The value of people serving people

Regan Taikitsadaporn, chief human resources officer for Asia Pacific, at Marriott International reveals why the hotel believes in developing and promoting employees from within, and the significance of having a solid, yet flexible, working culture

VITAL STATS: In his position as chief human resources officer for Asia Pacific, Regan Taikitsadaporn leads the human resources function for one of Marriott International’s fastest growing regions. His responsibilities include developing, formulating and implementing human resources strategies to support Asia Pacific’s current priorities and future growth. He has more than 20 years of experience in HR, with the past 15 at Marriott International.

You’ve been the CHRO at Marriott since 2013. How has the experience been so far?

It’s been great. I love my job, I love my company, I love the people I work for. I think that makes it a lot more easier to wake up every morning and go to work.

I think the beauty of the hospitality industry is that people are the key drivers and the success of the company. So the talent strategies are critical to the success of the business. I think that makes working in human resources in the service business even more exciting and rewarding.

What do you think are the biggest barriers which are causing a talent shortage in the hospitality industry? Why can’t these firms find the right candidates?

In our industry, we have a lot of developments going on, so we’re growing and we’re growing very fast – but so are our competitors. And all of us are attracting our candidates from a similar talent pool.

Not only that, but the Asian economy has probably been one of the fastest growing in the world, so it’s not just the hospitality industry – but all industries that are growing.

Hence, we find ourselves competing not only with the other hotel companies, but also other multinationals and local companies. I think that’s a combination of some of the factors that create pressure on the talent shortage.

Marriott has announced it is planning to more than double the number of its hotels in Asia Pacific. What talent strategies are you planning to implement to achieve this target?

It all boils down to how we attract, retain and develop talent. We obviously have some strategies around the attraction piece, primarily looking at how to attract the next generation of our workforce.

The other focus is developing talent from within. Marriott has a very strong company culture. We want our leaders to be people who understand our culture, policies, practices and brands and that is going to help our hotel be more successful, especially when we move into markets where we currently don’t have any presence or are launching our first hotel there.

A large pillar of workplace engagement in Marriott is attracting the younger generation, Millennials, specifically.

It’s also very important to have leaders who understand our culture and our brand and our philosophies. This is why we focus a lot on growing talent from within and we have programmes from graduate programmes to programmes to develop leaders. A big part of our culture is people first, so we want to make sure that we take care of our people to keep them engaged and make them want to stay with us.

Since you are focused on attracting Millennials, how do you alter your recruitment strategies to reach out to this younger generation?

First of all, technology. Having a good attractive recruitment website is one thing, but I think everybody has that. We also let candidates apply for jobs using their mobile phones – and launched the mobile-plus two years ago.

In your experience, what do Millennials look out for from their careers?

I think they look out for opportunities and choices, and so, we have a graduate programme called the voyage programme, which takes college students and puts them through 18 months in a discipline of their choice and prepares them to take on supervisor or entry management roles. Participants get to work on projects and attend webinars with senior leaders.

Roughly how many students do you get for the voyage programme each year?

In Asia Pacific, it is somewhere around 70-80.

Do you also use elements such as videos or LinkedIn to hire candidates?

Yes, LinkedIn has been a huge source for us in terms of hiring candidates, probably less so at the front-line level, but more so on the middle or senior management level.

The other thing that has been huge for us is our referral programme. Basically in this programme, when you refer someone for the job and they get the job, you get some sort of incentive.

How would you define the workplace culture at Marriott?

It’s mainly about people taking care of people and that’s what we want in the hospitality industry.

We want people to take care of our guests, but we also want our people to have that desire to take care of each other – we want them to take care of their colleagues and help each other out.

There are five parts to our company culture – people first, pursue excellence, embracing change, act with integrity and serve the world. It’s essentially about respect, honesty and being open to each other and ultimately making sure that we deliver results and take care of our guests and customers.

I’ve read the average tenure for a general manager at Marriott is about 25 years while elsewhere it’s much lower, and some 10,600 people have been with Marriott for more than 20 years. What makes employees stay on for so long? What makes Marriott such a great place?

I think first of all, we have been a company that is constantly growing. There are peaks and valleys, but overall, we have always been a growth-oriented company and we’re very focused on growing talent from within. Basically, you have a great culture that makes you want to stay and then there’s the opportunity to grow and that helps tremendously.

If I think about myself, I’ll be reaching my 16th year with Marriott, and in this period, I have been in eight roles, worked in four different cities on two different continents. It feels like I get to change jobs every few years and get to stay with a great company that I love – it’s akin to getting the best of both worlds. I think if you ask other executives, it’s around the same story.

