Bill Marriott Talks About The Spirit to Serve

In 1997, HarperBusiness released The Spirit to Serve: Marriott's Way, co-authored by Marriott International, Inc. Chairman J. W. "Bill" Marriott, Jr., and Kathi Ann Brown, president of Milestones Historical Consultants. The two collaborated over the course of eighteen months to produce an informal, first-person account of Bill Marriott's forty-plus years as head of the world's largest hospitality company. The Spirit to Serve was Marriott's first experience with writing a book. Brown has authored six other corporate histories. Here, Marriott shares a few highlights of the project.

Q: Writing a book isn't a small undertaking. Why put yourself to the trouble?
JWM: Actually, the project was fun. The reason for writing the book, of course, was serious. Marriott celebrated its 70th anniversary in 1997 and I wanted to capture on paper what makes us tick, so we can keep on ticking for at least another seventy years. The fun part was reminiscing about the past, pulling out and reading old letters and memos. That's something I don't often get a chance to do. Eventually, of course, the reminiscing had to end so we could make decisions about what needed to go in the book. That was tough. Boiling down several decades' worth of ups, downs, good times and dumb mistakes into a short, readable book isn't a walk in the park. Having a co- author helped. I had someone to help me weed out what wasn't important and provide an outsider's fresh viewpoint.

Q: What does the title--The Spirit to Serve: Marriott's Way--mean?
JWM: The title sums up what I think lies at the heart of Marriott's success: not just service, but the spirit to serve. The reason we get up in the morning is to serve people, our customers. Doing that well requires an upbeat, go-the- extra-mile attitude, or spirit. When you've got a company that's as big and far-flung as ours--more than 2000 hotels around the world--you need a giant `hook' on which all of your employees, at every level, can hang their hats. The spirit to serve is Marriott's hook. Every associate--whoever and wherever they are in the company--knows that the name of the game is going the extra mile for everyone, all the time. It's a critical element of the "we're-all-in-this- together" culture that my parents forged when they started the company back in the 1920s. And believe me, we don't want to lose that spirit. There's no way we could have grown from one small root beer stand into a multi-billion company if we had a bad attitude toward our customers, or more importantly, ourselves. Attitude is at least 90 percent of the game, especially in a service industry. Hard work and lucky breaks make up the rest.

Q: Okay, that explains the first part of the title. How about the second: "Marriott's Way"?
JWM: That's easy. We're in an extremely competitive business. The hotel and contract services sectors have absolutely taken off, especially in the past 15 to 20 years. Companies that plan to be in the business for the long haul have to have a strong sense of self, core values that don't change. Otherwise they'll lose their way and get left behind. Marriott's no exception. We've been around 75 years, and there are certain things we've been doing pretty much the same way--"Marriott's Way"--all those years. That's why we're still here. The spirit I mentioned above is one thing that hasn't changed. Putting our employees first is another. Being consistent and fanatical about details are others. I don't want to imply that our way is the only way of doing things. Or that we're not adaptable. But we've found that a few basic rules have brought us success, and seen us through some very tough times. When we've gone off track--like in the late 1980s when we nearly lost the company after a decade of wild growth--it's usually been because we've strayed from those basic rules. The book is by and large an effort to write down those rules so we don't lose sight of them. Corporate culture is a fragile thing, and in a big company it can be really tough to preserve. A book is just one of many ways to keep the culture in the spotlight. I also thought it was important to write down not only things we've done right, but the things we've done wrong. Mistakes really are life's best teacher. The past is a great roadmap to the future.

Q: So, does "Marriott's Way" apply only to Marriott?
JWM: Not at all. The lessons we've learned over the years aren't unique to our company. Treating your employees well, for example, is something every business can do, if it has a mind to. Learning to listen is another example. Managers in all kinds of businesses need to master the art of listening.

Q: Many companies of Marriott's vintage opt for writing a standard corporate history. You decided to do a book more in the hands-on tradition of SAS Airlines president and CEO Jan Carlzon's Moments of Truth. Why?
JWM: We started out with the idea of doing a company history for our 70th anniversary. Dozens of people inside and outside of Marriott were interviewed with that in mind. But in the end, I realized that I wanted something different. I'm a history buff, but I'm also a pretty practical guy and VERY hands-on. So, instead of writing a history and highlighting a few `lessons learned' along the way, we turned the process inside out. The lessons are the centerpiece, and we drew on the company's history to back up what we said. Basically we took a very nuts and bolts approach.

Q: What did you learn from the process of writing The Spirit to Serve?
JWM: That there's a lot more to writing a book than just sitting down with a pen and paper, or a computer. You really have to think about what you want to say, and who you're trying to reach. You have to be patient enough to take the time to do it right. And you've got to feel strongly about what you're saying. Otherwise you're just wasting time, paper and ink that could be better spent on other things. Having said that, would I do it all over again? You bet!
Read an excerpt from The Spirit to Serve

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