Marriott in Good Hands with Sorenson

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On March 31, Arne Sorenson will become the first CEO of Marriott International not named J. Willard Marriott. He's 27 years younger than his predecessor, Bill Marriott Jr., and he hasn't spent a lifetime in the hotel industry like the man he's following. But don't expect big changes with Sorenson at the helm.

He's really been helping direct the company the past three years as president and chief operating officer and although Mr. Marriott is relinquishing the CEO title, the soon-to-be 80-year-old plans to be just as involved with his new title of executive chairman. And on top of that, Sorenson says, “I am heavily trained by him. An awful lot of what I've learned is from him. It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that our approaches and instincts can be quite similar.”

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In 1972, Mr. Marriott got more than just the CEO title. His father also gave him a letter with instructions. Mr. Marriott didn't see the need to do that this time around. “He knows what to do,” he says of Sorenson, the man he's spent 15 years grooming for this role.

“There wasn't a formal, ‘OK, here are the keys, the two to three things that are important,” Sorenson says of the appointment announced on Dec. 13. “In a sense, all the years worth of conversations amounted to the same thing. Those conversations included a lot of advice, some deliberately, some not.”

The lessons he learned are also prime examples of what has made Mr. Marriott a great leader, Sorenson says:

1) “Listen. Listen to the organization; listen to the ideas from the members of the company, the marketplace, the competition. Keep your eyes open and make sure you're not simply perpetuating the current way of doing business … The listening piece isn't about hearing, but taking in the inputs.”

2) “Bias to change. One of the diseases successful CEOs often fall into is they do a bunch of things in their early years and then get stuck in that way of doing things. They get almost rigid in perpetuating their early decisions. That's one of the things that makes him unique. He has been CEO for 40 years, but he is still as likely as anyone else in the company to say, ‘You know, we've got to change that.' Even though virtually everything we've done he's had a hand in.”

3) “Strong bias for action. He has a bit of frustration with how long things can take — a bit of frustration with bureaucracy. He knows when not to make decisions, but when you've got enough data, be willing to make a decision … He leads by saying how can we do even better, and if it means changing a decision from the past, he's happy to change it. That's something I would very much like to follow and I hope I can.”

Sorenson says there aren't many differences between the two leaders, but their ages probably create a few. “I probably have a bias to loud music,” says the former lawyer who will turn 54 in October. “I'm around and like the design space and see that differently. I'm more comfortable in Edition than him personally, but intellectually, Bill understands and has been really supportive of that partnership (with Ian Schrager) because he knows we have to appeal to those customers.”

Sorenson says the global aspect of the business is more of a passion for him: “Maybe it's not a difference, because Bill has been involved in our global growth personally and significantly for 35 years since we opened the Amsterdam Marriott in 1975. He's personally sat in boardrooms with the president of Poland 20 years ago and others since, and he's been all over the world.

“But notwithstanding that, I probably get more of a kick out of traveling around the world than he does. I absolutely love getting to these destinations and being personally involved.”

Sorenson's recent vacation spots highlight his passion for seeing the world: the south of France for Christmas and a summer climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro with his children. Other family trips have included Egypt, India, Israel, Russia and Japan. “The world is a big place,” he says, adding that Cambodia, Africa and Vietnam are three places he hopes to soon see for the first time.

Mr. Marriott, on the other hand, recently spent a month at one of his favorite locations, the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale, FL. He also has a summer home in New Hampshire, and still spends time at Fairfield Farm, his father's favorite place, in the Virginia foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

There aren't too many other differences between the two leaders, which will make the transition long underway even more seamless. Mr. Marriott has high expectations for the new CEO.

“I've been in this business for 60 years,” he says, “so I am probably more knowledgeable about the operations of hotels than he is. But when it comes to corporate governance, strategic thinking and negotiating with owners and franchisees, he's very good and much better than I am. He's got the skills, brains, work ethic, drive and energy it takes to run something this big. He's destined to be one of the finest CEOs in the country.”

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