Career Development

Urgency, Proportionality and a Sense of Our Shared Humanity

Rena Reiss, executive vice president and general counsel with Marriott International, discusses her leadership style, what she looks for in new hires, and how her career has come full circle with a second stint at Marriott.

CCBJ: What led you to your current position at Marriott International?

Rena Reiss: This is my second tour of duty at Marriott. I’d been a hotel development lawyer, working for a small real estate firm in D.C., when I initially joined Marriott back in June of 2000. I spent 10 years in the law department at Marriott, then I got a call about becoming the general counsel at Hyatt in Chicago. Honestly, I spent lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out if it was something I wanted to do. My husband and I had been in Washington for a long time. It was our home. We’d raised our family there. But it was actually a good time for me to make a change, because of where I was in my career, and because the kids were grown and out of the house. So I made the leap. I didn’t know anyone in Chicago, and I’d really only been there for my college roommate’s wedding, years ago. So it was really a fresh start. My husband ended up staying in D.C. for 18 months because of his job situation, which was a bit overwhelming, but it also gave me the chance of be completely immersed in my new job. I already had a pretty broad lens on the world, and then I felt like with that general counsel role, the aperture of that lens widened even more. As a general counsel, you practice less law than you might have before. You’re much more of a business advisor. You’re much more involved with strategy. I loved it.

Throughout all this, I kept in touch with a lot of people at Marriott, because they were good friends of mine. So when they called and asked if I might be interested in coming back as general counsel for Marriott, I was happy to talk. I’d known the general counsel who was retiring, of course, because he had been the one who initially hired me at Marriott. So it was like coming full circle. But also, by then Marriott was quite a different company than the one I’d left. It had gone through several acquisitions, including the Starwood acquisition, so it was much bigger than when I’d left. But I still knew a lot of the people there, though of course they had moved into different roles in the intervening seven years. It was almost as if we had all grown up during that time.

It was also a personal decision, because as much as we loved Chicago, D.C. was home for us. We had a lot of family there, whole communities of friends there. We knew that one of my kids, my daughter, would likely move back there. And my husband and I both have aging parents who were in the area, and other close family and extended family as well. It was the right time to come back – and to take on a new role.

The ability to collaborate across disciplines, across lines, is really important, and also the ability to collaborate with people up and down in the company.

Tell us about your leadership style and who has influenced it.

I learned really quickly that I don’t know it all. There’s no way that you can know it all or do it all. So one of the things I learned quickly is to be humble. There is no shame in saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I can find out for you.” Or “I know who to call for that.” There are internal and external resources that you develop over the course of your years of practice that you can rely on. So that’s important. I love to have a strong team as part of my leadership circle – people that I have fun working with, and that I respect. Honesty and transparency are hugely important. I believe in sharing as much information as I can, which makes for better decision-making around the table.

I also really believe that people in my department – especially the people that report directly to me – should call me out if they see me heading down the wrong path. You know, challenge my thinking. I’ll give you an example of something that happened several years ago: We were about to make a decision about something, and I was talking to a small team of my direct reports, and I could see them sort of nodding. But later that evening, the more I thought about it, I decided I was making the wrong decision. And the next day, we reconvened, and I said, “You know, I’ve thought about this again, and I actually think we need to change course.” And their reaction was, “Oh, we’re so glad.” So I said, “Well, you guys, why didn’t you say anything?” You know, that’s part of their responsibility. As part of the leadership team, you’re not there just to nod your head. You’re there to challenge – to do it respectfully, of course – but make sure that we’re thinking about all sides of the question. Varying points of view are good. By the same token, I’ve also learned to take responsibility. As the general counsel, you have to make the final call. People look to you for that. You can’t delegate that. And you’re not always right. But that’s OK. You can pivot, but you’ve got to be willing to make decisions, and sometimes they won’t be uniformly popular.

I also think you have to maintain your sense of humor and perspective. What we do is very serious, and we all put a lot of thought and consideration into it. But there’s no harm in realizing that there’s a bigger world out there. I think that’s important too, in terms of a sense of perspective. I think that’s been especially important during the past eight months in dealing with COVID-19.

I’m a big advocate of kindness.

What are the qualities you look for when hiring new people for your team?

