As an advocate for the power of travel to transform people and an influential HR professional, it is no wonder that episode 38’s guest Jessica Lee, makes a massive impact with her work at Marriott International. In this episode, she joined host John Hollon to have an expansive discussion on talent retention practices, lateral service, reskilling, upskilling, and why digital learning is crucial.
As an award-winning HR leader in the travel sector, Jessica explains how the industry was decimated by the pandemic and what steps Marriott took both pre and post-pandemic to overcome this imposing time. She expounds on how their culture is built on foundations of learning, access to opportunity, and a lateral service mentality that helps all employees have insight into one another's challenges. As she puts it, “we want you to know what it's like to walk in the shoes of your people.”
John Hollon 00:02
Hello, I'm John Hollon and welcome to the Talent Experience Podcast. Today's guest is my friend Jessica Lee. Jessica is an award-winning HR leader with 20 years of experience as an influential and creative business partner. She currently works as Senior Vice President of Global Talent Development at Marriott International, the biggest hotel company in the world. Jessica has more than 20 years of in the trenches HR experience that ranges from small companies to the public sector, and presently a Fortune 500 company. She has touched nearly every HR function and is a true HR generalist at heart. All of these days, she's hyper-focused on driving business performance through talent development at Marriott. Outside of her Marriott life, Jessica can be found pondering the world of work and HR, with her friends Kris Dunn and Tim Sackett who are both former guests here on the Talent Experience Podcast, and she does that on the HR Famous podcast. Jessica has also presented, chaired, and served on panels at many HR and recruiting conferences, and has been called upon and quoted on workforce and HR matters by media outlets ranging from the New York Post and US News and World Report to Mashable and Glamour magazine in the US and the UK. So hello, Jessica, how are you today?
Jessica Lee 01:53
I feel like wow, that bio it's embarrassing, but then like, oh I feel like yeah, I've done well haven't I?
John Hollon 02:03
You did really well, you should be very happy about that, and proud of it.
Jessica Lee 02:07
Thank you and actually because you know my friends, Kris Dunn and Tim Sackett since they've been on your podcast. How lucky are they get a shout-out in my bio, ha I'm so generous. Oh, my goodness.
John Hollon 02:19
Well, great. So let's get started because this goes really quickly. I really want to talk about retention and talent development, but first, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you. How did Marriott, a giant hotel chain, many different brands, do navigating the pandemic and lockdown? How did it impact your job and what you do personally?
Jessica Lee 02:41
Well, we could probably spend a lot of time talking about that. The whole thing but we won't. So it's been really rough for us the pandemic and lockdowns because travel as an industry was, you know, completely decimated, We had hotels that were closed left and right and things are picking back up, but I think as we all are experiencing with variants and additional lockdowns, there's a lot of ups and downs. So probably the hardest period of my life from a professional perspective and how it affected me personally, though, and just my job and what I do. You know pre-pandemic, my job was really focused on partnering with our 30 brands, so we've got 30 brands there's a lot of talent-related work to be done with them, but a focus on brand, you know, really isn't the priority during a pandemic. So, you know, because I have that generalist background, I really was asked to take on a variety of special assignments to help us get through the pandemic. We we're having to figure out things like how to furlough people at scale, which is, you know, unfortunate and horrible. We we're having to figure out things about how do we right size the organization. We were having to figure out things around how do we, you know, figure out delivering great service with masks on or new cleaning protocols and things of that sort, and what kind of learning do you need in support of it. So it's been a really, really wild year and a half for me, but we've done some settling back in we've done some shifting of things and my jobs changed a bit since then. But I, I've had to wear a lot of different hats and learn a lot of different things in the past year and a half because of the pandemic, it's been crazy.
John Hollon 04:25
You told me that your focus at Marriott these days is more on retention and talent development. How's that going, and how's that changed over the big challenges I think that all organizations have had to face through the lockdown and pandemic and all of that. Because it seems to me so many of your jobs you can't do remotely you know, you got to have people face to face whether it be a housekeeper, or a bartender, or a front desk clerk. Really, really tough to do those from a remote setting the way a lot of organizations could.