So having worked on two different continents, do you see any differences in HR practices and priorities in Asia versus the west?

I think we have a lot of HR processes and programmes that transcend the entire company. For example, we use similar assessment tools and the same performance review tools. Our recruitment website is the same, so we have these common platforms around the world, but if you think about the priorities, they’re going to be very different around the world and not just in the West and in Asia. Even within Asia Pacific, the priorities can be very different.

I always say that within Marriott, we have this great toolbox, with different tools. It is just a matter of what your priorities are and which tools you will be using to address these priorities in the different markets that you are operating within.

You mentioned in a previous interview that in 2014 two thirds of management positions were internal hires and promotions across Asia. Why is Marriott such a big fan of internal recruitment for management positions?

As I said previously, if you have talent who understands your culture and lives and breathes it, they can empower that philosophy to the next generation of associates

We believe that our culture is one of our competitive advantages – we talk about our culture, we live and breathe our culture.

So that’s one of the reasons for focusing on that, another one is really around retention. If you look around at studies, at the top three drivers of retention, career opportunities is going to be one of those.

We believe that by helping people grow their careers, you’re helping them make more money, and hence, allowing them to take care of themselves. To do this, we have, as I mentioned, quite a few programmes for them – from programmes which help existing associates to become supervisors or managers – to programmes for managers to develop their leadership skills.

Any example of such leadership development programmes?

We have a programme called essential skills for managers and supervisors which is a 15-module programme – allowing participants to learn a range of skills such as basic communication, interview and time management skills.

This is for the rank and file staff to help them become a supervisor or a first-time manager.

You mentioned in a previous interview that in 2014 associates in Marriott took an average of 36 hours of training and 78 hours of professional development to become managers and that all associates in the APAC region attend daily meetings for 15 minutes to enforce a skill or area of knowledge. You have got all these great training programmes that have been rolled out, but how do you measure the ROI and if these programmes will really be effective in the development of your employees?

I think when it comes to measuring ROI for the programmes, it’s hard because there are a lot of factors involved. But if you look at some of our metrics, for example, our guest engagement or our guest satisfaction scores, those have been continuously rising over the years.

Our share performances (on the stock market) have been doing very well, and our retention rates have also gone up since 2011. Another factor is obviously our ability to grow talent from within, and I think that’s important. Occasionally, we have to go outside to bring in talent for some of our leadership positions. We do bring in GMs from outside the company at times, but that’s only when we really have to. We do find they tend to struggle a bit and it takes a length of time to acclimatise and run the hotel and learn about the company. I think if you were to put a value in the productivity there, I think the fact we are generally able to promote people from within really helps increase our productivity and the effectiveness of our leaders.

How does Marriott conduct its performance review processes?

At Marriott, we have mid-year and year-end discussions, but of course, we encourage leaders to have regular meetings with their folks. So, for example, I have regular meetings with my direct reports once a month. In those, we talk about their development plans, and the kind of day-to-day operational processes that they need help on, so hopefully when I do the mid-year and year-end review, nothing is going to be a surprise for me or for them.

So if I ask you if Marriott is ready to abolish the annual reviews, like Accenture, what would you say?

I probably can’t make a call for that. It’s too early to say, but I think if I were to put on my wizard hat, I would say that if we have all those other processes in place, then the question is – is this all redundant?

Marriott has many different brands – you’ve got luxury hotels, lifestyle hotels and the HR team works really closely with the different brand strategy teams to come up with the employer brand. So how do you make sure the message is consistent and you have a solid employer branding strategy in place?

We work very closely with our brand team and our operations team. Our global employer branding is the tag line “find your world”, and it kind of aligns with our company’s purpose which is “world of opportunities”.

The “find your world” tag line really talks about what employees want to find – it has really different dimensions to it and it’s really about finding your passion and being able to live your passion with us. It’s interesting how many people actually stand up who have started in other roles and have ended up as general managers.

But I think from a brand perspective, it’s really more around attracting the right talent around that particular brand that can deliver the right brand experience. Because the talent that we need for the Ritz-Carlton hotel versus one of our lifestyle brands like Renaissance is going to be very different because the customers are going to be different, and our expectations are going to be different. So, we have dedicated recruitment sites for some of the brands which will resonate with that brand, along with brand-specific programmes.

The orientation programmes will be different, the training programmes will be different.

Do you have employees moving across different brands as well?

