Provide a great work experience. Keep people happy. Maintain the bottom line. Leaders are pulled in every direction by every aspect of the business, but are especially called upon to improve employee engagement, Rasmus Hougaard, managing direct of Potential Project, said during a talk at Workhuman 2019. Those who can't may find that "people are just going to find somewhere else," he said.
The stats are not in leaders' favor. A whopping 65% of employees would forego a pay raise to see their leader fired, Hougaard noted, citing a Forbes survey. And while employee engagement has gone up in recent Gallup surveys, 13% were actively disengaged as of last year, "rowing the opposite way" of those actively engaged in the work and the company.
"How can we create people-centric organizations with this leadership? You can't," Hougaard said.
But Marriott, represented at the discussion by David Rodriguez, executive vice president and global CHRO, credits its success — second on Fortune's 2019 Best Big Companies to Work For and 31st overall, for example — by giving leadership power right back to its people.
How core values help define and measure culture
Marriott functions by a motto that has been in place since the company was founded in the early 21st century: "Take care of your employees, they'll take care of your customers and the customers will keep coming back again and again."
The trick? Leaders have to have "the courage" to let the employees express those core values in a way most relevant to their work, their culture and their life, especially when they run a global organization.
"The mistake would be that leaders would lock themselves in a room and say they are going to do all these activities and save the company," Rodriguez said. "The core role of leadership is to confirm the values of the company." Employees have to do the rest.
For example, Marriott follows five core values:
Put people first. "That is the value by which we manage the company," Rodriguez said.
Act with integrity.
Serve our world.
How does a multinational conglomerate like Marriott ensure that the culture follows those five tenets in every single one of its locations? Rodriguez said he took time to talk with associates on the front line at every location he visited (especially asking when he was certain that the associate did not know who he was, he told the audience). "Guarding the culture of Marriott International is the single most important responsibility I have, so I ask, 'what is it like to work here?'"
The number one thing he learned in those visits: "People want purpose in their lives." A culture that enables people to define that purpose while at work can last, he said. And while culture can feel difficult to measure, "I believe that not everything in life that's important lends itself to measurement," he added.
But getting buy-in from the board for such initiatives requires conviction and the willingness to put in the work to gather data wherever possible, Rodriguez said. A longitudinal study Marriott undertook found that increases in employee engagement tended to precede improved hotel financial performance at a higher rate than the opposite, further validating its efforts.
Putting front-line workers at the center
Companies put out a lot of "intentions," Hougaard said — introducing new technology or branding — but many don't find much success due to historical issues, financial pressure or other standard barriers. According to Rodriguez, the "secret sauce" for Marriott has nothing to do with tech or brands, but "the human spirit."
"If you don't have the courage and wisdom to release control of the culture to your associates and employees, it won't work," he said. But that takes constant work, which can be bewildering to employers who aren't prepared. To that end, Marriott has over 15,000 volunteers that serve as "champions" of the company's culture.
"It's associates at every level thinking through: how do they want to express their culture?" Rodriguez said. They are the ones who keep the spirit of "employee centricity" alive.
But leaders, too, have a responsibility to learn how to take and provide feedback to each other. "We don't train senior execs to do that," he said. Senior executives tend to be achievers who are used to being successful. But for leaders to be able to realistically approach the threats to their company, they have to cultivate a culture where they are able to reflect on those outside issues — including weaknesses they may need to shore up, Rodriguez said.
Sometimes, it really does take the big picture
Good leaders seek out data. Great leaders know where hard measurements won't help much, Hougaard and Rodriguez noted. Multinational employers face turbulent times with tough challenges, including the still unknown impacts of automation and robotics, and employers will need to be ready to tackle those challenges head on.
If leaders try to manage through behaviors first, "you will be dead in the water," Rodriguez said. Instead, leaders have to approach managing others through the essence of the human experience — through community, purpose and a desire for connection.
"You want a long sustainable future? Put people first," Hougaard said. "Think about leadership. Hire and train according to the values you want in company. And start with yourself."