A conversation with William Margaritis, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Hilton Worldwide
University of Florida: You’ve worked at FedEx and now you work at Hilton, two different business sectors. What qualities are expected in the CCO, no matter the industry in which they’re working?
William Margaritis: There are several critical steps to take over the initial 100 days. The first is to listen and learn, no matter where you go. It’s important to have conversations with a broad, diverse set of executives and frontline employees to gain a deep understanding of the business and to ascertain what the expectations are from communications. It’s just as important to do a deep dive into any available research — really do your homework, especially if you’re new to the industry. You have to deeply understand the business itself, not just the communications function. Second, you have to build rapport with your executive peers to gain their trust and confidence. Third, you have to observe and learn the organization’s norms, customs and styles of interaction. Cultural assimilation is critical to your success. Fourth, you have to take stock of what you’ve inherited, particularly the infrastructure and, most important, the talent around you. And you also have to undertake scientific research (an audit) to understand the various perceptions and opinions of multiple stakeholders, including employees. This is critical as it will enable you to craft fact-based strategies, programs, tactics, and a lexicon of words and visuals and a benchmark by which to gauge future success.
All of that will ultimately help influence the business plan you put forward for review and approval. Strategy drives organization, organization drives people, and that influences the funding you will have to work with. The business plan is your road map. It must be aligned with the business objectives and be designed to add maximum value. All of this adds up to a holistic, 360-degree, multi-stakeholder view of the company, its capabilities, how it’s performing and what opportunities can be influenced by communications to drive purchasing behavior.
All the while, you have to stay tightly focused on being a great leader: paying attention to what you’re saying, leading by example, giving people the tools they need to succeed and removing any obstacles to success. Creating a climate of trust with — and among — your team members is so important. Those efforts will extend well beyond your first 100 days, but first impressions matter and the tone you set early on will probably define your leadership style.
UF: In your 100-day plan, you keyed in on listening. What are your best strategies for successful listening?
WM: I always keep Stephen Covey’s saying in mind: “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” You have to respect the knowledge and experience of the people you’re working with, at every level. To the greatest extent possible, I try to do this through face-to-face, one-on-one meetings, which can be challenging in a global organization. It helps to have a core set of questions and issues to establish some level of consistency for these discussions.
That is how you understand discrete needs and how communications can best support them. You have to listen empathetically, with an open mind, trying to see the situation as they do. “Active listening.” That’s the magic phrase. And if listening doesn’t feel like hard work, then you’re not doing it right.
UF: Would you be able to provide a couple of examples of these core questions you would bring in?
WM: For example, what are your needs from communications? Are those needs being served? What are the biggest challenges that you face? The biggest opportunities? What are your goals over the next year or two?
UF: You also talked about getting accustomed to the company’s values, its ethos, its customs. If a company is still working on value recognition, what’s the best way to go about determining values?
WM: You learn a lot in the research. You have to pay attention to what people are saying. What do they believe? What motivates them the most? What do they aspire to be? What inspires them to go above and beyond in terms of effort? What does it take to establish loyalty and then pride in a corporation?
Those values tell you about the purpose, vision and mission of an organization. It’s important to understand them at a personal level and connect with people using the language and visuals that resonate best with them.
UF: One of the big questions in the communications field right now is how to best show our function’s value to the company. What’s the best way for a communications department to demonstrate its importance both to the C-suite and to the company as a whole?
WM: Part of it is quantitative, and part of it is qualitative. You have to be cognizant of both layers. In this line of work, you have objective decisions, opinions and facts, and you have subjective points of view. It goes with the territory.
On the qualitative side, it really gets down to credibility and relationships. At the executive level, it’s important to specifically understand the needs and wants of the CEO, CFO, CMO General Counsel, Chief Human Resources Officer, CIO and other key executives whether in operations or sales. This will allow you to develop targeted value-added communications programs for each client. Demonstrating value will depend upon how well you define your unique company requirements as to reputation equity, brand equity and cultural equity. These buckets are very much interrelated, but they’re also distinctly different and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Further, every company has different needs, and they’re in a different part of their life cycle in each of these areas.
Once your strategy is aligned with supporting the business, you need to create a set of metrics that truly influence whatever your objectives are. That’s the quantitative part: deconstructing the key attributes of your company’s reputation, understanding where you stand in the market, and then developing programs and tactics accordingly.
If communications does its job, it adds value to the process and helps achieve the desired outcome. It also gives you proof points to validate your contributions at what I would call the operating level or divisional level and also in what I would call the vertical, or product-specific, categories.