We do, we do encourage it, but obviously they would have to have a brand fit for that particular brand, especially for certain leadership positions. Certain brands will identify different key positions for being critical to the success of the brand and so you also want to make sure you identify someone who understands the brand and has that fit for the brand.

We’ve also heard headlines that Marriott International is a big fan of women empowerment and women leadership. How do you foster an environment within Marriott that encourages women to rise up the ranks?

A big part of our culture is around inclusion – it’s really around making sure that we create an environment where everybody is treated well, regardless of your race, gender and sexual orientation, etc, and we give everybody equal opportunity to grow.

If you look at that, we have made some great strides in women in leadership.

Each year, we do have a women in leadership conference. We bring women leaders together and give them opportunities to network with each other. We also bring executives to attend because it’s not only just always for the women, I think the male executives also have to understand that perspective. A handful of them, a dozen or so, will just get together and have a conversation about things such as their aspirations, the things they struggle with, their fears and the barriers they face. These are all done behind closed doors and it’s confidential, it’s really to inspire this next generation of women leaders. We’re a company that provides opportunities, so we’ll help them when it comes to the barriers, but they also need to work and have a dream and we like to encourage our staff to have a dream.

Is that what you do to encourage diverse teams to work together?

I think it’s just the whole culture of putting people first. If you talk about that, when you break it down, it’s all about teamwork and respecting people’s differences. Then you have to hold all the other legal stuff like the harassment policies and the fair treatment of staff which is really more to safeguard stuff legally.

But the more important thing is to create the culture of valuing diversity and making everybody feel included. In Australia, our housekeeping departments in our hotels will have people from 20 different nationalities working in there, people from eastern Europe, from Asia, from Africa. In fact, they probably have the best teamwork – when everybody recognises and respects their differences and celebrates that. I remember one of our executive housekeepers, she would have her housekeepers share about their culture, so they’ll bring little snacks or talk about holidays that are coming up that are important to their culture or country, so that really nurtures their appreciation and respect of the different cultures and backgrounds. I think that’s one big part of that, the other part is senior leaders being role models.

We have leaders who have very culturally diverse backgrounds and that really helps as well and who are also role models to help in our teamwork. I work with a fantastic team, both my peers and the people who report to me, I couldn’t ask for a better team. Their diverse abilities and skills and knowledge, and backgrounds. We don’t always agree, but we get the work done and we work together well. I get asked a lot, sometimes when I attend roundtable meetings with my peers, and they talk about some of the challenges of trying to get some of the HR agenda across their peers in other disciplines. I’m very fortunate in that talent is such a high priority for my peers that they’re always looking for advice on what more they can do and how they can help to roll out the voyage programme.

I’d normally ask what HR can do to be at the executive table, but it looks like Marriott is already there.

We’re there, but it doesn’t mean that we can stop thinking. From my perspective, we have to always think from a business lens and from a consumer lens, and make sure that we help address those issues, trends and priorities that the business has. It may be the same programmes that we have to use to address those (issues), and maybe we just have to do a better job telling our story as to why we’re doing certain things.

If I just go, “we need to roll out assessments”, people will go “why do we have to waste our time on assessments?” as opposed to telling them “our focus is to improve customer preferences and guest engagements in our lifestyle brands, so from a HR perspective, these are the few things that we can do to help you achieve those results”. I think that approach will definitely help you get to the table.

In your experience, do you think HR leaders today have what it takes to become CEOs?

I think to a certain extent, yes. Because HR is one function where we can dabble in every discipline. We have the presence, especially since every discipline has a talent strategy or need, so we’re at the table for every different function. You really learn about the business, the priorities, the functions and areas that you work at. I think HR asking the right questions, because you’re not going to know everything when you become a senior leader, so asking the right questions is a skill that good HR leaders generally have. Those big questions, thought provoking questions, and leadership might help.

In the next five to 10 years, where do you see the function going towards?

The function’s prevalence will become even more important and I think it’s a great opportunity for HR professionals. This is the time where you’re either going to make it or break it.

If you look at the challenges that many businesses face, it’s really around having the right talent to fill the growth or talent shortage – how to hire better talent than the competitors, and then you have the Millennials who want to change jobs every year and want to grow faster, so how do you make them grow faster?

So, I think the next five to 10 years will be an exciting time for HR professionals and for those who are able to be good partners, be able to think strategically and to be able to tell the story. From the business perspective, those are the leaders who will find themselves at an important seat at the table and I think every CEO, every president deserves and needs to have a good HR business partner – a need perhaps as crucial as to having a strong financial partner.


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