Jessica Lee 05:03
Yeah, totally. So, you know, because travel was impacted so heavily during the pandemic, and it still has we've not recovered fully. You know, it's no secret it's been in headlines and news like we had to lay off a lot of folks, we had to furlough people. So we're running really lean in terms of our teams, and you know we'll anecdotally talk about, you'd have general managers, you know, cleaning rooms doing and wearing every single hat that they would have to wear in a hotel. From a talent development perspective, one of the things that I think we were really smart about, to give ourselves some credit pre-pandemic, was we made some pretty big pivots towards digital learning in the years leading up to the pandemic. You know this actually was really clutch for us going remote for our populations who could be remote, but then also for people who are having to take on new jobs and learn new things. And in the current situation we're in, we're bringing a lot of people back to work and they need to be reskilled, upskilled, refreshed on things, and digital learning has actually been really critical for us. To give people access to learning just in time, for, you know, for a role that maybe they didn't have to do previously, and then all of a sudden, they're having to do because of the new environment that we were in. Then for people who were virtual, you know, not relying on classroom settings to do learning, being able to tap into digital and virtual things, was huge for us. So it was this interesting situation that we were in pre-pandemic, of trying to modernize the way that we think about talent development as a company, and then it really, actually positioned us really well during the pandemic. So that's been something, you know, interesting and exciting for us to see is kind of like a silver lining of like, 'oh we actually were, you know, well-positioned and prepared,' and look at how we're able to leverage some of these investments and strategies that we're putting in place ahead of the pandemic. So that's been kind of one of the big, interesting things from a talent development perspective. Then, you know, on the retention front, you know, we really, really believe that you know, development is a huge vehicle to allow people to find meaningful opportunities, upskill themselves, and all that leads into retention for us. So, just huge, huge priority for us as a company to continue to focus on, you know, developing our people as a retention strategy, but also just to help us be competitive as we continue to grow because we're still growing like gangbusters.
John Hollon 07:39
It was one of the things that jumped out at me when you were talking about managers having to make beds and to do things. That's kind of the Southwest Airlines approach, where when they have a need, it's kind of all hands on deck. Sounds like you, you guys took a form of that, too.
Jessica Lee 07:59
Yeah, I mean, there's a few things like culturally, one of the things we really believe in is like, as a manager, or leader, like, we want you to know what it's like to walk in the shoes of your people so that you are, you know, from a functional perspective you can speak to what they're going through. I think that there's a piece of that too, but there's also just from like a service mentality perspective, probably similar to Southwest, where we're all trying to accomplish the same thing, at the end of the day, create an amazing guest experience in our hotels, and so we talk a lot about this idea of lateral service. And it's something that we teach, and we really infuse into a lot of our training programmes is to cultivate that. So we find it really important and it even bleeds up to the corporate level, like for myself, if I'm at a hotel and I see like a candy wrapper or gum wrapper or something in the hallway, I pick it up, and my husband and my family always comment, 'You don't work here.' I'm like yeah, but I'm a stakeholder. But I do. Yeah and so I've probably have done things like that in people have thought, 'Does she work here? What's going on?' or where I might ask, 'Oh, are you looking for something?' and so I think it's something that is very cultural to us, but also something that we teach, because we really believe in the concept of lateral service. So yeah, big part of our DNA, and I love to be compared to Southwest because then culturally, they're an awesome company.
John Hollon 09:25
Well, that's good to hear, you know talking, just get a little deeper into the whole retention thing. Talent mobility is really a growing concept these days, and how much talent mobility is there at Marriott. Given the size of your organization and the huge number of brands under the Marriott banner, one would think that you have an organization that could provide a lot of different career paths and experiences for people, in a way that a lot of companies can't.
Jessica Lee 09:59
Yeah, we are fortunate in that there's so much opportunity for talent mobility. So one of the things that is always very humbling when you meet long-timers at Marriott, is that you've got folks who've worked 20, 30, 40 years for the company. The reason why they stay for so long is, one culture is super important for us and I think the culture is strong, but part of it is also just the mobility. Like you can literally have multiple careers within a career at Marriott where you're not just you know, a finance person for your whole career, not just an HR person or an operational person. We've got really great data around and just also like anecdotes, of something that we talk a lot about is for our general managers, you know, the number one job in a hotel, we usually estimate that it's probably about 50% of our GMs is actually started out in an hourly or non-management role. So on the front lines and worked their way up, and I think that's like a testament to all of the mobility that does exist. Then even, you know, for myself, I'm coming up on my 10th anniversary with the company in January and you know, I've stayed with HR this whole time, but I'm probably on my sixth job in a 10 year period and it's all because of the mobility and opportunity that we really have within the company, given its size and scale. So it is unmatched, and something that we're really proud of and we can really sell when it comes to recruiting efforts too. So it's pretty exciting, you can have multiple careers within a career.
John Hollon 11:40
Well, I've stayed at many, many, many Marriott's over the years. I was working for a newspaper company where I stayed at the Key Bridge Marriott outside of Washington for weeks on end, at like a certain time of my life. I always bumped into a lot of people back then, and this goes back 20 years or so who were, you know, had come up through the company in one path and then move to like a different one. I always thought, wow, that's a really great thing that people can break out of, maybe the stereotype that a lot of folks have in a company this size because they see the potential and the value of retaining folks who really get our culture.
