Wake up at 4:30 AM in a hotel room in a foreign country. Grab some coffee, head into the office, and prepare for the marathon, back-to-back schedule you have filled with meetings, dinners, and events with everyone from business leaders to members of the press to governmental officials. Oh, and don’t forget to carve out time to call and text your family. And you can’t miss the meet-and-greet with a few dozen of your 350,000+ global workforce. When all of that’s over, head back to your hotel room at 10:00 PM and go to bed (but not before responding to all of the emails and texts you’ve gotten throughout the day). Finally, get ready to do it all over again.
To most of us, this sounds like a marathon sprint: the kind of thing we could pull off once, maybe twice, a year. But to Christopher Nassetta — CEO of Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Inc. and one of Glassdoor’s Highest Rated CEOs — it’s all in a day’s work.
Talking to Chris, you can’t help but be impressed with him. Not only has he managed to accommodate this schedule — he thrives off of it. And in doing so, he’s helped build up a company that’s expanded its global footprint to 104 countries. Express your admiration, though, and he’ll deflect the praise. The CEO plays a part, he’ll acknowledge. But the real champions are those who serve customers day in and day out at their 5,000+ properties around the world.
Glassdoor caught up with Chris recently to discuss what it means to be a top CEO, how to drive home culture and purpose to a workforce of 350,000+, how he manages his schedule, and what cooking for the entire staff of the Waldorf Astoria taught him about being a leader.
Glassdoor: Let’s start by talking about what leadership means to you.
Chris Nassetta: That is sort of a meaty topic that you could spend a long time on, but I distil it down to two things. I think leadership for me is about drawing a picture of the future for our organization… that motivates and inspires people because they think it’s a picture that is reflective of a future that is better than the present. If you’re going to draw a great picture of the future, [though], it’s really about having a great strategy: Where are we going as a company? It has to be something that people can touch and feel that inspires and motivates them and does so at all levels of the company, particularly in a business like ours where you’re dealing with people at the corporate level as well as frontline team members.
The second thing is you have to build a great culture. There’s a lot of ways to do that. I think of it in a very simple way — you have to establish what true north is. Who are we? Why are we here? What are our values? What is the reason we get up every day? And I think in today’s vernacular, the way to describe that is purpose. To me, leadership is about establishing the vision of the future, [along with] great strategy, and building a great culture that is driven by a purpose that motivates people to move forward together.
Glassdoor: I’m glad you brought culture up — I’m curious to hear about how you work with HR to build the culture at your company. HR can often be kind of a secondary or tertiary function, but what we’re seeing with a lot of the CEOs on this list is that working with HR is really critical to them.
Chris Nassetta: I would say there is nobody that I spend more time with in this company than Matt Schuyler, our CHRO. We both are here very early in the morning, so if I’m in the office, I literally start every day by talking to Matt about people, about culture, about purpose, about lots of different things that are going on in our organization. Obviously in the travel business, I travel a fair amount, but if I’m not in the office I still talk to him from the road quite frequently. To me, HR has really become the key enabler to what I’m trying to do. Again, if you think about the key job of a CEO in today’s world, HR becomes at least half of the equation because the fact is, you can have the greatest strategy in the world, but without the culture to support it, you can’t get the job done… They’re sort of the two big pistons that have to be fully firing.
I view [Matt] as a partner in this business to be able to accomplish our objectives, the [key] objective really being to make sure everybody is rallied around our purpose. We spent a lot of time trying to define purpose in a way that resonates with everybody, the 350,000 people that make up our team member base across our whole ecosystem. It’s a complicated process with people at all levels of the organization, and our geography is 104 countries now, so there’s a huge amount of complexity. Matt’s team is what allows us to really sort of tap into what our people are thinking and feeling as we try to move forward. We have a very defined purpose, which is about delivering great experiences for customers, about delivering great returns to our owners, about having tremendously positive impact in the communities we serve as we serve thousands of guests.
Glassdoor: And how do you communicate that purpose to your 350,000 strong global team?
Chris Nassetta: Ultimately and most importantly, [it’s about] creating opportunities for our team members so they have a line of sight to a better, brighter future in their lives and are contributing to that in a really big way. The simple thing about why they come here is it’s about showing hospitality, being the most hospitable company in the world to all of our stakeholders (not just customers, but our key members, our community and our owners as well). Then trying to… communicate it [so] that people understand our vision, mission, values, and key strategic priorities [around] where we’re going and how we conduct ourselves, and getting people intensely aligned around that so that everybody everywhere understands… and is motivated and inspired by the fact that not only do they know where they’re going, but they feel like… they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
If you really want to ultimately outperform all the competition, you need to get a group of people banded together around a common cause with a great strategy… it’s amazing the opportunities that you can take advantage of and the obstacles that a group can overcome when they really feel inspired by a purpose as opposed to just a component piece of the overall equation.
it’s amazing the opportunities that you can take advantage of and the obstacles that a group can overcome when they really feel inspired by a purpose as opposed to just a component piece of the overall equation.
