for the world over.”
Having been named Chief Executive of the Year in 2019 by Chief Executive Magazine, Sorenson has a “mountain of good will,” as Gallo puts it, to buttress the authenticity of his message. It is impossible to doubt the information and sentiments offered by the Marriott CEO during these six minutes, because they’re tightly aligned with the core qualities of leadership that he has maintained since his promotion in 2012.
For me, this remarkable message by Arne Sorenson is a textbook example of what I call genuine kindness in leadership. He spoke directly to his associates with concern for their well-being, respect for their intelligence, trust in their resilience, and belief in their value to the organization. The universally positive responses to his video demonstrate that workers will support leaders if leaders actively and clearly support them, even in the most difficult of times.