DiversityInc Remembers Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson as a Visionary Leader

Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson passed away Feb. 15 after a fight with pancreatic cancer.

The third CEO in Marriott’s history and first without the Marriott surname, Sorenson was a strong leader who was dedicated to using Marriott’s reach and influence for good. His vision and work included advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and environmental sustainability, as well as raising awareness of human trafficking at Marriott properties around the globe. His stellar efforts were celebrated by CEOs in numerous industries beyond hospitality and also helped Marriott International to earn the No. 1 spot on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020.

In May 2019, the company announced Sorenson’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Earlier this month, Sorenson announced he was temporarily scaling back his schedule to prioritize his treatment. Even while he was ill, Sorenson led his workforce through the devastating coronavirus pandemic, earning notoriety for his transparency when he published a video in March 2020 that updated his workforce on how the organization was affected. Keenly aware that his employees of all levels had been drastically impacted by the pandemic, Sorenson and Executive Chairman J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. went even one step further to show their commitment to their staff, vowing to not take salaries during 2020.

“I encourage you to please take care of yourself, your friends and family, and the community around you. I wish you good health and a sense of optimism. Together, we can and we will overcome this,” Sorenson told his associates in March.

In addition to working to build a diverse and inclusive workforce, Sorenson also used his platform to frequently speak out against injustice. In June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Sorenson took to LinkedIn to express his and his company’s response to racial injustice by carrying out real change.

“For many years, I have tried to use my perch at Marriott to advocate for opportunity for all,” his statement said. “Each deserves an opportunity to get joy and gratification from their work and to feel a sense of purpose and pride about the footsteps they leave behind in the world. George Floyd won’t get that opportunity. But we can honor his memory by leading our own lives in a way that pierces through prejudice to embrace and know people as individuals.”

Sorenson later appeared on CNBC to discuss the importance of leaders taking a similar stand against systemic injustice.

After spending a remarkable 25 years with Marriott — where he started out as a VP and Associate General Counsel in 1996 — Sorenson will ultimately be remembered as a leader who put his people first and who always led with purpose. In early 2020, DiversityInc CEO Carolynn Johnson sat down for a special one-on-one interview with Sorenson to discuss his leadership vision, his dedication to allyship and the value of diversity.

In his talk with DiversityInc, Sorenson discussed the value he placed in getting to lead Marriott, a company with a diverse workforce and customer base that spans around the globe, and how he tried to make every day in that role as productive and impactful as possible.

“What is it I’m doing every day that can make a difference in the things that I can influence? … At Marriott, for example, one of our purposes is, ‘Let’s make sure we create opportunity for all of our people,’” Sorenson said in the interview.

In a statement looking back at the long and valued relationship Marriott and DiversityInc had built over the years, Johnson recognized Sorenson as an impactful and powerful leader and example for others.

“Arne M. Sorenson was one of the great moral business voices of our time — and in many ways — the conscience of Marriott International,” she said. “Today, I join with people across 131 countries and territories in mourning the loss and celebrating the life of a truly remarkable human being. To the Marriott International team, may Arne’s exemplary memory provide the courage and inspiration you will need in the significant responsibilities that lie before you.”

As part of his ongoing and unwavering commitment to diversity, Sorenson was also a champion of LGBTQ rights, speaking against legislation that disenfranchised the LGBTQ community. In 2015, PFLAG, the first and largest advocacy network for LGBTQ+ people, parents and allies, awarded Sorenson with the “Straight for Equality in the Workplace Award.” During the 2020 presidential election, he wrote a blog encouraging people to vote. After the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Sorenson swiftly condemned the violence to associates and the public.

“We lost a champion yesterday. For my community — the LGBTQ+ community — he was a beacon of inclusion, and personally, there was no kinder man,” Brian K. Bond, executive director of PFLAG National said in a news release. “You could see his kindness in the culture he created globally at Marriott, whose policies embraced and protected everyone, from travel guests to Marriott associates everywhere.”

Sorenson was also recognized on LinkedIn’s 2019 Top Voices of the Year list and received the 2020 Out & Equal Ally Changemaker Award.

In its own company news release, Marriott remembered Sorenson as not just a great leader, but also a great human being.

“Arne loved every aspect of this business and relished time spent touring our hotels and meeting associates around the world,” said Marriott in the company’s news release. “ He had an uncanny ability to anticipate where the hospitality industry was headed and position Marriott for growth. But the roles he relished the most were as husband, father, brother and friend. On behalf of the Board and Marriott’s hundreds of thousands of associates around the world, we extend our heartfelt condolences to Arne’s wife and four children. We share your heartbreak, and we will miss Arne deeply.”

DiversityInc sends its condolences to Sorenson’s family, friends and colleagues.

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