Q&A: Marilyn Carlson Nelson on women in leadership and her legacy

(Marilyn Carlson Nelson talks women in leadership roles)

Hotel Management has always made a concerted effort to underscore and highlight women in leadership roles. In our series: "Women & Leadership," we do just that. In June, we profiled Commune Hotels' CEO Niki Leondakis, a Q&A you can read HERE.

Next up: Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the former chairman and CEO of Minnetonka, Minn.-based travel company Carlson. And what an opportune time to speak to her, in light of the impending sale of Carlson’s hotel division to Beijing-based HNA Tourism Group. Carlson Nelson spoke with Hotel Management to share her thoughts on the changing landscape for women working in hospitality. The co-chair of Davos, Switzerland’s World Economic Forum in 2004, a former chair of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, and named to Forbes magazine’s list of “The World’s Most Powerful Women,” system-wide revenues at the family-owned business nearly doubled to $40 billion under Carlson Nelson’s tutelage and women came to comprise nearly half of all senior management positions.

HM: It's great to speak with you on the topic of women in hospitality and also considering Carlson's hotel division sale to HNA. How do you feel about it all?

Carlson Nelson: At this moment, when there is a change in Carlson’s portfolio, and, of course, changes in my perspective as the former CEO and chairman of a family business that is celebrating its 78th anniversary, I am, in a word, grateful. I am grateful that this interview gives me the opportunity to salute the contributions of the global hotel industry that I have been so proud to be part of during my career.

HM: What advice would you offer to millennial women working in hospitality today?

Carlson Nelson: Firstly, congratulations for choosing a very rewarding industry. Hospitality has historically been very welcoming of women and, in recent years, we’ve seen a concerted effort to move women through the ranks.  When I was CEO at Carlson, my executive team and I deliberately set out to create a meritocracy—an environment that continues today in which women and men are rewarded equally. This effort resulted in women comprising 49 percent of our senior management positions and it has helped us to attract the very best talent. But it is critical that the candidates are prepared to assume these roles. For those who have their sights set on managerial positions, I would suggest that they take a course in finance for non-financial executives. I’ve seen too many women (and men) with amazing “servant hearts” bypassed in their career aspirations due to a lack of understanding of the financial piece, which, of course, is what sustains the whole.  

HM: What do you think is the single biggest obstacle facing working mothers today and how do you think that could be overcome or improved? 

Carlson Nelson: Certainly, there are more obstacles at some companies than others. It’s important that women do their homework to identify those companies that have created a family-friendly culture. For example, at Carlson, we were recognized several times by Working Mother magazine for our flextime, our on-site daycare and facilitation of daycare at other sites, adoption benefits, maternity and paternity leaves, and we were an early supporter of gay partner medical benefits, which is a point of pride for us. Look for data such as this and research board lists and officer lists to see if there is female representation at those levels. Studies have shown that companies with women present in those positions tend to do a better job of supporting women at all levels. Finally, I would advise women working in the industry to make sure that they are not the obstacle. Advocate for other competent women and for the systemic changes necessary to expand access to opportunities for all.

HM: Were there any lessons that you learned about women and leadership while you worked alongside the Queen of Sweden to co-found the World Childhood Foundation whose mission is to protect vulnerable children around the world?

Carlson Nelson: Her Majesty Queen Silvia has been a tremendous source of inspiration for me and so many others around the world. There was no obligation for her to speak out about a horrific topic like the sexual exploitation of street children. But once she became aware of this issue, she raised her voice to shed light on a very dark topic. This compulsion to protect children resonates strongly with me. While I was Carlson’s CEO, we led the industry as the first North American, global hospitality company to sign the international Code of Conduct to combat the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism. But you don’t have to be a Queen or CEO to make positive change. I firmly believe that if each of us looks around, we will see that we all have a platform—sometimes large, sometimes small—to make a difference. We must start from where we are.

HM: As a woman and an internationally recognized captain of industry, what would it mean to you if the U.S. elected its first female president? 

Carlson Nelson: My answer is in no way intended to be political commentary, but rather an observation. We have to accept that the U.S. is late to the party when it comes to placing women in high-level executive positions. In business, the percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOs has been stalled between 3-5 percent for several decades, and we lag well behind many countries in electing female heads of state. Britain, Germany, India, Israel, Chile and a host of other countries have already reached this milestone. Yet research tells us that role models are important, and that having women in leadership positions in all sectors changes the possibilities not just for every woman but for every society. As a business leader, my primary concern has always been to choose the most qualified candidate for the job. That means drawing from the widest pool possible without consideration for factors beyond competency, professionalism and a dedication to a shared goal.

HM: How do you anticipate the hospitality industry evolving in the future?

Carlson Nelson: For those of us who have the privilege to serve in the hospitality industry, we must create cultures of respect. Our companies must compete responsibly. We must support those communities in which we operate and we must always revere the fact that collectively we can impact the world in positive ways we may never know—one encounter at a time.