How We Lead Matters

By: Derek Stone
Marilyn Carlson
Marilyn Carlson Nelson is intelligent, articulate, and a passionate advocate for the capabilities of women in the workplace. An authentic global business leader, Carlson, who has a net worth of 1.4 billion, keeps a busy schedule, traveling about one third of the year throughout the U.S. and overseas. She co-chaired the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2004 and has held a number of other high-level leadership positions at the WEF and other industry councils.

She took over as chief executive of the family’s leisure and
business services empire in 1998 and served in that capacity for ten years. Today, she oversees one of the largest privately held
companies in the country, whose brands include Park Plaza Hotels & Resorts, Radisson Hotels & Resorts, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and T.G.I. Friday’s Restaurants.

The recipient of prestigious awards from the governments of France, Sweden and Finland, she served as Chair of the National Women’s Business Council, a bipartisan advisory council to the President and Congress (2002-2005), and is currently Chair of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. She is also active in several nonprofits, including the World Childhood Foundation, and also sits on the boards of ExxonMobil and the Mayo Clinic Foundation.

Selected by Forbes in 2004 and 2005 as one of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, Carlson is also a regular on Fortune magazine’s list of Most Powerful Women in Business, and has been selected by Business Week as one of the top-25 executives in business. In addition, she has been ranked by Travel Agent magazine as The Most Powerful Woman in Travel annually since 1997.

Her book entitled “How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership (number six on the Wall Street Journal best seller list), is an inspiring testament and legacy to her positive example of leadership. The executive made her first trip to Puerto Rico recently to deliver a thought provoking keynote speech at the first Ana G. Méndez Leadership Conference for Women.

Leadership that matters

When looking at the leaders of the past few years, Carlson believes it is important that we differentiate the really successful, mission-driven leaders from those who were designated as leaders but who really demonstrated that they are preoccupied only with their own interests.

Looking forward, true global leaders, she points out, will be those able to work in a cross sector capacity. “It is no longer going to be someone who is just a politician, just a business leader, just an executive director, or just an officer of a non-profit.”

The next generation of leaders will be judged by their capacity to work with others, by their understanding of social and environmental implications, as well as their capacity for job creation and economics.
“Business is the engine to actually fund everything,” says Carlson, “from taxes to philanthropy.” Carlson says being clear about individual roles and sector objectives, as well as seeking ways to come
together to make a difference, is the way to achieve the common good.

Historically, business has not made the common good a priority. Carlson explained that over the last century, a change has occurred.
Now, business leaders need to run their businesses not only profitably, but responsibly. There will be more regulations that demand transparency with the public, regarding issues like the environment, taking care of employees, and what is been done in the communities. “This is a new era where all the stakeholders are being given more consideration; the shareholders, customers, employees, communities.”

There are two concepts that Carlson challenges all business leaders to focus on. The first is stewardship, which is not the same as optimizing financial performance. “It’s really balancing today, tomorrow, and the future, taking them into consideration in decision
making and capital allocation.” The other concept is sustainability. Only paying attention to quarterly earnings, measuring and rewarding profit, and then sometimes rewarding losses in a way that unbuckle
shareholders from owners and CEO’s - none of that is sustainable. “My message really comes back to what can each one of us do to
help make more ethically guided decisions; to take into consideration the economic engine because we need the jobs, so anybody who is too critical of business should think twice. We are suddenly realizing that without business growing, a lot of the other things we care about are put at risk.”

Women and leadership

In the corporate setting, experience tells Carlson that women are more likely to push to identify the down side, or to really try to quantify or analyze the risk, and accept it, once it is clearly understood. “I would say that it has been more the women’s voice that has pushed for total transparency or more rigorous analysis of risk.”

The executive clarifies that there’s value in both women and men. “I don’t want to leave the impression that it is either or, I think that it is a partnership. In leading my company, I need both at the table.”

Leaders: nature or nurture

Whether leadership is an intellectual capability that allows people to “connect the dots” or the communication skills that allow them to draw other people’s respect and trust, it is not clearly defined. However, Carlson believes leadership can be taught. “I have invested a lot of my personal time at the University of Minnesota, Carlson
School of Business, and now at a Center for Integrative Leadership. You can take people who have the instinct and desire to lead and you can give those tools and skills that will increase their probability
of success. Much of leadership begins with some kind of competence, real talent and skill in a specific area.” When somebody is extremely skilled in one area, they have a platform to lead, she argues.

After studying the science and the art of leadership, Carlson has arrived at the conclusion that leadership results from a combination of both genes and environment. “Is it in the genes and chromosomes
or is it in the inspiration that comes from a nurturer or role model? We know that mentoring actually increases the probability of leadership success.” ■

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