When Tim Tobin asked a table of 10 senior leaders at Marriott International Inc. to define “effective leader,” he received seven different answers — it was a shaky start to the hotel company’s goal to focus on learning and development in 2015.
As vice president of global leadership and development, Tobin’s work requires him to think about what consistent and effective leadership looks like across 19 brands in 80 countries and territories — a definition in flux thanks to continual globalization and shifting guest needs.
He also creates and maintains learning programs that teach the skills required to lead in the shifting hotel-scape. To do this, Tobin draws from his personal experiences cultivating relationships and learning from peers.
For employees to learn through listening, there has to be something to hear, such as a well-crafted story. In March, Tobin published his first book, “Your Leadership Story: Use Your Story to Energize, Inspire and Motivate,” which explores how leaders can communicate their experiences to develop themselves and inspire others.
“If we pause and listen to the world around us, not that it always makes sense, but we can learn,” Tobin said. “We’re big believers as a company in learning by observing and learning by listening.”
For Tobin, that learning method came into play long before he checked into Marriott.
Resorting to Relationships
In seventh grade, Tobin had a subscription to Psychology Today.
“I’m flipping through these articles, and half the stuff I probably didn’t understand, but one or two things would jump out at me,” he said. “I was always intrigued about how the brain, behavior and people all came together.”
Tobin kept his subscription all the way through college. He graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Delaware and earned a master’s in organizational management from the University of Phoenix in Tucson, Arizona, in 1996. In 2002, he finished his doctorate in human resource development from George Washington University.
During his classwork, he and his classmates talked about culture, teams and individual adult learning and leadership development. Tobin learned from his peers and what was going on in the business world, rather than from an article or academic source. He joined business consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, where he created learning initiatives for organizations such as the U.S. Army and Internal Revenue Service, among others.
After six more years of learning from colleagues, clients and leaders, Tobin wanted to own his programs from start to finish. The opportunity presented itself in 2006 at tax preparation company Beers and Cutler (now Baker Tilly). As director of talent development, the chief operating officer said he needed to spend his first six months building relationships before building programs.
“I said I couldn’t just do that,” he said. “There’s nothing tangible, and I want to show what I’m capable of.”
So he came to an agreement with her: He would make connections with the firm’s leaders, but while doing so he’d ask them what they thought needed improving, which learning programs they would keep and which ones they would fix.
Their input helped him turn development at Beers and Cutler from a “get it done” kind of activity to something embedded in the organization’s culture. At his first “State of Learning” address to the company, he asked the room how many had contributed to development programs, either by teaching a class or leading a lunch-and-learn. Only five to 10 people stood up. When he asked the same question four years later, 80 percent of the organization rose to their feet.
In his last 18 months at Beers and Cutler, Tobin focused on building a leadership development program. That experience, plus his ability to build and maintain relationships, got him to Marriott.
Originally, Tobin applied for a job different from the leadership development title he holds now. But when it was filled internally, someone in Marriott’s recruiting office who knew him from years before recommended he put his name in for the vice president position.
“Everywhere I’ve gone in my career has somehow leveraged or relied upon someone in my network,” he said. “In many ways, I was at the right place at the right time.”
Marriott’s Learning Concierge
It was more than fate that fit Tobin to Marriott.
“When Bill Marriott was asked by students: ‘What’s key to your leadership success?’ he said, ‘Ask your people what they think,’ ” said Steve Bauman, former vice president of global learning who retired in April.
When Tobin arrived in 2011, he echoed his initial steps at Beers and Cutler — he started building relationships and asking what people wanted in order to evaluate three executive programs that had been in place prior to his arrival.
Many of his conversations with leaders led to a request — they would say they had someone looking to build their communication or strategic vision skills. Tobin would promise to look for something that would fit the need, but he said “the research took on a life of its own. While Marriott was in a great place with the volume of their offerings, it wasn’t a centralized place.”
Thus the “Leadership Learning Guide” was born. Tobin partnered with a team working to define key competencies at Marriott and built a directory for employees looking to develop their leadership skills through formal classes and informal experiences, such as self-coaching or quick reminders. Tobin calls it his proudest achievement.
It’s not the contents but their effects that make the “Leadership Learning Guide” a reflection of its creator’s philosophy. Tobin said promoting informal practices opens a dialogue between managers and associates; this develops a relationship that gives up-and-coming leaders an idea of what skills they need to work on to move up the ladder.
No leader goes undeveloped at Marriott, as the company offers multiple courses and career paths for up-and-coming employees. One of Tobin’s proudest achievements, apart from the “Leadership Learning Guide,” is Elevate, a yearlong development experience for aspiring general managers that blends self-assessment, webinars, mentoring and development planning.
