APA Center for Organizational Excellence: 2018 Winner

The Awards

2018 Organizational Excellence Award Winner

Marriott International

Using Psychology to Give People and Business Room to Grow

There is a saying among managers at Marriott International that comes straight from the company’s founders: “If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of the guests, and the guests will keep coming back.”

In the hospitality industry, customer loyalty is key to success, caring for guests is a 24/7 imperative, and effective training for all staff is a must. Whether checking in guests at a remote locale or setting long-term strategy at corporate headquarters in Bethesda, MD, Marriott employees — known to each other as associates — are steeped in a culture of learning from their first day on the job. And throughout their careers, Marriott associates are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities for professional development as well as personal growth. In an organization that has long valued diversity, inclusion and well-being, Marriott employees feel like a family — a culture its founders sought to achieve when they went into business more than 90 years ago.

In recognition of its comprehensive training and development efforts that are informed by psychology research and theory and led by a team of industrial-organizational psychologists, the American Psychological Association has named Marriott International the recipient of its 2018 Organizational Excellence Award.

From modest beginnings to a global enterprise

The Marriott story began in 1927, when John Willard Marriott and his wife, Alice, set up a small root beer stand in Washington, DC. That stand grew into a chain of restaurants and, in 1957, the Marriotts opened their first hotel in Arlington, VA. In the years that followed, their son, Bill Marriott, Jr., led the company to phenomenal growth before ceding the title of president and CEO to longtime Marriott executive Arne Sorenson in 2012.

Today, some 700,000 people on six continents wear the Marriott name badge. Collectively, they represent 30 different hotel brands — uber-luxury brands such as JW Marriott, St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton; respected premium brands such as Sheraton, Westin and Renaissance; and trusted brands familiar to travelers on the nation’s highways: Courtyard by Marriott, SpringHill Suites, Fairfield Inn, and more.

In such a large, diverse universe, maintaining the personality and integrity of each hotel brand is every associate’s responsibility. And whether or not they are aware of it, their training is suffused with psychological principles and practices.

“Our competitive advantage”

Marriott is committed to training associates in the ways they learn best, to matching individual talent with the right job and to preparing the next generation of Marriott leaders. Taking a holistic approach to learning and development ultimately ensures that associates and managers alike have the knowledge and skills to provide exceptional guest experiences. This means making a long-term investment in the expertise and well-being of its workforce.

“In the service industry, you’re only as good as the well-being of your people,” says David A. Rodriguez, PhD, Marriott’s executive vice president of global human resources. “While we’re very focused on our guests, we’re equally if not more focused on our associates, because we know that they are our competitive advantage.”

Rodriguez leads Marriott’s human capital planning and has oversight for its human resources operations around the world, including Global Learning and Development (L+D). L+D is charged with the thought leadership and execution of talent development and training across Marriott’s brands worldwide.

Marriott - Dr. David Rodriguez

An industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologist, Rodriguez joined Marriott in 1998 and has led human resources during a period of exponential growth and change. He was initially drawn to the field of I-O psychology because it involves understanding psychological functioning and the factors that promote well-being and human performance in the context of the business world.

Rodriguez recruited two other senior executives with backgrounds in I-O psychology: Ty Breland, PhD, is Marriott’s global talent officer and Rebecca Schoepfer, PhD, is the company’s vice president of learning and development and directly oversees L+D operations. Christopher Baer, an expert in the emerging discipline of experience design, was invited to join L+D from Marriott’s Insight Strategy Innovation team, in part to help apply new technologies to transform training into actionable, memorable learning experiences for leaders.

“Driving value”

Over the years, Rodriguez and his team of innovators have blended psychology research, experience design advances, evidence-based learning modalities, psychology-informed assessments and data analysis into the design, content and evaluation of its training programs.

Bringing psychology fundamentals to bear on learning and development means “making sure that from an HR perspective, we can demonstrate that the work we’re doing isn’t just because we think we should,” says Schoepfer. “In most cases, it’s because we’ve been able to demonstrate that our work is driving value.” For example, one of L+D’s early research studies assessed the impact of existing training tools available to associates.

“What we found is that the more HR tools and resources our associates were able to take advantage of, the higher their engagement scores were,” Schoepfer says, “and in some cases, the higher the outcomes were in terms of guest satisfaction.”

Supporting staff is “just good business”

While Marriott is delivering the next generation of learning technologies, the company’s leaders understand that worker well-being is as important as doing well on the job.

Marriott International

“We know that a big factor in people’s well-being is feeling positive they’re a part of something meaningful, and that they’re positive about their ‘today’ and optimistic about their future,” Rodriguez says. Several years ago, Rodriguez and his team launched Marriott’s TakeCare well-being initiative to give associates easy, efficient ways to improve their on-the-job performance, enhance their personal and professional relationships and participate in programs that promote both physical and psychological well-being.

