Values-Based Leadership In A Time Of Crisis: A Conversation with Mark Hoplamazian

March 12, 2021  • Daniel R. Porterfield

These times of profound change demand values-based leaders who can both navigate the current moment and also act with vision to drive progress toward a stronger future. Hyatt President and CEO Mark Hoplamazian is just such a leader. I recently interviewed Mark—who is also a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network and Aspen Institute trustee—as a part of the annual conference of the Professional Convention Management Association. Mark and Hyatt have also funded the work of the Institute, for which we are grateful.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dan Porterfield: What drew you to the hospitality industry?

Mark Hoplamazian: My current position as President and CEO of Hyatt is 14 years in the making, and it is a great joy. I was drawn to the industry because of the human aspect of this business. While a lot of people say the hotel, business is about “location, location, location,” it’s really about “people, people, people.”

Dan: You’re a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute, a program that seeks to develop the next generation of community-spirited leaders. We talk in that program about values-based leadership. What does that mean to you?

Mark: I completed my fellowship in 2005. It was a turning point in my life and I had the benefit of incredible teachers, mentors, and moderators to guide me through an exploration of values-based leadership. I learned how to apply values not only in my work life, but also in my home life and in my community. It helped me understand the importance of being clear in what you stand for and why you exist. Reflecting on values is relevant to me, as an individual, in how I’m connecting here on this earth and how I can benefit others. It’s also relevant to our company, and to our industry.

You can push products at people and call it “good service,” but, without the practice of empathy, you can’t truly care for someone. What I realized is that the reason I was inherently drawn to Hyatt was because there was this tremendously strong sense of care that comes with being a part of the Hyatt family. The “why” was about care.

We talk about caring for people, guests, colleagues, and members of our community. We meet people in their normal, everyday lives who are staying with us—some for big business meetings, some for vacation with their family, some staying with us to attend a funeral, and some taking their child down the street for chemotherapy. Understanding and meeting people where they are, and then being able to, through a frame of empathy, do something in their service is a huge inspiration. Frankly, I would not have thought about how I do this without having gone through the Henry Crown Fellowship.

Dan: When you go through crises, you see who relies on values and how people live them out. What are some of the tenets you lean on in terms of leading through a crisis effectively?

Mark: First and foremost: honest, grounded communication. Part of my job is to look into and imagine a better future for my colleagues and company. Early in the pandemic, I was continuously forthcoming with my colleagues about what we faced, the economic impact, and our public response.

Second: connectivity. I spent more time in one-on-one calls with people, hearing their voices and making sure they were heard. I wanted to check in on their families and reiterate the faith that we were in this together.

Finally: collaboration. The leadership of our industry came together in a very profound way. I’m now chairing the American Hotel and Lodging Association for the upcoming year. I have a very explicit responsibility to continue that momentum to bring more relief to our business.

Dan: What values are guiding your work at Hyatt?

Mark: Our values are integrity, empathy, humility, creativity, and respect. Values are beneficial, but the behaviors that reflect values bring an organization to life. To ensure positive behaviors, we have focused on four of our values that are essential to what we are trying to do.

Empathy: You must be able to connect with another person—to be present and see them fully. This came to life in a very acute sense with the racial injustice we confronted last summer. Being seen and heard has never been more important.

Well-being: We recognize no two people are experiencing COVID-19 in the same way. You cannot generalize. You must recognize the emotional burdens that people are feeling, some of which translate to unhealthy mental, psychological, or physical manifestations. It is holistic and critical.

Inclusion: It’s not just about where people come from and their life experiences, but an acknowledgement of systemic injustices and biases in this country that require very clear, deliberate work to overcome.

Experimentation: Our business faced unprecedented impacts in March 2020. We had to learn how people were traveling, what they cared about, and how to help them be their best selves. To do that, we needed to deploy new digital tools and services while continuing to experiment.

Dan: For Hyatt today, is it important to have people actively participating in the creation and perpetuation of culture?

Mark: Yes, no question about it. When I first went down the path of crystallizing our purpose as a company, I spent a lot of time talking to people. I asked questions like, “Why did you join Hyatt? Why are you still here? What’s the ‘why’ for you?” Inherently, it was listening carefully to people’s personal experiences and understanding the common theme that stretched across their stories. When we declared our purpose statement, the longest tenured members said, “that is why I joined the company to begin with.” It wasn’t a revelation to them as much as it was an acknowledgement of truth. Once you get there, it resonates deeply.

As much as I am hyper-focused on getting people together for convening, an upside of digital platforms is the higher level of inclusivity. People who may have been marginalized and unable to join a meeting or event because they could not afford a flight or get out of their country can attend. We are now facilitating and creating a hybrid that is more inclusive in the digital dimension of convening.

Dan: Business events, hospitality industries, and the Aspen Institute share a belief in the power of convening—to create the settings where people can come together across the supposed divides of difference to drive change and build community. How should the sector be thinking about its societal role and responsibility? Are there assets that our sector can be deploying in service of the world?

Mark: The power of convening is a deeply human experience that has multiple dimensions, including creativity, a sense of belonging, and a filling of the cup from an emotional and psychological perspective.

There is a tremendous value associated with convenings. At Hyatt and in our industry, we need to focus on being sharp, deliberate, and detailed in demonstrating the value of convening. There is both human and financial value to convening. I have spent a lot of time with corporate travel managers. We brought together people from the farm industry, pharma, finance, tech, and consultancy. What I heard from people is that there is a fallacy that digital meetings are dramatically more financially efficient. We are finding that we have to set up studios, dedicate time to extra technology, have extra staff, and the outcomes are not better.

We recognize that what we need to do is create an opportunity to include people digitally. In-person convenings have huge power. I’ve heard it said that human beings ideating together leads to the most creative outcomes. To do that remotely and detached over a screen is not as effective. People are desperate for a sense of belonging and togetherness. It will be a major benefit to society to get humans connected in person again.