Nurturing young talent from within at Marriott International

Written by
Changeboard Team

23 Jun 2014

23 Jun 2014 • by Changeboard Team

Accommodating the nationalisation agenda

Established in 1927, Marriott International now encompasses 18 brands, over 4,000 hotels in over 79 countries and 325,000 employees around the world. With reported revenues of nearly $13 billion in 2013, it has come a long way from its origins as a root beer stand set up by J Willard Marriott and his wife in Washington DC.

According to Gary Dodds, VP – HR for Middle East and Africa, growth is top of the agenda for the hotel chain and this region is a significant part of that. He is keen to drive the nationalisation agenda across the region by not just offering opportunities, but giving young nationals a career path and positioning the industry as an attractive place to work.

“Forget quotas – it’s our duty to attract, develop and retain a national workforce. But we as an industry need to do a better job of explaining the opportunities available in the hospitality sector and how these can translate into a successful career,” he says.

Getting into growth mode

As part of its ambitious growth strategy, earlier this year Marriott acquired the 116-hotel Protea Hospitality Group (PHG), Africa’s largest hotel operator. This enabled the hotel chain to jump its presence in its MEA region to more than 160 hotels and 23,000 rooms.

Its pipeline of new hotels in the Middle East and Africa to add to this total, including Protea’s pipeline, is now more than 65 hotels and 14,300 rooms. Dodds explains that the aim is to have 200 Marriott hotels operating in the MEA region by 2020 – a target his President is confident about achieving.

Dodds describes some of the HR merger process. “Acquiring thousands of people in one go is a challenge for any business, but from an HR perspective, we completed due diligence over 2-3 months,” he says. “We were excited to find a similar culture to Marriott. Protea is run like a family business and it cares about its employees in the spirit of serving the community, as we do.”

For Dodds, putting people first is what sets Marriott apart from its competitors – indeed, the company was listed as one of the top places to work in the UAE in the Great Places to Work awards earlier this year and the top hotel group, and won the Caterer global's best hotel group to work for in 2012 and 2013. However, although the company has built on this philosophy over the past 87 years with huge success, Dodds is keen to point out the value of taking a cautious approach when it comes to acquisitions.

“Protea has been successful for the last 25 years. We [Marriott] are new to South Africa so who are we to come in and impose as our senior leadership agreed? Yes, we’ve had to make some alignments straight away such as with our global reservation systems, marketing etc but everything else is to follow slowly. Right now, we are looking, asking and learning,” he says.

The organisation will go through a careful process to identify what value over time can Marriott processes add – something which Dodds anticipates will take at least 1-2 years. “As with any change project, you have to tread carefully – everyone needs to feel comfortable so that you build on your global, customer and employer brand loyalty, and bring them seamlessly together.”

Back to Marriott International overall in the Middle East and the Gulf in particular, top of the priority list for Dodds to address is the following questions: ‘How can we enhance employee career experience?’, ‘how can we position Marriott as an attractive place to work for nationals?’ and ‘how can we build the talent and skills we will require for the future?’

Developing future leaders voyage programme

Marriott’s Voyage global leadership development programme is offered in more than 30 countries around the world and was launched in the Middle East region in 2013 (Dodds having created the programme in 2005 in its earlier form with a colleague, from a smaller program inherited in another acquisition), hiring local nationals across all 42 hotels. This attracted 3,200 applications for 50 jobs across the region. This year and each year Marriott plan to hire similar numbers of Voyage graduates. The focus is on nationals of countries they operate in or will operate in, in the next 2-5 years, with a fresh focus on Gulf nationals.

Voyage is a two-year programme for graduates, explains Dodds, and in 2013, 35 grads were hired, 80% of whom are MEA nationals, including six participants from Saudi Arabia and graduates from Bahrain and Oman. Dodds is hugely impressed by the quality of those participants who he describes as “as bright as a button.” He explains that Marriott is looking to build on that for Gulf nationals in 2015 and 2016.

The Voyage programme offers a combination of practical hands-on experience and leadership training, and is designed to prepare participants for entry-level management roles.

This is all part of a wider effort to drive nationalisation in the business. Dodds explains: “Our talent acquisition manager in Saudi is a Saudi national. We also have an Emirati and Saudi lady heading up nationalisation some of our Dubai hotels” The nationalisation approach will be driven each hotel across the Gulf. Dodds hopes to hire at least two nationals from each country onto the Voyage programme next year, peaking at around 30 nationals, training each in a different discipline.

Dodds believes that a strong base of skilled nationals is essential to help drive the business and boost the economy. At the end of the Voyage programme, participants become junior managers and are in a position to begin a structured career programme with the company. A rang of Core leadership training programs unfolds to them over the years ahead to enable talented individuals to continue to grow their careers with company learning support.

