With inflation rising, supply chains snarling, the pandemic lingering, and geopolitical tensions growing, it can be easy to feel a little grim about the future. Erika Alexander, chief global operations officer for the hotel giant Marriott, however, is feeling “wildly optimistic.”
Alexander—whose keynote conversation with the Katie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, opened the Modex 2022 supply chain trade show—has good reason to be optimistic. Few industries were hit as hard as the travel industry during the pandemic, but travel and hotel stays have come back strong, with leisure travel leading the way.
“We need to celebrate the resilience and perseverance exhibited over the last few years,” Alexander said, talking not just about the travel industry but also the challenges that the supply chain industry has overcome.
While recognizing the immense toll that the pandemic has taken, Alexander views the lessons that have been learned from the pandemic from a positive perspective. She says that the pandemic revealed the importance of having a strong value system and mission at the foundation of your business, or as she put it, “how we do business is as important as what business we do.”
“You can’t figure out what you believe while a crisis is bearing down on you,” she said. “You have to know that before it hits because there’s going to be competing priorities and interests. All of the decisions are going to be complicated. There’s never going to be a right-or-wrong, good-or-bad answer, all decisions are shades of gray.”
For Marriott, the guiding focus was their cultural commitment to putting people first, according to Alexander. She says that every single decision was made through the lens of what would be the impact on their people.
Another big lesson from the pandemic was the value of being flexible about where, how, and when work gets done. “I am challenging my paradigms of where people need to be to be effective,” Alexander said.
Conference calls can be made while seeing our children off to school at the bus stop. One of the “unintended gifts of the pandemic,” said Alexander, was this lowering of the guard rails between a person’s professional life and personal life.
That flexibility around accommodating what employees need from work-life balance is also crucial for recruiting and promoting a diverse workforce—a passion of Alexander’s. Alexander readily admits that Marriott (and indeed almost all companies) has a long way to go when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But she says that making progress on this front is essential to the success of the business.
“It’s not just the right thing,” Alexander said. “There is a bevy of data that shows that companies with a more diverse leadership and board outperform their peers—full stop. They earn more revenues, they have a faster speed to market, and they are more innovative. They even make better decisions 87% of the time.”
How do you foster that diversity? According to Alexander, each company must find its own path. Externally Marriott has developed a partnership with Howard University to form the Marriott-Sorenson Center for Hospitality Leadership. Internally, the company has a program that identifies and cultivates emerging leaders and exposes those leaders to growth and learning opportunities. “High potential talent – especially women and minorities—need to know that they are perceived high potential,” she said.
It’s not enough to have diverse faces around the table, said Alexander. You must also create an environment where those faces are voices that are heard and empowered. She also urged managers to coach relentlessly, saying sometimes managers are hesitant to coach women and people of color out of a concern of their point of view may be misconstrued. The path forward she says is to approach it in an authentic manner and a position of love and care, she said.