Jessica Lee 12:28
Yep. 100% I mean it's very impressive when you talk to people who've been with the company for years and seeing how they've been able to pivot. I think part of it is, yes, 100% a belief in someone's potential, having the right attitude, especially in our hotels, but there's a strategic piece around, like rounding them out, right? Like if you're going to be a general manager, you need to know how every department works and so we'll strategically try to give people those rotations and take those chances. Then for me, just like in terms of like the job I have, it's really exciting that we also are trying to bolster it more meaningfully with really good talent development or management development programmes so that it's supporting people not just, you know, having to learn on the job and things of that sort. So we truly believe in it, and I think, it'll continue to be, you know, a key retention driver for us going into the future. But it is, it's pretty cool when you see how many different paths people have taken, and they're all very unique is like the other thing. There's not a cookie-cutter way in which people get to, let's say the role of a GM or a VP or whatever. There's just so many different configurations and variations of how people do it, which is also pretty cool.
John Hollon 13:44
As somebody who's coming up to their 10th anniversary, so you've been there a good amount of time. Did the culture surprise you when you first started? Because my view as a guest and somebody who's followed the Marriott brand for a lot of years, the culture there always seemed to me to be really strong, You felt that, you felt that when you checked in, you felt that when you ate, you felt that when you had like a problem, you know, just everything around that was really, really strong. Those things take so long to build up. I've seen them get torn down really rapidly, so maintaining a company culture that feels that way to like an outsider, like me, must take a huge amount of work.
Jessica Lee 14:30
You know, I think the fact that we have such good retention, longtime leaders who stay with a company, like that has definitely made a difference in terms of the culture being passed down. I also think like, tactically, there's like really good ways that we continue to drive culture, like you got to have the right leaders, right people, you got to have people saying the same message. But you know, if anyone who's worked in like a retail or hotel environment, you know, the role of certain things like the daily stand up meeting. Your pre-shift meeting, everyone spending 15 minutes together before they hit the floor, but for us, it's not just focused on the operations of the day. It's like a real strong focus on culture and service, and I think we've been able to maintain some of those things like through some of these tactics. But the first part of your question, did it surprise me? I think you hear about culture, but then you see it once you're really like in it and I think it was surprising for me how strong it really is. As well as like how it's extended into, like our corporate office, because I'm a corporate person, I sit you know at headquarters, and I think the way that it's bridged from like Mr. Marriott's mouth and his persona and everything he has engrained into the company, into the hotels, but still back up into corporate is pretty interesting. We are a service company at the end of the day and that also like extends to, you know, the culture itself, including at a corporate level. So, yeah, it's pretty cool to see.
John Hollon 16:04
Well and back to the comparison with a company like Southwest. Companies where the culture is real strong, I found, you feel it just with everything that they do. That all of it, it's infused with culture, and you also feel when it's not there, when you go to a company where the culture is not very strong, and so Marriott I always feel at every brand, and I probably stayed at half of your brands, you just feel that culture, it just oozes out from everybody in everything that they do. And having worked in places where you struggle to get the culture going the right way. I just think about how much work that that must be, but how fulfilling it is when you see it, actually clicking the way it does there.
Jessica Lee 16:53
Yeah, I mean I do think a lot of it is leadership at the end of the day, but it doesn't come without challenges. I mean, you know, we went through an acquisition of Starwood a few years back, well, it's been more than a few years at this point, but you know, talk about like, a classic, but, you know, MBA, you know, business case to dive into around merging two companies and trying to figure out. Like, how do we make sure culture is preserved, or that it's going to be a good match for one another. So I think there's still things that we're figuring out related to that, but culture also is changing. I think, as we continue to grow, globalize and you bring other business extensions or acquire different brands and things of that sort. So it's fluid, but definitely still strong and I think, you know, leadership has everything to do with it in my opinion.
John Hollon 17:42
Well, you know, I would love to continue chatting, there's so much more we could talk about, but we're at that point where we're running out of time. So there's a question we ask everyone who comes on the Talent Experience Podcast because we wholeheartedly believe everyone should have a job that they are really passionate about. So Jessica, what do you love about your job and what you do?
Jessica Lee 18:03
Well, you know, I am at the end of the day, like I'm accountable for and oversee a strategy related to how do we develop talent, and the fact that like, that is the heart of the job is something I love and that I'm passionate about. Because just on a personal level, like I consider myself a lifelong student of many things. I love learning just as an individual, like I could be learning about something in my personal life, or it could be something professionally. So to be charged with, you know, doing something and fostering that in other people and using it to drive performance in the business, but also just making meaningful impact on you know, individuals, people at a very individual level, I think it's pretty cool. It fits in with, you know, something I'm personally excited about, and so I love that, that's you know, the reason behind the passion for it.
John Hollon 18:56
Well, that's great, and what a great way to end So, Jessica, thank you so much taken a little time out of your busy schedule to talk with us here. Today. Your perspective is incredibly insightful, and we really appreciate you being here. So for the Talent Experience Podcast, this is John Hollon. Thanks for listening.