People + Strategy Journal

Summer 2022

Five Lessons in Resiliency Without Normalcy

To be resilient, leaders must be willing to change based on the lessons they have learned. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced us all to be more open to change. And that will serve us well moving forward.

By Matt Schuyler, Hilton
Five Lessons in Resiliency Without Normalcy

In February 2020, Hilton was just completing a year of record growth. Our pipeline of operating hotels was the largest in Hilton history, and we hit all our performance metrics for the year in record fashion. Not only was travel booming, but we also had just learned that Hilton was ranked the No. 1 Best Company to Work for by Fortune for the second consecutive year. In so many meaningful ways, we were riding high.

Then, three weeks later, as the COVID-19 pandemic took root, our global occupancy levels dropped to single digits, we were forced to close hotels around the world, lay off team members, and completely restructure our corporate offices. It was that abrupt. Our business went from all-time highs and record numbers to a virtual standstill of travel. It was all deeply traumatic for us, as it was throughout the industry. To say it was unprecedented is an understatement—but we had to figure out how to move forward.

Like all companies, to get through those early weeks our leadership team had to buckle down, do some soul searching and grind our way through some long days and tough decisions. There was, of course, no playbook for COVID-19, but Hilton had the great fortune of having a seasoned leadership team in place. This team had weathered other crises together, such as 9/11 and the financial downturn of 2008. Still, we had many colleagues in the organizational ranks who had never held a leadership role during a crisis, so we understood that we were going to have to act and teach at the same time. To add to the challenge, we would have to do it all virtually. 

Of course, we were not sure how long the pandemic was going to last. No one knew. We were hopeful that this was a brief situation, and that we could manage our way through—but despite talk early on about flattening the curve quickly, we understood that it would take travel a while to recover. We also anticipated it would be a potential start-stop environment for a long time. Against a backdrop of ongoing human tragedy, our task was to prepare the organization to withstand a storm that no one could forecast.

Now, after nearly two years, we can look back and take stock of the positive by-products of the pandemic. Organizationally, Hilton is more unified now than before, and we have learned much along the way. We know with complete certainty that we are stress-tested and can withstand incredible challenges. We tested our shared principles, and in turn, identified the following lessons in resiliency:

1. Communicate Early and Often.

You cannot communicate too much during a time of crisis—period. We communicated more with hotel owners, team members, customers and guests in those early months of the pandemic than we had in probably the last 10 years combined. It was a memo a day. It was contextual sharing to our teams via video calls. It was collaboration across the enterprise to prop up everything we needed to keep going. This rapid-fire communication gives people the necessary context to understand the decisions the organization is making. That in turn makes them feel valued and part of the mission, which can make all the difference in weathering a crisis. It helped people settle into the situation, which ultimately allowed us to push through the next 18 months. It sounds so basic, but it was a key to our successful navigation of this challenge. 

While communication remained key, there were some unique differences to this period. In previous crises, we took a mission-based approach by building a crescendo through planning our actions, then communicating them, and then executing these actions. Throughout the pandemic, planning, communicating, and executing were happening in an ongoing loop against a backdrop of almost constant change. There has never been a sense of “mission accomplished” or resolution, and we’re still not back to where we were in 2019. 

Our lesson from this experience is that we no longer need to build a crescendo with every communication. We must stay flexible and take actions in tandem with planning, executing and reacting on the fly. Going forward, our mantra is to overshare, overcommunicate and give stakeholders the context they need to understand the decisions we are making. 

2. Lead with Empathy. Always. 

COVID-19 is unique in the sense that it is the first crisis in 80 years to impact every human being on Earth. I would compare it to what it must have felt like to live through World War II, where almost everyone on the planet experienced related stress in some way. In both instances, business leaders were guiding their organizations through a crisis while also feeling the stress and strain of change and trauma both at work and at home. 

Unlike World War II, we were also literally seeing how others dealt with COVID-19 as we saw the inside of their homes, their kids and loved ones in the backgrounds, all through platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Despite being virtual, this transparency brought a level of connectivity and empathy that was previously unseen. It helped us lead our way through the crisis with deep personal ties to the decisions we were making. It was easier to put ourselves in the shoes of everyone who was affected by our decisions.

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That’s a good lesson for the future. Even if you are not personally impacted, employ empathy to guide your actions as if you are. Having personal stakes helped us be more sensitive in what we shared, our vulnerability and how we led. It helped us understand when the organization was fatigued and needed a break, even as we were still sprinting to solve the latest challenge.  

