Convergence Conversation: Examining Diplomatic Leadership with Greg Miller
Greg Miller is a thoughtful, diplomatic leader shaped by his diverse experiences across the hospitality and senior care industries. Greg and I met when he was Senior Vice President of Finance for Marriott’s global information technology group, supporting Marriott’s 4,000 hotels across 70 countries. This was 2013; a time of dynamic transition for IT that required leaders with vision, authenticity, and courage. Greg brought those qualities and a much-needed human-centric perspective to this environment.
In this Convergence Conversation, Greg and I discuss how to see and feel what it means for a massive global organization to be human-centric.
Diplomatic Leadership and Diversity
Deb: How does your personal journey influence your thinking on the importance of a business being focused on stakeholders rather than shareholders?
Greg: One of the things I tell people is that the more senior in my career I became, the less I relied on my MBA. I reverted to the foundations of what I learned as a diplomat. Being a diplomat is human-centric by nature. It’s a role that requires you to transport your mind into somebody else’s thought framework.
I began my journey as a history major at Yale. My senior year, I got tired of history lecture courses and I switched to Russian Studies. I went to Harvard as a graduate student in what was then called Soviet Studies. It was a two-year interdisciplinary graduate program that required me to take economics, political science, history, and a course on nationalities that included ethnography. The point was to learn why there is a Soviet state and what Russian people think about the Soviet state.
From there, I was fortunate to get into the Foreign Service. My first assignment was in Indonesia. It was during the occupation of the embassy in Tehran and an interesting time to be in the world’s largest Muslim country. After returning to Washington, I went to night school to get my MBA. I also got married (still am married) to a woman from East Java, Indonesia. We have lived a bi-cultural life with our children.
Once I left the State Department, I found my way to Marriott. The company needed someone to support strategic planning. Most of us on the team had work experience and a master’s degree in something, as well as an MBA. It was a great place to start a business career. It’s how I got into strategy and the hotel business. Things went well. I went from entry-level analyst to a division vice president in Marriott’s real estate business in three years.
In 1991, the U.S. was going through a recession. Strategic planning and long-term thinking were not on the menu — Marriott defined a long-term strategy as the next six weeks. I decided to make a shift and got picked up by ManorCare. The company had a lot of cash and wanted to use it to buy hotels. They were hiring ex-Marriott people and they needed a hotel-oriented strategic planner with a real estate background. At Manor Care, I oversaw corporate strategic planning, which included working on creating a vision for their new hotel division. Ultimately, I ended up becoming the head of marketing for the skilled nursing business. From there I ended up going to Sunburst Healthcare and then found my way back to Marriott.
Along my corporate journey, I picked up an incredible amount of experience and diverse perspectives on business. The one constant was the importance of getting very diverse people, with different perspectives working together.
Deb: Bringing together diverse perspectives seems like a key skill for leaders working to focus their businesses more broadly on stakeholders.
Greg: It is. It’s also a skill set that I’m using now with not-for-profit and micro companies, which tend to be founded by passionate engineers or other people who are really focused on their ideas but struggle to work outside of their cone. They are learning how to build bridges across organizations, skill sets, personalities, and mindsets to make the whole organization work.
The Skill of Maximizing Impact
Deb: Nothing you just mentioned talked about learning to maximize shareholder profit. What are your observations about what makes a successful business?
Greg: I think it goes back to something I learned at Marriott, which drilled into the culture that if you take care of the employees, the employees will take care of the customers and the customers will come back again and again. This thought went back to the 1920s with JW Marriott, Sr. The stakeholder-focused mantra got nailed into your head. Business is made up of employees. If you take care of them, you are also taking care of your business. Taking care of the business means taking care of the customers who come in. It is implicit that all employees need to understand the customer’s needs and respond to those needs in a flexible and intuitive way. That means leadership needs to support all employees in taking care of the customers — not just those who are specifically in functions that directly interact with customers. If the cycle works, customers come back, and the rest of it takes care of itself.
Deb: What do you mean the rest will take care of itself?
Greg: A good comparison might be Ritz-Carlton, which ultimately got bought by Marriott. The front of Ritz-Carlton is brilliant customer care relationships, sales relationships, and customer relationships. The back end, the functional areas such as accounting, HR, and IT, were less brilliant. The rigor and balance needed to operate a luxury hotel chain are very sensitive. Ritz-Carleton is a very good luxury operator. It’s one of the reasons why Marriot acquired them. Marriott makes sure that efficiency is very carefully managed in the back of the house, in finance, corporate staff, human resources, operations, asset management, etc. Those aren’t typical places where you go looking for human-centric practices. It’s not necessarily where many organizations look to take care of the employees. But at Marriott, the culture was such that all employees felt taken care of, even if they weren’t directly on the front line with customers.