Marriott's development programme

Although Marriott is well versed in providing structured opportunities for those at graduate level, the company recognises a need to reach out to people even earlier. Dodds reveals that the organisation is looking at ways in which it can engage with Emiratis, particularly those in the other Emirates, and how they can effectively attract them into direct positions.

One way of doing this is to create a Skills Academy approach development program, which Dodds hopes will completed close to year-end and launched or by mid-year 2015. The idea behind this, he explains, is to take people from high school or even those that did not make high school them
into direct entry-level positions in a hotel branch. “We have identified many roles we feel will be attractive and suitable for male and female nationals,” he says. “The aim will be to develop someone with the competency to become front desk agent, guest services, human resources, loss prevention etc, and to develop into our next generation of leaders. Success is measured not by your nationality, but by your competency.” Dodds is excited about the future talent
pool this will bring to the company and the value it will bring to nationals. He goes on to explain that some of the other Emirates can be overlooked as potential talent pools. “People [employers] sometimes forget to look at places like Sharjah and Ajman,” says Dodds. “So we are looking at those areas in the hope of starting a conversation.”

Marriott is also looking at ways in which it can make opportunities more attractive to nationals. This way, Dodds hopes to have a solution and help drive localisation even stronger in each country. For Dodds, this is not a diversity tick-box exercise but a duty and a tangible part of doing business in the region. “We have always felt we have a duty in each country where we operate to give back to the community and hire local nationals and develop them for our host governments,” explains Dodds.

“We have a unique situation in the UAE, where 80% of the population are expats, plus there is a high percentage of nationals employed in the government or in lucrative private sector positions such as banking and the oil industries. But that doesn’t stop our duty to hire, develop and encourage nationals to run our businesses in the long term. It will take time. It’s the same in Bahrain, Saudi, Oman and Kuwait – whether a country has goals or quotas is beside the point, it’s our duty,” he asserts.

From education to employment and organic skills

Marriott is also reaching out to firms outside the hospitality sector that have been successful in driving the nationalisation agenda, to help it prepare educational programmes for the academy for 2015.

Dodds is impressed by the willingness of other businesses and successful Emirati leaders that have already been through the process to share their knowledge in the space. “If we take ideas it will help drive better localisation and retention. People are delighted to share learning as it helps the nation,” he says and that spirit of nation is never stronger than in the UAE.

Dodds is less concerned about hiring people with a honed skill set and argues that skills can be taught and nurtured once someone is within our development programs. “We develop the skills we want from scratch and within 2-3 months the trainee is competent,” he says.

Dodds is also keen to point out the breadth of opportunity and career paths available within Marriott, which he hopes will entice nationals to stay with the company. “Once someone has been trained in basic skills, when they commence their job they go through a two-day ‘in the beginning’ orientation programme which introduces them to the business, basic customer service practice skills training programs etc. Then, people enter training modules to fine tune. If people show potential to lead others they can go through supervisor training and our essential skills for supervisors program, if they do that well they can go into the ‘In Motion’ programme to prepare them for management not just supervising – we have core leadership programmes to
develop people in management to be the very best leaders, to lead in a Marriott way, putting our employees first.”

He does, however, recognise concern towards the industry among some nationals. He believes there may be a misconception that the hotel industry is one of servitude but is keen to point out the pride associated with serving customers and being an ambassador of goodwill to visitors to the country. 

“Ours is a 24/7 business – we need to get better at educating people about the incredible opportunities we offer and about the fun we have in our business. We can show candidates – that there can be a two to five-year minimum period of training to help you grow a career.”

Marriott is pro-active at careers fairs and while Dodds admits that there can be ‘hundreds’ of students at the Marriott stand wanting more information about the organisation, he believes much more needs to be done to educate young people on the reality of a career in hospitality as an industry.

A need for employer-led careers advice

When it comes to career advice, in Dodds’ view, the HR industry needs to do more to engage with young local people and get the message of what certain careers involve. He believes a central resource – a go-to place for students – would be useful. He suggests that an industry website which students could access to learn about careers would be hugely helpful, adding that a partnership with a government department to make this happen would enable mass market penetration.

“If school leavers could go online and learn about jobs available or apply for positions then and there, this could have a significant impact on educating the future generation about working in this industry.

“The more people we hire, the more they will understand from friends that this is a great industry to be involved in and hopefully interest will snowball.

"We are a hospitable nation, so working in this industry is a great way to demonstrate how welcoming we are. The problem is, many nationals might not understand how this can directly affect them and their careers, so we need to work hard to redress that balance.”

Industry country web sites

As founding member of the ME&A hotel industries Human Resources Counsel, Dodds and his peers in competitor hotel companies are looking at how they can partner with support specialists and governments, to create such an industry web site in each Gulf country.

These would educate school and college leavers to the industry, and drive interested candidates directly to those companies' recruitment websites where they can apply for jobs online.

Gary Dodds

Gary DoddsVP human resources – Middle East & Africa, Marriott International

Gary has experience in talent acquisition, development and retention with unique skills in international cultures and diversity.