First of all, we look for excellence. As a company and as a law department, we have high standards and we stick to them. There’s really no substitute for people being good at what they do, being committed and working hard. So that means smart in the conventional sense. A huge piece of it is what I would call the ability to play well in the sandbox. We deal with a lot of constituents through our daily practice – clients, people in other disciplines, people in our own department who we collaborate with. And the people who do the best have a mindset that it’s not all about them.

The ability to collaborate across disciplines, across lines, is really important, and also the ability to collaborate with people up and down in the company. Don’t just behave well with somebody whose title is higher than yours. Sometimes the person who can be the most helpful and knows the most is somebody who might be junior to you, both in years of practice or in terms of their job title. None of that should matter. It’s about the ability to understand who you are and who can help you achieve what you need to achieve and help the company achieve what it needs to achieve.

You also have to be able to combine a sense of urgency and a sense of proportionality. Lawyers tend to be fairly intolerant of risk. And one of the things that we have all learned this year – and especially in the hospitality business – is that if you want to eliminate risk, you’d better close the doors to every one of your hotels and go home. That’s the only way to eliminate risk. What you need to do is mitigate risks. So you need to really understand the business. One of the real challenges is to say, “OK, I’ve come up with these 20 issues. I need to think through all of them. With 17 of them, I’m going to decide, you know what, it’s fine. Two of them, here are some suggestions.” A lot of that has to do with talking to your clients about how to accomplish what they want to accomplish. But then there’s that last question – the last one standing – and that is the one that may really derail the company from doing what it wants to do. So in that case, it’s about knowing how to thoughtfully collaborate on alternatives, collaborate on ways to get to the desired result. And knowing, again, when you really do have to raise your hand and say, “You know what? We cannot do that.” There are situations where you’re violating a law – those are the easy ones. We don’t get a lot of those. But there are a lot of gray areas. So when you’re hiring, you want people who are able to make those distinctions.

What would you say is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

Remember that your job is not your life. It’s an important part of your life, certainly, and those of us who throw ourselves into our jobs understand that. But at the end of the day, don’t lose sight of what’s important to you. Sometimes we learn that lesson the hard way. You hear stories about tragedies that happen to people, the loss of a spouse or the loss of a child, and you think, “God, why does it take something so horrific to make us really sit up and help people?” So it’s important to remind ourselves, and to remind the people that we work with, to keep things in perspective. All of us sacrifice something, because you can’t do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. You can’t be in all places at once. But if you lose sight of your North Star and you don’t keep your priorities straight, it actually diminishes you as a professional as well. Because what makes you human includes being a good listener and an empathetic person and being able to fit all those pieces of the puzzle together.

Are you hoping to see any changes within the profession?

Absolutely. I think COVID has probably sharpened our focus on some of the things that we should have already been looking at. Not only COVID, by the way – I would call this a summer of racial reckoning in the U.S., which has been a huge wake-up call for us individually, as a company, and really as a country. So let’s start with that. I think we need to continue to focus on attracting and retaining diverse teams. We’ve got to create opportunities. We’ve got to create good jobs. We’ve got to expand people’s networks. And we need to talk honestly about what we are confronting within our companies. I’ve had conversations with folks on my team that have been really eye-opening, to share what their community is feeling, what the Black community is feeling, and what we can do about it. It doesn’t take millions of dollars, necessarily, or huge initiatives. These are journeys that start with just a few steps. It’s like a pebble in a pond that then ripples out and can have a huge influence. We’re fortunate to be at a company that really values the diversity of the people who work here, and who travel and stay with us. But I think in the legal profession, it’s still a challenge – and we should not shy away from it. I know people say, “Wow, it’s hard to find certain people.” OK, that might be true, but we still have to do it.

The final thing I’ll say is that I’m a big advocate of kindness. I have a big sign outside of my office that says, “Be kind.” That doesn’t mean being a pushover. It means being a human being. It means being kind to people that you are working with, including the counterparties on the other side of the table. And it means being kind to yourself. I do think that recognizing our shared humanity and cutting people a little slack would be great for our profession. We are somewhat challenged by being in a profession where we often have to drop everything and respond quickly, but we also have to understand when that’s not the case and we can go do other things, either for our communities or for our families. This idea of being always on, always available, not acknowledging that we have other parts of our lives – I don’t think that’s healthy for us. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t make us as terrific as we could be otherwise, personally or professionally.

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