Q&A: Hilton Worldwide President & CEO Christopher J. Nassetta

Can you trace the economic benefits to the company of enhancing the lives of its lowest earners?

Hilton CEO Chris NassettaChristopher J. Nassetta
President and Chief Executive Officer, Hilton Worldwide

DIVERSITYINC CEO LUKE VISCONTI: I have seen, with your company and several others who have a large number of hourly workers, a real drive amongst the best and brightest to enhance the lives of the lowest earners in the company. I have yet to find anybody who can say that they can trace this to economic benefit that they can measure. I’ll give you an example: CVS, when the stores burned down in West Baltimore, actually got vans together and found jobs at the other CVS stores in the area for the employees of those stores so they wouldn’t lose their jobs.

Much like your company, [CVS CEO] Larry Merlo is running a gigantic corporation with hundreds of thousands of people, thousands of stores, and nobody would have blinked if he had just quietly not rebuilt those two stores in West Baltimore. His commitment to the people who work there and people who are his customers is tremendous.

I’ve seen more of this and I’ve always heard this from you. So, I wanted to ask about your efforts along these lines and the first question is, tell me what the Heart of Hilton is all about.

CHRIS NASSETTA: I think hearing the story about CVS, a lot of which I read about, is a good segue. While our businesses are quite different, there are similarities in a bunch of ways. In its simplest form, we’re a business of people serving people. That’s what we do. We do it with 350,000 team members, contributing in 100 countries around the globe, doing amazing things to serve a very diverse group of customers that have a very diverse set of needs.

I travel all around the world and interact with our front-line team members every day, and I know that they give it everything they’ve got — their heart, their soul. They do it with a smile, no matter how hard the work is, and really are inspiring in every way in the contributions that they make. In the end, they are the reason for our success, pure and simple.

When I think about the business from a diversity point of view, we have a diverse set of customers; we have to have diverse team members to be able to deliver the experiences that those customers want. One that gives them the pay and benefits and programs and developmental, educational and other opportunities that they want, because if we don’t, we will fail as a business.

At its core in running this business, if we don’t take care of those people, how do we expect them to take care of our customers? They are the heart and soul of our business. We will not succeed without them.

The Heart of Hilton is about bringing it to life almost in a programmatic way. To recognize and show our appreciation to all of our team members for the amazing work that they’re doing, and to highlight the many things that we’ve been doing and some of the new things that I’m sure we’ll talk about that we’re doing programmatically to help support them, and their families, and their careers, and to help give them a line of sight to a better future.

It’s all about recognition, appreciation and celebration of our team members. That’s what the Heart of Hilton is about. It is aptly named the Heart of Hilton because they ARE the heart and soul of the company. There’s no other way of looking at it.

“Everybody
wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. If you can give them a path to do that, it’s incredibly powerful.”

VISCONTI: What’s remarkable about the Heart of Hilton on your website is how global it is. That’s a very powerful statement. It’s where your operations are.

NASSETTA: It’s pretty amazing. I’m not a sappy guy; I’m a very heartfelt guy. Literally, a bunch of those [stories] bring tears to my eyes. I watch every one of them, quietly by myself, and a lot of them bring tears to my eyes just because it makes you so proud of these people, so proud of our organization and, honestly, so proud of the impact that we’re having on people’s lives. A result of having an impact on their lives, is the amazing impact that they’re having on a lot of other people’s lives — our customers’ lives, our owners’ lives and the lives of people in the communities that we serve.

It is a virtuous circle. We celebrate the heart of our company, which is our team, and we support them with amazing programs so they can grow and learn and do bigger and better things, and they support the other elements of the ecosystem.

VISCONTI: I love to hear stories like that. Along those lines, improving communities and families, you implemented a GED program. Can you tell me more about that and why you did it?

NASSETTA: The truth is I had this idea literally in the middle of the night. It came as a consequence of not really one conversation, but a number of interactions that I was having with team members. I spend a lot of time working side-by-side with team members when I do my immersion.

It’s interesting when you do that and you have some real time with people. You are literally working with a housekeeper and you’re making beds and you’re together for two or three hours. What I was hearing were stories of people who had been working with us for a number of years, working really hard, and they were supporting elderly parents and supporting young children. There was a theme that I heard from a number of folks, which is that they had to truncate their educational opportunities as a result of having to take care of their families, and they weren’t able to continue with their education.

I also know when you look at the statistics that the earning power of a person with the benefit of a high school education goes up dramatically. So, I realized that we had this situation with the front-line team. It statistically and scientifically does have an impact on their upward mobility with us or anybody else.

If we came up with a program that we would pay for, and we pay 100 percent of it, and we made it easy for people, we could really change people’s lives and give them opportunities, hopefully, to grow and learn and do bigger things with us. That is the objective, obviously.

However, even if they don’t and they want to do bigger and better things with other people, that’s great. Then we’ve had a really positive impact on their lives and their ability to take care of themselves and their families and grow and learn. What we’re saying to them is, we want to invest in your future. We hope that future is with us, but if it’s not, that’s okay. We still want to invest in your future.

VISCONTI: I also think we’re talking about very strong human tendencies. We want to be part of a community and we want to be part of a community that we’re proud of. I think that what you’re doing talks to what is a primary motivator of people: They want to be proud of what they’re doing. They want to be happy in their lives. Maslow’s lowest rungs, once they’re satisfied, that’s what is next.

NASSETTA: That’s exactly right. It is a basic human need, is what I would describe it as. Everybody wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. Everybody wants to believe tomorrow is going to be better than today. Everybody wants to feel good about themselves and about what they are doing and the impact they’re having. If you can give them a path to do that, it’s incredibly powerful.

VISCONTI: You’ve been pushing to get more women into your executive ranks. Can you speak to the importance of gender parity and how you’re working to get there?

