Ed Fuller, the president of Marriott Lodging International, talks about leading from the front lines during the unrest that spread throughout the Mena region this year.
A hotelier who knows crisis
On a day of unrest in Egypt earlier this year, Ed Fuller chartered an aircraft in Dubai and flew to Cairo. The president of Marriott Lodging International says his ambition was modest: to listen to his employees on the front lines in a time of crisis.
"I would sit with the managers and listen and let them tell stories," says Mr Fuller. He recalls that his employees at the Cairo Marriott Hotel told him that the kitchen staff grabbed knives, housekeepers gripped brooms and engineers held shovels while they backed the hotel's security team until military support arrived.
"It was important for them to see us on the ground," says Mr Fuller. "When you're in the corporate office, you are not connected to the realities of the operations."
That also happens to be the key message Mr Fuller puts forth in his new book, You Can't Lead With Your Feet On the Desk. His philosophy is that managers in today's business world must be ready to engage with employees, especially during tough times, and he has stayed true to his own advice during the regional unrest this year. Mr Fuller, who is based in Bethesda, Maryland, recently got stuck in demonstrations for two and a half hours after he travelled to Bahrain to visit the company's workers there.
During his tenure at Marriott, gross sales have increased from US$325 million (Dh1.19 billion) to $7bn, and the brand's presence has grown from 16 hotels in half a dozen countries to some 400 properties in 70 countries. Along the way, Mr Fuller has logged more than 10 million frequent-flyer miles.
The recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa is not the first time Mr Fuller has taken to the field to assess the situation facing Marriott employees and customers. During the "red-shirt" marches in Bangkok last May, he climbed over barricades - twice - to visit staffers and show his support. And in 2008, Mr Fuller drove in an armoured SUV through the streets of Baghdad, assessing whether it would make good business sense to open a hotel as part of the capital's rebuilding efforts. Mr Fuller spent his nights there sleeping in a stripped-down palace once owned by Saddam Hussein's elder son. In the end, he concluded the city was still too unsafe for such a project.
"I think it's part of what you're supposed to do as a manager and a leader, is to back your people up," says the American executive, who adds that his military service during the Vietnam War helped to prepare him for crisis management.
"That doesn't have to be quite in the drama of Baghdad," he adds. "It's the willingness to get out of the office and go down when one of your people is struggling with a challenge and back 'em up. If you don't, they're not empowered and they will respond in future business decisions with a lack of empowerment."
Of course, Mr Fuller acknowledges that the safety of a leader is a top priority, and that in some cases going into the field is simply not feasible. He stopped short of going to Libya recently to help co-ordinate the rescue of 185 Marriott employees and the final two hotel guests stranded there.
He says 85 per cent of the employees have been redeployed to other Marriott hotels in the region, and his team is working to get jobs for the others.
The region's unrest has "challenged us", says Mr Fuller. But he adds: "It's given us opportunities to build stronger relationships with owners and a stronger bond with our associates."