3. Recognize that a Sustained Crisis Takes a Mental Toll.

Organizations are becoming better at helping their employees manage mental health and individual traumas. However, the last two years—with the pandemic, many social and political tensions, and now the war in Ukraine—have shown the mental toll that many sustained crises can take on our teams. We were previously hardwired to think we could tough it out for a period of days and weeks, but years of being deeply impacted both personally and professionally is a different story. 

At Hilton, we now understand at a deeper level the impacts of a traumatic event or elongated crisis. It was an important lesson in adjusting our hardwiring as it relates to crisis management. Work-life integration with more flexibility and access to holistic health resources continue to be critical motivators for our team members. Throughout the pandemic, we have launched new benefits—like back-up childcare for parents, leadership guides on how to create psychological safety within their teams, new educational resources to help build careers, and employee resource groups that focus on inclusion—all with an eye toward our team members’ body, mind and spirit. 

This approach does not stop with our own team. It has also influenced our business model, down to what we offer to and how we serve our guests. Combine nearly two years of pent-up travel demand with all-around consumer exhaustion, and it’s no surprise a trend for wellness experiences quickly emerged. We now put a greater emphasis on our guests’ holistic health; going beyond access to a gym or a spa and focusing on ways we can help them connect with their mind, body and spirit throughout their entire stay. We are using these insights to drive innovations in everything from the dining experience to digital products, guest amenities and strategic partnerships that ultimately benefit our guests’ overall well-being.

4. Work as a Team.

Resiliency, in some ways, is the ultimate team sport. You’ve got to be in it together, and there will be times when you falter and must rely on others to keep the momentum going.

During COVID-19, we operated more like a true team than ever before. We intuitively understood that concepts like credit and responsibility did not matter as much as working together for the common good. Any shred of the old “I have my own business unit to worry about” attitude quickly faded away because the survival of the enterprise and our owner ecosystem was paramount. People volunteered to help each other. Each of us had low moments and high moments. There were also times when one person would shine, and then someone else would step up.

I am glad to see that principle and mindset still reigning even as the immediate COVID-19 threat recedes. There is less focus on business-unit performance and much more of a collaborative, enterprise-wide effort. In retrospect, we probably should have overtly declared that approach at the outset—it probably would have helped us get there faster. Still, we instinctively had each other’s backs, and that approach stays with us today. Our culture is built on hospitality, so in many ways helping each other is second nature. But the pandemic brought us together in ways I don’t think we could have imagined. 

5. Accept that There is No “New Normal” and Lead with Purpose.

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As team members return to the workplace, we are noticing that many of them are looking for the old normal or the new normal, and we do not have a definitional framework for what the new normal means. It is ironic because anyone who has staffed a hotel for a week will tell you that there is no such thing as a normal day! The events of the past two years suggest that society should stop trying to define the world in terms of what’s normal, because normal might be an illusory concept.

Coincidentally, in seeking the definition of “what’s normal” and reflecting on the world around them, many people are re-examining where their time goes. This has sparked what’s often referred to as The Great Resignation, and no industry or company has been spared. Instead of thinking in terms of a framework of normalcy, our team has doubled down on helping team members rediscover and define their professional “whys”—encouraging them to pursue choices and opportunities that are rooted in their personal passions. Our commitment to purpose, learning and development, internal mobility, and creativity is helping with recruitment and retention issues, and sparking more innovation. We aim to help team members avoid another commonly discussed concept—the Great Regret, or leaving a company for the wrong reasons.  

This is a valuable part of the way leaders need to lead right now, because change is happening at such a rapid pace and, as the saying goes, it is the only constant we have. I believe that if you seek definitional success with a new normal, you won’t be satisfied—and you will potentially miss an opportunity to stay true to your principles and organizational objectives.

We know that to be resilient, you must be willing to change based on the lessons you have learned. Many people are change-resistant—it is human nature. Fortunately, one silver lining the pandemic gave us is the gift of forcing us all to be open to change. That is a strength that will serve us well moving forward.  

Despite the tremendous loss brought by the pandemic, we are thankful for the resiliency demonstrated by our leaders and teams. Among the loss, much strength was found. Unity, service, empathy and, most of all, resilience, continue to be indelible parts of who we are as an organization. These gains came at a high price, but we know that they fortified us to press on in an atmosphere of almost constant change.  

Today, I am proud to say that Hilton earned #1 on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity and was ranked #2 in the 2022 Best Company to Work For by Fortune—our seventh consecutive year on the list —perhaps in large part to the resiliency that the entire Hilton team has shown throughout the course of the pandemic and will continue to build on in the future.  

Matt Schuyler is the Chief Brand Officer for Hilton. He can be reached at office_of_matt_schuyler@hilton.com.