We obviously all have roles and defined roles in the hotel and in the corporate environment. [If] people wake up every day thinking, “I’m just coming in to do that role” as opposed to “I’m part of this bigger purpose,” I just don’t think they end up as motivated and as inspired which means that they’re not serving our customers as well. They’re not ultimately allowing us to create the kind of opportunities that we otherwise could create.
Glassdoor: How does that mission and purpose present itself on a day-to-day basis at Hilton? That is, what do you think is it about Hilton that makes working there every day a great experience for both the corporate employees and the frontline workers?
Chris Nassetta: I think it is very much a family environment… we all know we have a big job to do, and I think everybody in this company works really hard (particularly on the frontline, but even in the corporate side) and really does genuinely get motivated by the positive impact we’re having on people’s lives. I think they’re inspired by that. I think that they can see in real-time if you’re in a hotel that serves customers. You can see that your fellow team members have opportunities to grow and learn and do bigger and better things. It’s a big family with 350,000 plus people… [and] sure, we all have to work hard and we have a job to do, but we look out for each other and as a consequence, together we look after our customers.
Glassdoor: As you talk about all of the growth opportunities you have for your employees, it makes me think of a story I read recently about how before working your way up to CEO, you started your career scrubbing toilets at a hotel at age 18. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Chris Nassetta: [Laughs] I think that [the person who wrote that] came up with a wonderful headline: “My career started in the toilet.” I guess technically it did. It was interesting. I was a kid who needed to make some money It was summer, and I was talking to my father about getting work. I was a bit interested in the hotel business, and he said, “Great. You ought to go get a job in a hotel, but if you’re going to do it… you should start at the bottom. Get behind the walls. Figure out what makes this thing tick.” So I got a job at the Capitol Holiday Inn down on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. I was the lowest-level person in the engineering department. When you’re the young person, the low person on the totem pole, you get all the jobs that nobody else wants to do. That, in this case, was a lot of plunging toilets.
I ended up doing lots of different things, but getting a real opportunity to sort of see what happens. Most people… sort of see the hotel business through the lens of being a customer, which is a fine way to see it but it’s not really giving you much of the picture of what any hotel ecosystem is like. Getting behind the walls really gave me a pretty in-depth understanding of what was really going on behind the scenes. I think the real appreciation throughout my career is how hard the work is, how diverse the work is, how intellectually stimulating the work can be. What it takes to do what we do is a very complex equation that, until [you] got behind the walls, is hard to see.
While I haven’t worked full-time in the back house of a hotel in decades, every year I make all of our senior management (including myself) do an immersion program where we work a week in a hotel somewhere in the world. In my case, I started there, [but] a lot of those in our corporate environment came [from] outside the industry. Like Matt Schuyler, he doesn’t come from a hotel background, so he had never worked in a hotel. Other examples are our finance or tax [teams]. Again, they see it through the lens of having been a customer while I want people in our management team, if they’re going to be making decisions that affect the people on the frontline, to understand what is really going [on], how hard the work is, and relating to our key members in the frontline but also seeing what it is to serve customers [in] real-time.
In the end… we’re a business of people serving people. Period, end of story. If we ever lose sight of that, it’s a real problem. The hundreds of thousands of people that are serving customers on the frontline are doing the real hard work, and making sure that we understand and support that and make sure that all the decisions that we’re making, whether it relates to the properties, corporate or otherwise, are ultimately focused on supporting them in that work. [It’s] mission critical for us because the minute we stop serving customers and really delivering authentic experiences, it’s an issue for our growth and performance.
We’re a business of people serving people. Period, end of story. If we ever lose sight of that, it’s a real problem.
Glassdoor: You’ve really risen through the ranks in the hospitality industry. What would your advice be to somebody who is maybe in a similar position as you were — just starting at the bottom, but wants to grow?
