Arthur W. Page Society

Warning: Leading with Purpose May Make You Look Human

One common shift during the pandemic is how communications leaders counseled their C-suite colleagues to adopt a strong stance of empathy and focus on employee well-being. But what happens when it’s the CEO who is experiencing their own mental health challenges? In a troubling time would the organization lose faith in leadership if the top leader appeared...human?

“There is a strong stigma of being judged if you come forward and admit to being stressed,” said Mark Hoplamazian, President & CEO, Hyatt Corp., said during this year’s Spring Seminar. “But my own well-being is important to my ability to function. I have to be aware of my own state of mind and the impact it has on leading the organization.”

The pandemic hit the travel industry hard, causing an immediate and drastic impact last spring. For Hyatt, revenue dropped 94 percent in April 2020 alone. Hoplamazian knew what he and his leaders had to do to keep the company afloat: close hotels and furlough thousands of employees around the world. But he also knew how mindful his approach had to be in order to live by Hyatt’s purpose; to care for people so they can be their best.

The moment Hyatt faced weighed heavily on Hoplamazian, calling that period “tortuous.” He told Spring Seminar attendees that he was unable to keep his composure during the town hall when he announced the company’s closure plans. Then, after George Floyd’s death and the ensuing social justice movement, his raw emotions erupted. “I was on an emotional rollercoaster in May and June,” Hopalmazian said. 

While the company encouraged furloughed employees to take advantage of government-provided assistance, Hoplamazian didn’t wait for employees to indicate they needed help. Hyatt immediately set up a $17 million fund to help employees who could not make ends meet financially, established communications channels to remain connected with employees and partnered with Cornell to pioneer an online diagnostic, the Hyatt Well Check. This tool has helped employees identify well-being issues to enable the company and its partners to develop appropriate support programs and has become a critical part of employees’ workday as they return to offices and hotels that are re-opening. 

Haplamazian insisted that anyone who has direct reports throughout Hyatt take immediate responsibility to fully understand their own total well-being - both physical and mental - and that of their team. He also coached his leadership team to treat their employees as he was treating them: showing a significant measure of concern and sharing their own experiences of stress and anxiety of what’s going on at work and within their household, with transparency and authenticity. In essence, moving the organization from being transactionally based to being emotionally based. 

After COVID, Hoplamazinan said he plans on continuing to lead with empathy, as he learned while leading during the pandemic: being open and transparent, providing honest assessments, even if they aren’t positive and utilizing low-production-value communications with more frequency (such as using taping 2-5 minute video messages with his phone). These characteristics will continue to support Hyatt’s resilience well beyond the pandemic, proving that the leadership post-pandemic will lead with empathy first. 

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