Ed Fuller was at a corporate meeting at Marriott International Inc.’s Washington, D.C., headquarters on Jan. 31 when events in Egypt started turning ugly and the former Army captain decided to turn his beliefs about leadership into practice.
Fuller, president and managing director of international lodging for Marriott, has been in charge of Marriott’s 14 properties in Hawaii for the past 21 years. During that time he’s also traveled to hot spots such as Thailand, Mexico, Lebanon, Kuwait, Pakistan and Indonesia whenever trouble threatened Marriott’s employees, guests and interests.
"I have always believed in the philosophy that you lead by example," Fuller said last night via telephone from Cairo. "If our hotels our involved, I believe I have to be there to support our people."
It is a philosophy that was ingrained in Fuller in Vietnam, where his actions earned him the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal. It is the same philosophy that prompted Fuller to write his first book, "You Can’t Lead with Your Feet on the Desk," due out March 1.
"You don’t have to be in a crisis situation to lead by example," Fuller said last night. "Rather than sitting behind a desk, you want to be seen out in your plant, which in my case is the hotel. … Listening is critical."
Fuller flew from Washington to his home in Orange County, Calif., to repack for the Middle East and found himself in Dubai on Wednesday and in Cairo on Thursday.
None of the seven hotels that Marriott manages in Egypt has been damaged, and none of the guests or employees has been seriously injured, Fuller said, although many Western journalists set up impromptu bureaus in Marriott-run hotels.
When Fuller visited the Marriott-run hotels, some of the hotel owners told him, "We really didn’t think you’d come."
With tanks rumbling through the streets and the sounds of gunfire in the distance, Fuller has since heard story after story of uncommon courage and ingenuity from Egyptian employees who took time from their own families and homes during a time of political upheaval to protect Marriott’s guests and hotels.
When police disappeared from some of the hotels, housekeepers and kitchen staff stood in groups to stare down potential looters and anti-American protesters, Fuller said.
"They thought by showing numbers at the gates that anybody looking in might suspect we had more people than we did," he said.
For the most part the employees were unarmed, Fuller said.
"But I’m sure a culinarian had a knife or two," he said. "In all cases what’s really amazing is our associates have had to leave their families at home to take care of people in the hotel."
A housekeeping supervisor who has worked for Marriott for 20 years told Fuller, "Most importantly, we’re going to take care of your customers."
Said Fuller, "It’s that ownership of the hotel by individual employees that has renewed my enthusiasm. That sentiment was repeated from the most junior associate to the most senior manager."
"People here in the hotels stood by their positions — their posts, if you use a military term," Fuller said. "Therefore, they should see their management structure support them. That’s something I believe in."
Fuller plans to leave Egypt for Bangkok on Wednesday and will take with him the lessons of leadership he saw from his days in Vietnam to his most recent stint in Egypt.
"It’s important to understand the culture of your associates, whether you’re in Cairo, Thailand, L.A., Honolulu or Des Moines, Iowa," Fuller said. "So if you’re the boss and you’re locked up in an office, what people forget is that everybody watches the boss. They’ll have a much better chance of understanding what’s going on in their own plant if they get up and walk around and listen to what people are saying."