Chris Nassetta: It’s funny. We have a bunch of interns here that are interested in the hospitality space — they’re here at our corporate headquarters. I met with a bunch of them at the end of last week. A couple of them were saying, “We’re interested in the business, but we’re just trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives. What advice would you give us?” The advice I gave them, which I give in some form frequently, is… find something that you have some passion for, and that can be an industry, that can be a component of an industry. If you’re interested in hospitality, that is great. [But] make sure that you have a passion for it. If you don’t, you might lose interest. Ultimately, of course, I hope it’s Hilton, but make sure that you’re part of a culture that is focused on purpose, that is focused on more than just the mechanics of a business, that is focused on more than the individual parts… Make sure that it’s an organization that invests in you, because particularly as you’re getting started out, it can be rough. You don’t know much. You’re learning, and if you’re in an organization that is not really purposeful about what they’re trying to accomplish or about developing their people… It’s not that you can’t succeed, but it makes for a really rough beginning.
Then make sure that when you get there, you apply that passion and you take advantage of the development opportunities and the wonderful culture that you’ve now become part of. Make sure that you contribute in every way that you can, and really become a team player. Nothing gets done in today’s world without a village, so to speak. While we all make individual contributions, ultimately it’s about how you as a component, particularly as you’re getting started work with other people in collaborating. Ways where obviously you’re contributing and you’re creating significant value, but you’re doing it as a member of a team and not just as an individual contributor.
Glassdoor: You mentioned that you typically wake up really early. Could you tell me a little bit about your daily routine?
Chris Nassetta: There is no real typical day for me, because in the job I have, there are so many different things I’m doing. I travel extensively, probably 70% to 75% of the time — a lot of which is international. Between all of it, I’m on the road a lot. But I get up very early no matter where I am, no matter what time zone — I get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning naturally. [If I’m at home], I don’t waste a lot of time in my house in the morning, because nobody else is awake so there’s nothing for me to do but shower, get dressed, and get out of there. My first stop is religiously to go to Starbucks. I’m generally the first person there — some days I’m waiting for them to open. I get a little bit of breakfast. I get a little bit of caffeine. I come to the office. I do a little bit of pre-work preparation for the day. Go over whatever briefing materials I need to look at, figure out who am I meeting with? What calls do I have? What meetings do I have? Have I been through everything? I like to be prepared. I do a lot of preparation on the weekends, by the way, so that I don’t have to get behind.
I then meet with Matt Schuyler who is equally early. He may be the only other person in the office at that time, honestly. I think he lives here — he’s even earlier than I am! Almost every day, I’ll spend time talking with Matt. It could be big picture things like purpose, or broader organizational issues. It could be individual people issues, it could be regionally-oriented, what have you. It will be both a combination of big, strategic, people or culture issues or just things that demand attention.
Then my day will get going, which will be a combination of a thousand different things. Meetings with team members of various stores. Meetings on business issues. Sometimes press, meetings with owners, meetings with government officials. It’s sort of a cornucopia of different things. My day will typically go long. If I’m in town, I will generally have something I need to do, some sort of dinner or something. I religiously make sure I’m home at least two nights during the week to have dinner with my family, though. On those nights, I’m probably home by 7:30, quarter to 8. If I’m out doing something else, I’ll do a relatively early dinner and try and get home by like 9. Then I see the kids, see my wife, go back and clean out a bunch of emails.
I’m religious about emails. I never go to bed without having cleared [my inbox] out. Every email or text or anything, I respond to before I go to bed. I’m neurotic, admittedly, but it’s partly because I have a big family. I have six kids. Texts generally will all be from them or my wife, and emails will be from everybody at the company. I realize that the world is going to go on without me — I’m not an egomaniac — but I also realize that people are trying to get things done. In some cases, it depends on me — they need feedback, and if I’m not responding, I’m slowing them down. I take that responsibility seriously… and typically, it’s not frivolous. The sooner that I can respond to them, the sooner they can move on. Then, I finish that, watch the news, and go to bed. If I can be watching the news at 9:30 or 10 and asleep before 11, life is good. Then I get up and do it all over again.
I’m religious about emails. I never go to bed without having cleared [my inbox] out.
Glassdoor: What about when you’re traveling?
Chris Nassetta: When I’m [traveling], I really want to make sure that I’m as productive as possible. We fill the schedule quite completely — [I might be] spending time with our teams in the properties, in our corporate offices, and meeting with local government officials because in a lot of parts in the world, that is really important to our business. Then there’s a fair amount of press just to make sure that people understand our story out there. The owners in many parts of the world are some of the most influential business people in their local community, so I spend time with them. Obviously, I do breakfasts, lunches, dinners, entertaining, [etc.] Those are really long days. Typically, I wake up 4:30 or 5 and finished the day at 10 or 11 PM. I do that for five days, then come home and relax.
