What Eisenhower Taught Me About Decision-Making; Bill Marriott Jr. says a 1954 chat with President Eisenhower taught him that when it comes to making decisions, it’s always important to be inclusive of others

May 25, 2013

What Eisenhower Taught Me About Decision-Making

By ADAM BRYANT

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This interview with J.W. Marriott Jr., known as Bill, executive chairman and former C.E.O. of Marriott International, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

J.W. Marriott Jr., known as Bill, is executive chairman and former C.E.O. of Marriott International, says a brief chat with President Eisenhower in 1954 taught him the importance of always asking others, “What do you think we should do?

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. I guess it was in the Navy. I was in the Navy Supply Corps on an aircraft carrier. I eventually took over the officers’ mess. I had worked in my dad’s restaurant when I was in college, and I had all the recipe cards sent to me because I didn’t like the food they were serving on board. I went to these Navy stewards and said, “I want you guys to follow the recipes.” And they looked at me, they didn’t say much, and they didn’t follow the recipes. I came back a few weeks later and said, “You’ve got to start following these recipes.” And they didn’t follow the recipes. They were all World War II veterans, they’d been everywhere and they had learned not to pay attention to all these green, young ensigns. In later years, I realized I’d failed to get them on the team. I had walked in and said: “Here, do it. I’m an officer. Salute and do it.” They ignored me and didn’t do it, and we still had lousy food when I left the ship. I realized that I should have sat down with them and said, “What do you think we can do to improve the food?”Q. Did you have an explicit conversation with your father, J. W. Marriott, about leadership and management?

A. He was an interesting mentor in that he would rarely praise. Nothing was ever good enough. He was a perfectionist, and very critical, very tough. He would never really come right out and tell me what I ought to do. He tried to make me figure out what I should do.

I remember one time when I had a problem that I couldn’t solve. I struggled and struggled. I had a meeting with him, and he wouldn’t help me, and he saw that I was just about at the end of my tether. Then he walked in my office and gave me all the answers. He knew them all along, but he wasn’t about to give them to me. I just thought to myself: “He’s forced me to think. He’s forced me to step up.”

It’s an interesting way to mentor somebody, but it was extremely tough and hard. I think that if I hadn’t been his son, he wouldn’t have been as hard on me. I think a father who’s in the business with his son is usually pretty rough on the son.

Q. Other leadership lessons?

A. In 1954, I had just finished Supply Corps School and came home for Christmas to our farm in Virginia. Dad’s best friend at the time was Ezra Taft Benson, who was secretary of agriculture and later became president of the L.D.S. church [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. And he invited Ike and Mamie Eisenhower. So here’s the president and the secretary of agriculture, here’s my father, and here I am. They wanted to take Ike to shoot some quail, but it was cold and the wind was blowing like crazy. My dad said, “Should we go and shoot quail or should we stand by the fire?”

And Eisenhower turned around and looked at me and he said, “What do you think we should do?”

That made me realize how he got along with de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt and others — by including them in the decision and asking them what they thought. So I tried to adopt that style of management as I progressed in life, by asking my people, “What do you think?” Now, I didn’t always go with what they thought. But I felt that if I included them in the decision-making process, and asked them what they thought, and I listened to what they had to say and considered it, they usually got on board because they knew they’d been respected and heard, even if I went in a different direction than what they were recommending.

Q. So did you go out and shoot quail?

A. I said: “It’s too cold. Let’s stay in by the fire.”

Q. What else have you learned during your career?

A. Over the years, I’ve tried to hire a lot of smart people, people who were smarter than me. But many of them had big egos, and they wanted to be president or C.E.O. There was a lot of competition and they were fighting with each other and fighting with me. Because they were so smart, they were getting job offers from other people, and I let them take them.

It took me almost 35 years to get to the point where I had a team that really worked well together and weren’t competing as much and were doing the best they could to support the company instead of themselves. I’ve learned that ego’s important, but if it overrides everything else, it isn’t going to work for me or our company.

Q. It really took you 35 years to get the right executive team?

A. It really did.

Q. What are some questions you ask people during job interviews?

A. Are you willing to get your hands dirty? Are you willing to get out of the office? Are you an office-bound guy? How are your people skills? Are you a good listener? Or do you do all the talking?

The relationships in our business are extremely important because we have so many audiences: our shareholders, our hotel owners, our associates, our employees and our customers. The people who succeed in this business know how to develop those relationships. We look for general managers in our hotels who embrace the culture and believe in taking care of their people. When I tour a hotel, I like to watch the manager interact with the associates. I’m interested in managers who know their employees’ names without having to look at their name tags.

Q. When you give talks about leadership to your executives and managers, what do you tell them?

A. The four most important words in the English language are, “What do you think?” Listen to your people and learn.

Q. Why do some leaders not listen well?

A. I think it’s because their ego jumps in, as in, “Why should I ask you if I already know the answer?” Most of the time, you do know the answer. But if you let them know that you know, and you’re not interested in what they have to say, forget it.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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