How Hyatt’s CEO is leading with empathy through COVID-19 and a corporate reckoning with racism

August 11, 2020, 9:30 AM UTC
Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian on Leadership Next
Leadership Next's guest Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian.
Courtesy of Hyatt

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Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian likes to lead with empathy for his workers and his customers. But on the Aug. 11 episode of Leadership Next, the Fortune podcast about the changing role of business leadership, host Alan Murray asks, “How do you lead with empathy when your business is falling apart?” 

The company’s bookings were down 94% year over year in April, Hoplamazian said, and the business environment was unrecognizable. So to lead his company through the pandemic the right way, he said his leadership team had to take a step back to get acclimated to the new and ever-changing coronavirus business landscape. 

“It’s been the most challenging time in our industry, in the history of the industry,” he said. 

The company laid off around 1,300 people at the corporate level, amounting to 35% of staff. And at the hotel level, which usually keeps 130,000 people on payroll, the layoffs, furloughs, and work leaves are still unfolding as government assistance dwindles and demand builds back up slowly. 

These layoffs took a serious toll on Hoplamazian, who called it “the most difficult and challenging time that I’ve ever experienced as a person.” 

To deliver these decisions with as much empathy as possible, he and his leadership team made them promptly, to avoid uncertainty, and they set up a care fund to enhance the financial safety net laid-off employees would be receiving from the government. The company also created a platform on which people could keep in touch with and support those who no longer have access to company email. 

On top of the coronavirus pandemic, Hoplamazian has also been focusing on the corporate reckoning with systemic racism spurred by George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests across the world. Around the 19:45 mark, he and Murray discuss Hyatt’s response and the personal effect the push for equity and inclusion has had on him.

Hoplamazian said he believes that the vulnerability that COVID-19 has created allowed the movement for equity and inclusion to prosper in a way that will have long-term effects on the business world and society at large. 

“My own personal journey in this has been now—and I’m embarrassed to say this—to really understand, probably for the first time, how deep systemic racism is and also how much of an ecosystem it requires in order to rectify,” Hoplamazian said. “I think we’re seeing the whole forest now, not just the individual trees of representation or minority content in our supply chain, but seeing how this extends to our communities. And that to me is the major difference.”

To hear Hoplamazian’s views on mask requirements at his hotels, executive compensation, why testing is so important for the hospitality industry, and how the pandemic will change travel for good, listen to the full episode. 

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