How we Lead Matters

Marilyn Carlson Nelson, described by Forbes magazine as one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” will be the keynote speaker at the CEO Strategies Breakfast to kick off the 2009 BizTech Expo and Conference.

Marilyn is the chairman and former chief executive officer of Carlson, one of the largest privately held companies in the United States. Carlson is the parent corporation of Radisson Hotels, Country Inn & Suites, Regent Hotels, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and TGI Friday’s restaurants. With headquarters in Minneapolis, Carlson-owned and franchised operations employ about 160,000 people in more than 150 countries.

Marilyn was named as one of the “Top 25 Executives in Business” by Business Week magazine and has been ranked by Travel Agent magazine as “The Most Powerful Woman in Travel” annually since 1997. She recently was honored with the World Business Award during the 2009 Women’s World Awards ceremony in Vienna.

She recently finished writing her first book, “How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership” (McGraw-Hill), which debuted at No. 1 on the 800-CEO-Read list of best-selling business books.

Marilyn’s book recounts moments in her career and her life, including the early stages of her career, when she was instructed to sign her name as “M. Carlson” to disguise the fact that she was a woman. When she became CEO of Carlson, she transformed the firm from a large company into a global force, with locations and employees throughout the world.

She also transformed her company’s corporate culture to include more women and minorities on its leadership team.

Along the way, she endured the tragic death of one of her daughters in a traffic accident.

BizTimes Milwaukee invites its readers to hear Marilyn speak about effective leadership at the CEO Strategies Breakfast on Wednesday, April 29. The event will kick off the BizTech Expo and Conference, the largest business-to-business trade show in the state, at Wisconsin State Fair. For additional information, visit Attendees of the breakfast will receive a copy of Marilyn’s book.

Marilyn recently was interviewed by BizTimes Milwaukee executive editor Steve Jagler. The following are excerpts from that interview. The Q&A is followed by a series of profiles of some of southeastern Wisconsin’s most dynamic leaders: Susan Marks, chief executive officer of Pinstripe Inc.; Peggy Coakley, CEO of Coakley Bros. and Coakley Tech; Barry Mandel, president of Mandel Group; John Thiel, president of Thiel Design; and Will Allen, CEO of Growing Power.

BizTimes: Congratulations on the book. It’s a great read. Please tell us a little bit about how it came about.

Marilyn: “It was so much fun. I had no intention of publishing the book, but I did have the intention to be totally honest with my grandchildren, with one objective, that they realize there is no life – that I’m aware of – that’s ever been lived without pain and without suffering. And no amount of power or position could protect me. But also that having a commitment to trying to make a difference offers some of the most beautiful and extraordinary moments. I wanted them to know all that. I put in there some of my favorite poems, some of my favorite quotations and then found a story that worked with those quotations.”

BizTimes: Your company … Well everybody, I guess, had a momentous day on 9-11. But your company was directly affected by terrorist attacks and the fallout thereafter. You describe it in the book, but can you share how your company’s leadership prior to that attack prepared your people to adapt to that tragic moment in time?

Marilyn: “Thank you so much for recognizing that. People say, ‘How do you respond to an emergency?’ I think you’ve put your finger on it, that a great deal of your response in an emergency is what kind of culture you’ve built before that moment, how much trust you’ve built with your team, with your employees, and how much trust they’ve built with you.

“On 9-11, when we heard that the towers had gone down, it was early in the morning in Minnesota, and I got to the office, and it was pretty chaotic. And of course, we didn’t know what was going to happen next … Was this the beginning of a larger attack? We didn’t know if something was going to happen in cities across the country or the world. I was concerned that we might not be able to reach by telephone our leaders across all of our businesses across the world, so we immediately asked for what is called a (satellite) telephone bridge, because it can help you to bypass some of the cell phone traffic that suddenly clogged the networks.

“I told our people that if for some reason we lost communication, that I trusted them, that I believed in them to make the right decisions and that we as a corporation would stand by them if they used our credo to guide their actions. I also told them that first was to take care of your employees. Second, any employees who didn’t have to go home or deal with their family who would stay would take care of our customers and then we should try to take care of our competitors’ customers. And then they should take care of their communities. And they did. I was overwhelmed with the creativity, the compassion and the selflessness that was demonstrated by our people.”

BizTimes: You had at least one hotel right there in New York, didn’t you?

Marilyn: “Our hotel on Wall Street changed one of the most beautiful ballrooms in New York into a station for firemen and emergency workers. Our people went out in the worst of the rubble and darkness to find a generator to keep the property going so they could serve all those who were working in the area. So, I think creating a culture, creating trust and believing in people is important.

“There’s a story that I tell often that Napoleon told each of his foot soldiers that they should think of having a field marshal’s baton in their knapsack, because he told them there could be a moment when all around you have fallen, and you become the leader. You need to take that imaginative field marshal’s baton out and hold it up and become the field marshal at that moment. I guess that’s the way I think about our lives, that we don’t know where there’s going to be the next test, the next challenge.”

The world must feel like a smaller place to you. When you read or hear the news about what’s going on in the world, chances are you’ve got a hotel or a restaurant there, that you have a stake in everything else that goes on in the world.

Marilyn: “Yes, it’s quite extraordinary to pick up the paper. It’s the rare business that doesn’t have some type of global connection today. We have people, friends, colleagues all over the world. We’re blessed, but it also makes you feel very vulnerable.”

BizTimes: You wrote in the book about the tragic loss of your daughter, and you said the lesson you took away from that terrible experience was that life is to be lived every day, and that you should live each day so that you would be proud to put “your signature” on it, to sign your name on it at the  end of the day, like a fine painting. Could you expound upon that a little bit?

Marilyn: “That’s really my wish for people who read my book and hear me speak. Much of our life is spent planning for the day … When we’re married, when we have children, when our children graduate, when they’re married … When, when, when. And that’s important, but at the same time, today is important, because today is the day you have. We decided that the best way that we could celebrate our daughter Juliette’s life was to cherish each day that we have, knowing that she no longer has them. And realizing that we don’t know how long our lives will be.”

Leadership is always important, but I imagine in a recession, it is even more important. Does that ring true with you?

Marilyn: “I think leadership is extraordinarily important at times like this. I think this is a time where honest communication with your employees, whether you have a small business or a large business, is important. The tendency now is to get quiet and turn inward, and that isn’t what’s needed of our leaders right now. Leaders need to show some confidence, not false confidence, but we do know that we will get through this, one way or another, but we don’t know how long it will last, and we do know we’ll have to make difficult decisions in order to stay viable through it.”

Since your book was published, our country had an historic presidential election in November. I have no idea what your political views are, but politics aside, what do you make of President Barack Obama and his leadership skills, his ability to convince people to follow him?

Marilyn: “Inclusivity and fighting for human rights – whether they’re the rights of children, the rights of minorities, the rights of women – are things that matter to me a great deal. So, watching Obama gain in popularity and watching his extraordinary communication skills, his clarity of purpose, his real commitment to our country, to renewing our country was a true inspiration to me. That was a beginning, and so many people across the country caught that spark, caught that hope. And now, it’s up to us to re-enlist. We really did in the election, we re-enlisted in America’s future. Now, we have to find ways to use our energy, our skills and our talents.” 

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