As an executive onboarding into a new role, landings don’t get much hotter than what Tony Capuano is facing as Marriott’s new CEO, “one of the most challenging jobs in all of American business.” He’s replacing a successful CEO who died unexpectedly in the middle of the pandemic “wrecking ball” that has wiped out half of Marriott’s revenue and resulted in its first operating loss since 2009. The only way Capuano can steer this organization “through the industry’s most crippling period in memory” is by connecting emotionally, rationally, and inspirationally with all his different stakeholders differently.

The good news for Capuano is that Marriott is going to survive the pandemic. Much of the hospitality industry will not. But the scale and resources that Capuano helped build have secured Marriott’s future.

The bad news is that the future is not going to look anything like the past. It’s almost certain that:

  • Business travel is not going to happen anywhere near the level it was before the pandemic.
  • Consumers are going to be much more safety-conscious.
  • Many of Marriott’s site owners will not survive.
  • Many of the best employees Marriott furloughed will not come back.

The task Doug Yearley faced at luxury home builder Toll Brothers in 2009 provides some good lessons for Capuano and Marriott’s newly named President, Stephanie Linnartz. Yearley took over Toll Brothers after they had just lost $750 million on revenues down 75 percent from their peak. But, because he had been part of the leadership team and had his boss’s confidence, he didn’t panic, faced the brutal truths head-on, leveraged their strengths to position them for future success, and led them back to prosperity.

Capuano doesn’t have a strategy problem. He has a connection problem.

The strategy Marriott has in place makes all the sense in the world, as Capuano puts it, “laser-focused on recovery, expansion, providing opportunities for our associates, maintaining constructive relationships with our owners and franchisees, delivering safe and innovative experiences for our guests and customers, and building value for our shareholders.”

As marketing consultant Tim Parkin told me, “This is a battle that’s going to be won on the digital front. Capuano has to show leadership with all his stakeholders on that.” Clearly, that’s a big part of Linnartz’s remit, most likely leveraging Marriott’s Bonvoy rewards database to spur the recovery by reactivating current and past customers so they then tell their friends and family to come back.

Parkin underlined the safety point. He noted that Delta has been at the forefront of this, leaving middle seats and every other First Class seat empty longer than its competitors did. As Capuano has been leading Marriott’s “Commitment to Clean” initiative, he’s well-positioned to keep driving that to serve any customer that “has any safety reservations at all.”

Connecting

Every single stakeholder Capuano has the same question for Capuano. Whether he’s talking to an associate, owner, franchisee, guest, customer, or shareholder, all they want to know is “What does this mean for me?” This why Capuano has to establish his credibility and connect emotionally, rationally confirm the current reality, and paint an inspirational picture of a shared future.

Credibility

Capuano must avoid the trap of assuming he has credibility because of his 25-year tenure with Marriott. While that’s certainly true with Bill Marriott, there are going to be a lot of people like One Mile At A Time’s Ben Schlappig who “had never heard of him prior to this announcement.”

Emotionally

Everyone on the planet has lost someone or something. Everyone is in pain. No one will listen to Capuano until they know how much he cares and appreciates their own pain.

Rationally

This is classic Stockdale Paradox stuff. The pandemic is not over. Things are not going to get miraculously better soon. Capuano has to confront the brutal facts of the current situation and manage through the continuing nightmare before he can get people to focus on the future. He’ll lose people if he skips this step.

Inspirationally

The one job the CEO cannot delegate is vision and values. Capuano has to go through the first steps to earn the right to inspire and enable others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #691) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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