What Arne Sorenson Taught Us about Being Intentional
On February 15, the world lost an amazing human being. As CEO of Marriott International, Arne Sorenson was as committed to making the world a better place at work as he was at home and in the community.
I was fortunate enough to call him a client as well as a friend. But more importantly, he was a personal role model of the highest standard possible. My husband Greg and former business partner Bob Witeck are two others who also epitomize what it means to always seek to make the world a better place by making impact, something they have in common with Arne.
Those of you who know me are familiar with the collective work Bob and I did with helping corporations create diverse and inclusive workplaces for LGBTQ people. Marriott was a longtime client who from the start was committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion for LGBTQ people.
In the work that I do, you measure a client’s progress by the degree to which their employees—and in Marriott’s case, also their guests—feel like they are valued and welcomed in their workplace and their hotels. Achieving success happens when three things are present: 1) an organization takes actions that demonstrate it is authentically committed to making change a reality; 2) they are transparent throughout the process by communicating openly and consistently with stakeholders; and 3) they hold everyone accountable for reaching the goal.
Like other companies there were some bumps along the way, but for the most part Marriott is a shining example of what it means to be a best place to work for diversity. Having a leader like Arne at the helm is what held all of this together. Let me share with you some examples of how Arne talked the talk and walked the walk.
Authenticity: When the state of North Carolina passed HB2, a bill that sanctioned LGBTQ discrimination across the state, Arne immediately knew what he had to do. As a CEO who had stated publicly that LGBTQ equality was a priority, he immediately spoke out in opposition.
“For Marriott and for me, this was an easy call,” he said. “The law does not reflect our values or a basic principle that helps drive new jobs and economic growth in North Carolina and beyond: everyone deserves to be welcome. We are disappointed with the unusual speed that was given to passing and signing this legislation into law, undoubtedly an attempt to minimize public outcry.”
Values matter, especially at times like this. Making a public statement demonstrated Marriott’s and Arne’s authentic commitment to creating a truly equitable world.
Transparency: What I loved about Arne was his approachability. He instantly made you feel like he was your friend, always willing to pause and attentively listen regardless of who you were. I witnessed this firsthand at Augustana Lutheran Church where Arne, his family, and my husband Greg belong. Arne regularly attended a monthly breakfast of about a dozen members and sometimes their spouses who came together to discuss the issues of the day.
Regardless of the topic, Arne was always curious what others thought before he shared his point of view. He spoke in a calm, non-judgmental way which provided a safe space for a true conversation to occur. His transparency is what made him so effective as a communicator. He understood that progress is not possible unless we are able to talk with each other openly and consistently.
Accountability: When LGBTQ people check into a hotel, they want to be treated the same way heterosexuals are…with respect. That is not always the case. There were times when a front desk person offered my husband and me a room with two queen beds instead of one king bed. The subsequent conversation was awkward at best and humiliating at worst.
The situation is different at a Marriott property. Marriott and Arne knew that being known as a preferred hotel brand meant that every customer had to feel welcome. That’s why Marriott invested in LGBTQ awareness training for frontline staff that defined what exceptional customer service looked like and made clear that failing to meet this standard would unacceptable.
Defining workplace conduct and holding employees accountable are the ways you build trust with stakeholders—that you take diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously. Otherwise, your word and your reputation mean nothing.
While it is still so hard to believe that Arne is no longer with us, I am comforted knowing that he leaves behind a powerful legacy. While I am not sure if Arne would expect us to carry on where he left off, I do know the world will be a much better place if we do. I hope you will join me in this important work of being intentionally inclusive.
Wesley Combs, a CAMP Rehoboth Board member, is a diversity and inclusion expert, executive coach, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.