TakeCare programs include online modules, events, group activities and coaching on a variety of topics from nutrition and stress-reduction to personal financial management. A TakeCare Relief Fund distributes monetary grants to associates contending with personal or household emergencies. The company created a matching fund to share Marriott’s tax savings with associates in the U.S. who have retirement savings accounts. Marriott announced a multi-year initiative to create a global career-development program for nonmanagement employees such as housekeepers, bell service and front desk staff.

“One thing that distinguishes our company from most others is that there is a genuine interest in the wellbeing of people,” Rodriguez says. “We have come to know that our success in creating great experiences for our customers is directly related to the extent to which our employees feel they have a caring and effective work experience. So it’s just good business all around.”

“No one-size-fits-all”

Until very recently, Marriott’s company-wide training program took a largely traditional approach: in-person, instructor-led classes usually conducted off-site, with the associate away from the job for several hours or more. Digital and online courses that were available lasted 30 minutes to an hour or even all day. In many cases, this meant double-staffing a shift so an associate could attend classes without disrupting service.

Marriott’s HR team agrees that these traditional modes of learning are still valuable, particularly for management and leadership training. However, it isn’t necessarily the best way for frontline workers to learn the systems and procedures involved in the day-to-day performance of their jobs. Research suggests that most people tend to absorb and retain information better when it is presented in small, manageable portions.

“When it comes to learning,” Breland says, “there is no one-size-fits-all. Learning has to be personalized, providing associates with what they need, when they need it, how they need it.” That maxim would serve the company well when it entered into an acquisition agreement that would make Marriott the largest managed and franchised lodging company in the world.

Starwood – a catalyst for fundamental change

The acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide in 2016 created a major challenge for Marriott’s HR team, which was charged with getting Starwood’s 150,000 employees up to speed on Marriott’s enterprise hotel management systems.

To make this happen, Breland and his team have invested in a digital learning platform to train employees across 1,500 properties in more than 100 countries across 11 brands. The entire effort needs to be completed in fewer than 21 weeks, allowing for all of Starwood’s systems to transition to Marriott’s systems at the same time — an industry first.

Marriott’s HR team regarded the acquisition as an opportunity not only to address the integration issue, but also to set a new foundation for how training is offered and accessed in the future. Breland and his colleagues knew that outside of work, associates were already learning differently through short videos and social networks. “Think about finding a recipe,” he says. “You don’t have to go to a cookbook anymore. You Google a dish, pull up a YouTube video, and a few minutes later you’re cooking.”

Breland describes it as “micro-learning,” which frequently includes videos lasting a few minutes, virtual simulations and demonstrations, ending with testing and assessments. Each module is role-based, mobileresponsive and available on demand. Programs are differentiated for properties across countries where different languages and cultures may influence the type of training they receive. Associates will have access to an array of subjects, from work-related technical skills to career-enriching content. No more daylong sessions sequestered in a classroom. No more time lost between learning and doing. And no more doublestaffing to cover a shift while an employee is in training.

“The Starwood integration would be logistically impossible if we had kept to our typical approach of in-person training,” Breland says. Taking a more traditional path, he says, would have meant allocating resources to hire an additional 1,000 people to pull off the training. “And honestly, if we had taken that path, I don’t know that we could have filled all those jobs in time to disseminate the training to every associate at every property.”

What began as a daunting challenge is now fueling an enterprise-wide initiative to innovate how talent is developed, fundamentally advancing Marriott’s learning landscape and providing new value to the business and associates alike.

Grooming leaders from the ground up

While Marriott continues to innovate in personalized training, the company also places a high priority on identifying, training and promoting promising talent to future positions of leadership. Marriott’s HR team views promoting from within as a powerful way to leverage the company’s investment in staff at all levels of the organization. For instance, a temporary hiring consultant for Marriott 24 years ago is now senior vice president for talent acquisition. A waiter at one Marriott property rose successfully through the organization to become chief operations officer for the entire global enterprise. He retired from Marriott last year after 35 years.

Because training and professional development have proved essential to Marriott’s success, its managers are trained in virtually all areas of hotel operations as well as in what goes on at the corporate level. Many employees are recruited young and stay with the company throughout their entire working lives.

Donalei Smith is an example of Marriott’s commitment to attracting, retaining and developing promising talent to become its future leaders. Smith was introduced to Marriott in 2004 at a career event at Washington State University, where she had just earned her bachelor’s degree in hospitality and business management. Her Marriott career began at an eight-week orientation and training course at a Marriott location in Phoenix, AZ. In addition to receiving a trove of information about the company, its policies and procedures, Smith was assigned a mentor, a Marriott manager who answered her questions and provided invaluable guidance and coaching throughout her training.