Glassdoor: Piece of cake, right? [laughs]
Chris Nassetta: As I describe that most people say, “My God, that sounds exhausting.” The truth of the matter is I come back from those trips more energized and inspired than anything else I do. The simple answer is it’s because of our people. When I’m out around the world in the field, I’m getting unbelievable opportunities to interact with all of our team members, particularly our frontline team members that are so inspired to do great things for our customers, [and] our corporate people around the world. When I’m interacting in the hotels, it’s electric. You spend the time with the people and you realize no matter what their job is, no matter how hard it is, they love what they do. They always have a smile on their face. When you come to visit them, they’re so excited. It isn’t about me — it’s about them really celebrating the great work that they do. When I visit them, it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to celebrate them and for them to all celebrate themselves and all the hard work they do. I’ll get hugs and shake hands. I’ll do a million selfies with people. The energy and enthusiasm and pride in what they do and the company and the impact that they’re having is absolutely on fire. It’s like a running joke. Every week I get home from one of these big trips, my wife and kids are like “All right Dad, settle down. We know you love what you do.”
When I’m interacting in the hotels, it’s electric.
Glassdoor: You travel quite a bit. I’d like to hear what one of your most memorable trips has been recently, and what made it so special?
Chris Nassetta: People ask me, “What is your favorite place to go?” And my answer is always “The last place that I’ve been.” There’s a lot of heart and soul everywhere I go. In Oklahoma City, the week before last, I came to open our first Tru — that’s a new brand [Hilton created] a little over a year ago. It’s been like a rocket ship — we’ve done over 400 deals for properties already. We opened our first one in Oklahoma City, and I got to go out and celebrate our owner who built this. He’s an amazing human being — his name is Champ Patel, and he is a classic entrepreneur. Born and raised in India, moved to the United States with his family. He wanted to be in the hospitality business. He is a great partner of ours. He was the first one to sign up for Tru, and he was so focused on it that he wanted to do whatever it took to be the first one to open. He was in competition with a couple of others, but he sort of pulled out all the stops to get it done. I got to celebrate the night before with Champ and his family for the amazing work that they have done in their community of Oklahoma City, and the broader region in the southwest. I got to spend the night in our first Tru ever, which is a spectacular product. I got to spend time with our team members and celebrate what was years of work, although it came together quite quickly from the launch of the brand to the first opening.
This is one of those ideas that we had where we started from scratch. We built something that I think really resonates with customers. It’s going to have a real impact in our communities. It’s going to create tons of opportunities and jobs for people, and we’re going to have thousands of these things that are going to be contributing to communities around the country and around the world. It all has to start with one, and that was the one. That was pretty cool.
Glassdoor: Just to wrap it up, I’d like to get a few fun, personal facts about yourself that shed some light on who you are as an individual.
Chris Nassetta: I love these! First of all, I married my high school sweetheart. I’ve got six daughters — I actually met one other person in my life that had six daughters, and it was recently, but I don’t know of anybody else. And I love to cook. I love to entertain. I think I’m a pretty hospitable guy.
Glassdoor: Nice! Do you have a special dish that you make?
Chris Nassetta: My grandmother on my father’s side is Italian, and she taught me the most amazing spicy red sauce with Italian sausage when I was kid. I’m not going to say in any way that I do it justice relative to my grandmother, but I do a pretty good job with it. It has become a little bit of a favorite around our business. In fact, when we closed one of our hotels recently, I made some for the team.
Glassdoor: What’s the story around that?
Chris Nassetta: The one I’m talking about is the Waldorf Astoria, which is almost 100 years old. It’s getting ready for a massive renovation, so for the first time in my 30 or so years of doing this, I presided over the closing of a major hotel. I had done one of my immersions there, and I went back working in the kitchens. I told them I love to cook, and they were kidding me, like, “You don’t know you’re doing.” Now, these are some of the best chefs in the world. I said, “My stuff maybe isn’t as sophisticated, it doesn’t look as good, but I promise you it tastes great. I guarantee you that.” They told me to prove it, and I said I’d do it. They got me all my ingredients and they gave me a sous chef, but the next day when I was done, I cooked for the entire kitchen staff and wait staff. On that night, it was probably a couple hundred people or something, and they loved it. They ate every morsel of it.
So when the Waldorf was closing, the team asked me if I would come back. We were doing a closing event for the whole team plus alumni — about 1500, 1700 people in the main ballroom. They asked if I would come cook the sauce for the whole team, which I did. I had to have a lot of help for that because cooking for 1500 people is quite an undertaking, but I pulled it off. It was quite a touching event — very emotional, because you had team members whose families had been a part of the Waldorf ecosystem for two or three generations. It was a really heartfelt event, and I was happy that I could participate in it and provide a little comfort food.