NASSETTA: Well, critical is what I’d say. I talked about how we serve a very diverse base of customers, and to succeed we have to have a diverse base of team members in order to be able to serve that customer base. I don’t know what the global population numbers are. Certainly in my world, I have a wife and six daughters; I’m outnumbered. I live in a world of great diversity.

I think in the world, women outnumber men. We know that half our customer base, plus or minus, are made up of women and we know that in order to serve those women we need to have their perspective. That means we need to have women in all ranks of leadership in our company. I think we’ve done a really good job of that. I think we have work left to do.

If you look at the lodging industry overall, we’re very diverse from a gender point of view. The higher you go in organizations, the less so. I think we’ve done a very good job of helping lead the industry to improving those statistics.

I want to see us do even better. I’m a believer that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. We are obviously setting real goals and built into our compensation system is not only broad diversity, but also gender diversity, so that my most senior managers and managers understand that it’s an important priority. We can’t succeed without diversity in our ranks, and we can’t succeed without gender diversity as a major component of that.

We have our Women’s Executive Networking Program, which allows our executive committee members, starting with me, to mentor women. We’ve done it with diversity, generally. Right now, for a year or two, we’ve tried to highlight gender diversity to make a big push on that. All of us on the executive committee have at least two mentees that we’re mentoring out of the high-potential candidate list of female team members. It’s been amazing.

Laura Fuentes, one of my mentees, is just a wonderful person. I think there’s a tremendous dual benefit of an up-and-coming female executive with high potential having some access to more senior-level management to get their perspective. But frankly, I think there’s maybe even more for our senior executives to learn from them in terms of how important our being more diverse is and how much positive impact that can have.

We also have a Women’s Leadership Program that we’ve done in partnership with the Darden Business School at UVA that a lot of our up-and-coming female executives have gone through, and we do a bunch of different sessions and meetings for women GMs both here and around the world.

“If we do not take care of our people, how do we expect them to take care of our customers? They are the heart and soul of our business. We will not succeed without them.”

VISCONTI: What has your experience been in the Executive Committee Diversity Networking program for high potentials? We’re seeing a lot of focus on high-potential management among companies, especially toward the top of our list. What are your takeaways for other CEOs?

NASSETTA: Well, I would say it’s been pretty amazing. In the beginning, when you think of it, our EC is a relatively small group of people, 13 of us. So, you think, wow, if everybody is networking with two or three people in a company our size, you’re going to have a limited impact. But, my advice to people is real simple: The tone gets set at the top. It gets set initially by a CEO, but then by those around the CEO.

Even at an organization that has hundreds of thousands of people like ours has, you would be blown away with what the impact can be from the actions of even 10 or 20 people, because it sets the tone for the entire organization around the world.

The very act of doing it sends a big message, and then as we’ve had success, which is that these networking programs are helping us develop more rapidly the diverse talent, that talent is moving up in the organization. It becomes viral in a really positive way because people throughout the organization start to see it. Our diverse talent that may be hidden around the world in various places starts to see, wow, this matters, and they’re making an investment. I’m seeing the diverse people like me have opportunities that I didn’t know existed. Really powerful, that’s what I’d say. I’d say small things can make a big difference and this has been one of those that has in my humble opinion.

VISCONTI: That’s interesting. I like that idea. I like the whole concept. It is powerful.

“We can’t succeed without diversity in our ranks, and we can’t succeed without gender diversity as a major component of that.”

NASSETTA: We need to be really good stewards of that impact in the sense that you doing things that are negative coming out of there can have a very negative impact and, obviously, the inverse, what we’re looking for, is true too.

VISCONTI: Yes, I think that’s extremely important and making a great point. Going on to a self-serving question, what does it mean to you and the organizations that have made it through the diversity process and where do you want to go from here?

NASSETTA: I’m not just saying this because you’re DiversityInc. It’s a huge deal for us. What I’m trying to accomplish is building a great company. Building a great company is all about building a great culture. To have a great culture, we have to have diverse team members that are energized and inspired to do great things together to serve a higher purpose.

For me, that higher purpose, and I think for our team members, is creating opportunities. Opportunities for our guests to have great experiences, our owners to grow their business, for our communities to operate even better, and, importantly, for our team members to have a line of sight to a better future and to do bigger and better things.

My view, and I think if you asked different team members, the common theme would be that we’re not here to put heads in beds. We’re not in the hotel business. We’re not in the lodging business. We’re in the business of hospitality and our purpose is to have a positive impact on the world by creating opportunities for all of our stakeholders.

The only way we can create those opportunities for amazing experiences for our customers is by having a really diverse workforce that is not just diverse, but in an amazing culture that we’re able to energize and inspire to do great things that accomplish our purpose.

Why it matters to me to be on your list is because it’s a reflection that because you guys are the best of the best of what you do, you’re incredibly rigorous about what you do, and it is a reflection that we are having some success in what I know is the most important thing that we’re doing to be successful.

VISCONTI: Wow, that’s really great. Thank you.

NASSETTA: I talk about it all the time. This award, and the work that we have done, by the way, with your help and guidance over a bunch of years, to be able to be on the list was the highlight of the board presentation I made.

To see this story and the rest of the digital edition of the April 2016 issue of DiversityInc Magazine click here.

3 comments


  • Thank you so much, my dear Hilton’s guider.
    I am working at a certain Conrad hotelour team members are friendly and lovely, Managers are taking care of us, We service the guests sincerely.

    I love Hilton!

  • Pratheesh nair

    I am working in Hilton hotel Sharjah U.A.E. our Team members are friendly .we do right thing all the time.we r Hilton & we r Hospitality…I.m very proud to be a part of Hilton Team….

    .

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