First-time managers like Smith are invited to participate in Marriott’s “Foundations of Leadership” training program, where they learn the ins and outs of running Marriott’s hotels well beyond the daily operation of a single property. “There’s a service component, a revenue-generation component, a high-level reading of profit-and-loss statements and a lot more,” Smith says. “We also learn how to ensure that we’re training our new associates in the right way.”

One of Smith’s most memorable managementtraining experiences was a three-day course called the Emerging Leader Program, or ELP. “There were all these different aspects to ELP training that helped each one of us differently,” Smith says.

Marriott’s psychology-informed management trainings are typically conducted in the traditional, in-person classroom style. However, they also blend independent reading, breakout sessions, group discussions, Skype meetings and brief, self-directed online learning modules. Smith’s course concluded with a series of online assessments that, in part, helped to reveal each participant’s distinctive personality, leadership style and aptitude for a variety of management positions.

Throughout her Marriott career, Smith has been selected for additional management and leadership training, from operations to sales.

“I got to choreograph my own training and pick which classes I wanted,” she says.

Having choices is another important distinction from traditional classroom training. Smith points out, “You may already be an experienced sales leader coming to Marriott, and you don’t need the introductory training. Or you may be new, like I was, and need to start with the basics. The ability to tailor your trainings to your learning needs is a real plus.”

After serving in positions of increasing responsibility, Smith is now the resident manager of JW Marriott’s Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, AZ, where she oversees five directors, about 200 associates and is accountable for nearly every aspect of property operations.

Beyond traditional management training, Marriott has begun to offer self-directed leadership pathways that currently include resilience, coaching and influence. Eighteen more pathways are being introduced in 2018.

“Thriving within change”

Marriott’s L+D space continues to evolve and grow. In 2017 alone, Marriott provided more than 12,000 unique micro-learning courses, more than half of which are accessible online via computer, tablet or smart phone. Marriott associates completed more than 7 million courses, equating to some 6 million credit hours of learning. Training evaluations averaged a score of 5.3 out of a possible 6, demonstrating that the trainings are, in Chris Baer’s words, “designed to provide more learning when and how our associates need it, and streamline their learning experience.”

Marriott’s focus on caring for its associates is rooted in its core value of putting people first. “By investing in innovative learning strategies, Marriott maintains a unique edge to rapidly adapt to change and prepare our associates to thrive in the future,” says Baer.

Thriving within change involves three ingredients: mindfulness, resilience, and growth skills, all underpinned by what Marriott calls the coaching mindset. Says Baer, “Coaching skills support managers to accelerate the development of their teams and help to build an environment of trust, performance and engagement when a lot of change is underway.”

A dedicated community partner

With Marriott hotels in thousands of locations, caring for the people who make the company a great place to work means helping the communities in which they live. Marriott associates are encouraged to take a proactive role in choosing which activities to undertake. These may include a neighborhood cleanup, renovating a school, rebuilding after a natural disaster or contributing their own funds and in-kind resources to support a community cause.

In 2015, Marriott associates gave back to their communities by raising $33 million in cash and in-kind contributions and by participating in volunteer efforts totaling nearly 722,000 service hours.

Empowering associates means trusting them to handle situations that may require keen observation and deduction along with resourcefulness. Marriott associates recently received training in how to spot victims of human trafficking. The training was mandatory for every employee at every level of the organization.

“Part of our family”

Marriott’s approach to the psychological well-being of its staff was brought home to Rodriguez when he met a housekeeper at a Marriott property in India. He described meeting a single mother who had suffered domestic violence and the effects of generations of poverty.

The woman told him how grateful she was for the opportunity Marriott had given her to learn skills and create a better life for herself and her children.

“As I listened, it occurred to me that she was describing Marriott as an oasis. Outside the hotel, life was rough,” Rodriguez says. “But inside, she had a completely different psychological experience. She found respect, dignity and, most important to her, a better future for herself and her family.

“If you’re only thinking about making widgets and turning a profit, you may not be concerned when someone like her leaves,” he says. “Marriott’s a different dynamic. The minute she became part of the company, she became part of our family. We take great joy in giving people encouragement, mentorship and access to training, because we know that it allows them to build fulfilling careers and meaningful lives.”

"Many of our organizational values focus on employees, with a goal of maximizing quality service to our community. This award illustrates our level of commitment to providing our employees with a healthy workplace, both physically and mentally."

Ed Everett
City Manager
Redwood City, CA