Marriott president, CEO describes leading in a changing world
By Kaitlyn Ruhf
Just before Anthony Capuano ’87 graduated from Cornell, he did eight job interviews and earned offers from all but one of them.
That one rejection stuck with him.
“For 35 years, I carried around that rejection letter because that rejection letter was from Marriott,” said Capuano, who is now the president and chief executive officer of Marriott International, the world’s largest hospitality company.
In a conversation with President Martha E. Pollack, as part of the university’s Hatfield Lecture, Capuano explained how this setback inspired personal reflection and led him to an important conclusion about success and leadership.
Capuano, a graduate of the Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration who has worked at Marriott for more than 25 years, is Cornell’s 40th Robert S. Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education. He was named chief executive officer in 2021, and appointed president, in addition to being CEO, two years later.
“Humility is critical,” he said at the lecture, held March 24 in Alice Statler Auditorium. Back in 1987, his Marriott interviewer did not see Capuano as a culture fit at the time – at 21, Capuano said, he had not yet learned the humility that would ensure his success at the company.
Now, Capuano has learned to believe that, in addition to humility, business leaders from any industry must also remain intellectually curious if they want to be successful.
“The art of deliberate, engaged listening is evaporating,” he said. “The most effective leaders that I’ve met across industries are those that have the discipline and desire to put their phone down – to look their counterpart in the eye and actually listen to what they have to say. I think those that unlock the power of engaged listening have a tremendous advantage.”
Capuano also advised current students to remember the nobility of serving others – to always carry the spirit of service no matter where they are in their careers.
“At the core of what we do every day is the privilege of being woven into the fabric of people’s lives,” he said. “They come to our establishments to celebrate weddings and anniversaries and birthdays. It’s a privilege to try and enhance those memories.”
Pollack asked Capuano how Marriott was able to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, he said, was a threat to the very existence of the company and the entire hospitality sector.
Revenue per available room dropped around 90%, he said, so during the early days of the pandemic, the focus was on survival. Making decisions was especially challenging since there was no model or point in history to inform confident predictions about the future.
Once the company was able to raise almost $8 billion in liquidity, Marriott could shift to recovery. Capuano was then responsible for Marriott’s global operations, and he faced the enormous task of changing practices and protocols all over the world in order to restore confidence in the safety of travel.
“We had to rewrite our operating and cleaning protocols,” he said. “Then we had to procure the materials necessary to execute those protocols in 138 countries. And we did that in about four weeks, which was pretty remarkable.”
Any doubts about the resiliency of the industry have been answered, he said.
“The resilience – that need within the human condition to explore the world – came through and continues to come through as we see travel continue to grow,” he said.
And as the world and climate continue to change, Marriott is committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Capuano sees this commitment as fundamental to the future of business.
“Beyond my personal passion and recognition that I’m a temporary resident on this beautiful planet,” he said, “I have a personal responsibility to try and care for the planet for travel and tourism in particular.”
Many of the company’s constituents – including current and future associates, guests, owners and investors – are also deeply passionate about the health of the planet, as well as its impact on local communities and markets.
“Even if you don’t have moral feelings about sustainability, it is without a question a business imperative,” he said. “Our constituents hold us accountable ... for setting real measurable stretch goals, and then reporting on our progress against those goals.”
Kaitlyn Ruhf is associate director of campaign communication for Alumni Affairs and Development.