To hear Marilyn Carlson Nelson speak in person is to understand why she is a regular on Fortune Magazine's list of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business.” She expresses practical, forward-thinking principles and emphasizes the social responsibility that comes with a leadership position.
Nelson recently shared her thoughts on business and leadership with the community at MIT Sloan as part of the Dean's Innovative Leader Series, a program of speakers chosen from among the most visible and successful global leaders in the business world.
Nelson's company, Carlson Companies, is an integrated group of companies that provide a wide variety of leisure travel, restaurant, and marketing services. The company employs approximately 190,000 people, and its sales in 2004 totaled $26.1 billion.
Founded by her father as Gold Bond Stamp in 1938, Carlson Companies was handed over to Nelson in 1998, and the now chairman and CEO immediately began to make some tangible changes.
Under Nelson's father, Carlson Companies had followed a pretty traditional hierarchical, silo-based approach to operating. Nelson, however, realized that a company so rooted in the service industry needed to serve its employees equally as well as it served its customers. In short, the company had to take care of its human capital in order to attract financial capital.
Additionally, Nelson turned Carlson Companies' operational silos into integrated services. This allowed the company to create common standards for operations and leverage each brand's services to the benefit of the entire group.
Nelson said her style of management thinking is “collaborating, consensual, and democratic.”
Nelson shared with MIT Sloan students her thoughts on a different sort of responsibility involved in running a privately held company such as her own. She advised them to think of themselves each as a steward of the company's assets for a certain length of time.
It is the steward's responsibility to add value to those assets.
“You're going to be judged by future generations, not just the next quarter,” she advised.
She said that the goal with a private company is to take it to the next generation. This means growing based on your own cash flow and debt, with close attention to the cash side of the equation.
This focus on stewardship has resulted in a deep sense of social responsibility for Nelson. She uses her expertise in her field on both a corporate and an international level.
She highlighted an upcoming meeting she would attend to evaluate ways to draw tourism back to Israel and another meeting in China to discuss Olympic preparations and viable means to preserve an historic village.
At the end of her presentation, Nelson read a letter that she had written to the up-and-coming generations of her family. Written as a response to ethical issues within the corporate world at the time, the letter was personal and practical and contained some advice about business and social responsibility gleaned from her own years in leadership.
Among the various truths about American business, one piece of advice rang especially true in today's global economy: “All companies must be stewards of human and environmental resources around the world.”