To be human-centric, there needs to be a combination of culture, process, and very strong backing from leadership. CEOs must live their values. It must be genuine and when it is, you know it. I’ve been around other senior leaders who talk, but the whole company knows it’s a fraud.
A Cycle of Care and Trust
Deb: Describe a bit more about your experiences at Marriott. How did it feel to be a culture that believes taking care of employees takes care of customers and the business?
Greg: The thing I found striking and fundamental is everyone is treated with respect. It was expected and cultural to treat everyone with respect, no matter their experience, education, or position. If something bad happened, you were supported. This was true for a business issue or a personal issue.
As an example, a friend and I both had the same cancer. The way I was treated at Marriott, the space I had, the ability I had to take care of myself, versus what the space he didn’t have is why people don’t quit Marriott. Of course, you get trained to do your job and you get managed closely, but you are always treated with respect and with dignity. This is what is really meant by taking care of the employees. Yes, they had a benefits program. They had training programs. They were specific about your job. They were hard on what a clean room is, a successful front desk transaction, and a standard procedure for taking a reservation. But you’re well-trained and respectfully corrected in feedback. You are shown how to do the job successfully. Marriot created the opportunity for you to be successful. Most of all, you are respected.
It took me a while to learn this, but It’s really the manager’s job to create an environment where as many people as possible can be successful. In places where I had larger spans of control, all I did was try to clear barriers so that the people who worked for me could be successful in what they were doing. They knew I had their back.
It’s a lesson I learned from Al Haig. He was greeted with a great deal of suspicion by the Foreign Service when he came in as Secretary of State. By the time he left after only two years, he got a big round of applause in a huge standing-room only turnout. Because he brought command. You may or may not have liked his policy. But you knew that if you followed the policy, you would be backed all the way up to the Secretary of State.
If you have clarity about the roles and responsibilities, the jobs, what you’re supposed to be doing, it builds a lot of trust inside the organization. If you have ambiguity about what you should be doing, or if people are stepping on each other and their jobs, it’s hard to build trust and respect. Respect is required for trust. And it flows both ways in an organization.
Caring Beyond People
Deb: What about a business’s responsibility to the larger community or planet?
Greg: For big companies, in particular, it’s understanding that you are also a stakeholder. I think big companies are just beginning to understand that they have a tremendous stake in the community, in society, in the environment. And it is imperative for their own wellbeing that they become much better at becoming stakeholders in those areas. They should be looking at the world of social entrepreneurship and what people are doing. They need to think about the concept of becoming a stakeholder in their operating environment. This means their social, economic, physical, and human environments. Businesses need to look at themselves and ask not just do I have stakeholders, but what am I a stakeholder of?
There also needs to be balance. I work with a lot of startups that only want to talk about the social or the ecological benefits of what they’re doing. I have coached them that they also need to be able to make money or else they won’t get any traction and their idea will never come to pass.
I think it is important for business leaders to have a mindset that they have a stake in whatever they are doing. They need to go out and look proactively for opportunities to take a stake in their community. And it’s not just a day of service.
Deb: What is your advice to those leaders trying to navigate in today’s dynamics of “wokeness?”
Greg: You have to know who you are as a leader and you need to know the purpose of your business. The companies that thrash around don’t know who they are or what they stand for. They don’t know their true North. If part of your true North is we treat people with respect, then we embrace people of all kinds. If you work in a frontline service business, you have to embrace people of all kinds, or you have all kinds of problems. If you’re having trouble figuring out what the right way is and you are being reactive to this push and that push on social media, you don’t have your own house in order. You really don’t know what you believe about who you are as an individual or as a leader. You also need to realize that society evolves over time, so must your views.
Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?
Greg: My hope is that my one-year-old grandson lives in a world where embracing differences is common. That we’ve embraced our differences and appreciate each other. We’re so divisive right now. We’re so narrowly focused. There’s a line in the movie South Pacific that says something to the effect that you have to be carefully taught to hate all the people your grandparents hate. My hope is that we stop teaching hate to the next generation.
John Kotter at Harvard Business School describes the process of transforming an organization by seeing, feeling, and changing. Leaders must see our current organizational structures and systems are outdated and incapable of sustaining future success. They must feel the power of all the competing forces creating the imbalance in the environments in which they operate and realize that now is the time to transition to a human-centric perspective. And they must have the courage to speak up, understanding that they have the resources and capacity to make the necessary pivot and that doing so will increase the probability of success. Greg reminds us what a human-centric culture feels like and what it means to the people that give their precious energy to making sure the organization is successful.