A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton | Part 3 | Listening

If there is something embedded in Hilton’s DNA is listening. As I mentioned earlier, the first thing Chris Nassetta did when he joined Hilton was to spend his first 100 days flying around Hilton’s properties worldwide and listening to owners, employees, and partners. (1) This was the best method for Chris to understand what he needed to do to turn the company around.(2)

Hilton has different strategies to “listen” to people; here below, I describe the ones that I have experienced over my years at Hilton. 

Surveys 

In 2009, when Matt Schuyler joined Hilton, he asked for any existing feedback regarding employee satisfaction and their needs. From his previous roles, especially at Capital One, he knew that listening to employees was key to understanding their needs and introducing meaningful changes. 

When Matt realized this data didn’t exist, he came up with a great and ambitious solution: the first “Hilton’s global team member survey”. (or GTMS for short). The purpose of this survey was to collect important views and opinions from Hilton employees worldwide, from both corporate and “back of the house” team members (housekeeping, engineering, bartending, front desk, etc.). This survey became an immediate success, with a completion rate of 92% and over 150,000 participants (3). This survey has been the best tool Hilton has to identify team members’ needs and desires. Matt says that “listening to team members is the best way to learn how to meet their needs and determine what they will need in the future;(4) listening helps leaders learn. Without employee insights, companies stagnate.” (5)

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton – Part 2 – Alignment

Part 2: Alignment

When Chris Nassetta joined Hilton in 2007, he used his first 100 days to listen to Hilton hotel leaders around the globe.(1) He then described Hilton as several companies that were not aligned, somewhat like “getting into a boat with oarsmen rowing out of sequence.”(2)

The problem was that the company was almost 100 years old and had been put together through merges and acquisitions.

  • In 1985 Hilton purchased the Statler chain for $111 million, the largest real estate deal in history at the time.
  • In 1964 Hilton International spun off as a separate corporation; this created two independent companies, Hilton Hotels Corp. in the Americas and Hilton Group plc in Europe.(3)
  • In 1996 Hilton acquired Grand Vacations Limited, formalizing a four-year-old partnership that was the beginning of Hilton Grand Vacations.(4)
  • In 1999 Embassy Suites, DoubleTree, Homewood Suites, and Hampton Inn were acquired by Hilton for $3.1 billion in cash and stock. At the time, all four brands were owned by Promus Hotel Corp.(5)

Some of these acquisitions were already the result of previous purchases, for instance, Doubletree acquired Red Lion Hotels in 1996, but in 1997 Doubletree merged with Promus Hotel Corp, creating the six-largest hotel company in terms of the number of hotels. Promus Hotel Corp was later acquired by Hilton in 1999. All these mergers created a “Frankenstein” hotel company, made up of different cultures, different goals, and different people overlapping similar roles. Chis said at the time that it was, in fact, like seven different companies operating in silos without any alignment.(2) Hilton at the time looked like one company to the outsiders, but it wasn’t, it didn’t have a consistent mission, vision, values, or key strategic priorities.

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton – Part I | The People | Matt Schuyler

Matt Schuyler, Chris Nassetta’s biggest ally at Hilton

The incredible culture transformation at Hilton led by Chris Nassetta is not by any means, the effort of just one person. A transformation of this magnitude requires synchronized teamwork executed with precision and simultaneously around the globe.

Hilton has more than 6,000 properties, in 114 countries and territories (1). It has 460,000 team members worldwide, 55,000 of them in the US alone (2). At this scale, any change requires not only a massive level of effort but incredible coordination between all the corporate offices and hotels. To make things more complicated, size is not the only challenge for culture adoption. Hilton’s workforce spans five different generations (3), from boomers through Gen Zers; that means change has to be appealing for everyone, regardless of their cultural background or age. This requires a huge understanding of people, their motivations, desires, and cultural background.

Chris Nassetta assembled the best possible team for this endeavor, including Matt Schuyler. A leader who came to the company from outside the hospitality industry, Matt proved critical to executing Chris’ vision for Hilton.

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton – Part I | The People | Chris Nassetta

Chris Nassetta – Hilton

Most people think that culture transformation is mostly the job of a leader, and it can be achieved in a short period of time. Nothing can be furthest from the truth. A corporate culture transformation like the one Hilton experienced took 10 years on the making and many people working behind the scenes. But those ten years are just the tip of the iceberg; the reality is that this process started 36 years ago when Chris began to put together the pieces of what an excellent corporate culture was and what that entailed. He was 17 at the time, and much of the culture we see today at Hilton was a long time process that was shaped by Chris’ experiences. When Jon Gray from Blackstone called Chris to discuss the opportunity at Hilton, he told him, “you have been training your whole life for this position.” and that was the truth (1). In these chapters I’ll explore the beginnings of this process and how continuously keep evolving. On chapter one will be focused on the people that led to the change, but later on, I will be highlighting the strategies and implementation I have perceived most effective. 

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My world flipped upside down

My life was a living dream three months ago, my career was successful at Hilton, the best company to work for in the United States in 2020, I had the best boss, and my work-life balance was at all-time high. Last year I was the runner up of the circle of excellence, a Hilton award to the best performers from commercial services and customer teams worldwide, my morale was high, and I couldn’t wish for something better. On February 17, 2020 I traveled to Miami to meet with my team (marketing planning and performance), but little I knew that that trip would be the last one we had together. 

Great moments in Miami, in our last team meeting of our planning and performance team
Great moments in Miami, in our last team meeting of our planning and performance team

While we were in Miami, we had a great time. It was as fun as any of our previous trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago or Montreal. But something was slightly off. One night while walking from the hotel to a nearby restaurant in South Beach, I didn’t feel well, I felt out of breath, and my chest was hurting. From Miami, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor, just to make sure there was nothing wrong with my health. 

When I was back in Orlando, my cardiologist ordered an electrocardiogram, an ultrasound, and a stress test. The results came back relatively quickly, and the news was not good. I was diagnosed with coronary artery desease and I was scheduled for surgery on Friday, March 13th. For some reason, my cardiologist called me back a couple of days later to push back the surgery date to March 25th. Since my health was deterioration quickly, my wife called the hospital and asked if they had an earlier date available, thankfully they did have one, and I was rescheduled for Thursday, March 12th (by the way, a much better date than Friday the 13th for a heart surgery).

At that point my health was not the only bad news, the outbreak of the coronavirus in China was spreading like fire around the world, and started to hit hard already some parts of the country such as Washington and New York states. 

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