“Any great leadership program is going to have to start with self-awareness and end with development planning,” Tobin said. “You have to know where you are at the beginning of the road map to get the most out of your development.”
Some learning professionals don’t see self-awareness as the start-all, be-allfor leadership development, however. Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, said no amount of self-awareness can replace external perspective.
Marriott International’s Tim Tobin says he supports each brand in each country to meet objectives, but he also gives them “autonomy to move quickly to meet” needs.
“The only way to really build self-awareness is to increase outsight by interacting and getting feedback from different kinds of people and by seeing how you behave in different kinds of situations,” she said.
Between Tobin’s emphasis on relationship building and experiential learning approach, Marriott’s leadership development has that covered. But other challenges thwart his work.
Booking Time, Making Accommodations
One of leadership development’s barriers is its high-level audience.
“When you get to a certain point in your career, you have a lot less time, and you might be a little more skeptical of certain programs,” Tobin said. “You need to be highly engaging, and you need to drill down into the issues that are important to the audience.”
Tobin said he has some advantages in the fight for engagement. Marriott leadership programs have prestige, so there’s a level of appreciation just to be invited. Getting them in seats is just the beginning — Tobin works with speakers and facilitators to make sure they connect with the audience so that by week two, attendees are engaged. By week three, they’re out of the classroom and participating in experiential learning that connects what they’re learning to Marriott’s functions.
He also plans to integrate bite-sized development to meet Marriott’s leaders continual time crunch. Inspired by the success of TED Talks, Tobin has asked leaders in one of the organization’s core disciplines to commit 15 minutes on a biweekly basis to development — five minutes to plan what they’re doing for themselves, five for their teams and five minutes to communicate plans to someone else so they can be held accountable.
Development challenges aren’t just internal. David Rodriguez, Marriott’s executive vice president and global chief human resources officer, said the company faces several shifts in its business as well as its clientele. The new generation of guests has a greater affinity for using technology in all facets of life. This means hotel managers have to keep up with the company’s efforts to integrate smartphones and the Internet into its practices.
Technology also has had an effect on Marriott’s competition. Rodriguez said even though vacation rental site Airbnb Inc. isn’t a major competitor, its growth has taught the hotel industry that nontraditional entities can threaten any business model. The same goes for websites that aim to be intermediaries between Marriott and its consumers, such as Google.
“On one hand, you say [hospitality] is a fairly simple business: You have these big buildings and provide rooms for people to sleep and work in,” Rodriguez said. “On the other hand, it’s as complex a business as you can imagine because the interactions with our customers occur through various technological platforms.”
To complicate things further, Marriott offers 19 hotel brands, from luxury resorts under the Ritz-Carlton name to the more ubiquitous Courtyard and Fairfield establishments. These types exist on American soil and around the world. Marriott also wants to expand its presence in the Middle East by 50 percent and Asia by 30 percent in the next several years.
“I want to be there to support each continent, brand and discipline in what they need to meet their objectives,” Tobin said. “But at the same time, I want them to have the autonomy to move quickly to meet those needs.”
Measurement at Marriott
Tobin also balances between revamping programs that need help and hanging a “do not disturb” sign on those that are working. While some learning leaders might rely on metrics to determine where each initiative falls, leadership development poses a challenge because of its innate immeasurability. Yet, Tobin has found a way.
“We only measure what we can take action on,” he said. He uses typical satisfaction survey results as soon as they’re collected, sharing them with facilitators so they can adjust their teaching methods or subject matter for the next session or cohort.
Tobin also looks at broader performance metrics such as a return on investment on a limited basis because of how many activities he has going on. Some of Tobin’s initiatives save the company time and money. Elevate, an experience-based general manager development program, cut speed-to-performance time to two to four weeks from 10 to 12 months and has prepared 400 employees to be able to fill 300 positions added during Marriott’s recent expansion.
Tobin’s pride and joy, the “Leadership Learning Guide,” provides evidence of even more savings. Since its introduction, 15 to 20 percent of Marriott’s management and leadership population has taken part in the informal learning, rather than enrolling in a formal class. Tobin said such classes cost an average of $300 to provide, which means by cutting down on their enrollment, he’s saved the company between $750,000 and $900,000 a year.
Tobin is the first to admit that it’s not an exact measurement. Regardless, that’s a large chunk of his annual budget that he can use on other initiatives. “We want to prove our case and our point,” he said. “At the same time, we’re just happy making sure we’re meeting the strategic needs of business and helping move us forward.”