Starwood CIO Martha Poulter Fosters A Culture Of Innovation


Peter High, Contributor

June 10, 2015

Martha Poulter joined Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide just over a year ago after spending 19 years with General Electric, most of it in the financial services side of GE. Her final stop was as CIO of GE Capital. Switching companies and industries is a challenge for most executives, but given how strong GE’s culture is, some executives find it difficult to operate in a new culture, especially one that differs substantially from GE’s metrics-driven, up or out culture.

Sensitive to the need to bring her strengths of experience while deferring to the successes of the team she was inheriting at Starwood, Poulter began her tenure at the company listening more than pontificating. She internalized the strategy that the team was already operating against, and chose to keep most of it, agreeing with the logic of it, by and large.  Therefore, she has spent more time capitalizing on the strengths that she found, and was pleased to see that a culture of innovation was already in place, though she has pushed it to an even greater degree.  She is now spearheading initiatives related to mobile check-in, development of apps that work with wearables, and further investigating opportunities related to the Internet of Things, all of which we discuss herein.

(To listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview, please click this link: this link. This is the 23rd article in the “CIO’s First 100 Days” series.  To read the prior 22 interviews, please visit this link. To read future interviews in the series, please click the “Follow” link above.)

Peter High: Can you talk a little bit about your role and your vision for the IT organization at Starwood here in the relatively early tenure of your time with the organization?

Martha Poulter: Absolutely. As a business we have a really big agenda that focuses on our guests and customers, figuring out how to marry the elements of our core business, which is very service-oriented, very high touch, with the high-tech capabilities that we can bring to bear on that service model. Over the course of several years, you will see that we have had an opportunity to marry those things. Our keyless initiative has taken a very age-old, analog process from our guests and converted it into a very digital process that allows guests to bypass the front desk and go directly to their assigned rooms. So we are very excited about that kind of marriage of high touch and high tech.

High: Can you talk a little bit about the way in which you and your team get involved in thinking about topics like customer experience, generally speaking?

Poulter: We think about all aspects of the experience. I would divide it into pre-stay, during stay, and then following/post-stay. Pre-stay, our focus is on our web channels and our mobile channels and on a number of firsts in that space in terms of our ability to really address the way that our guests and customers want to work with us. We’re just at that tipping point where we see our mobile visits surpassing our web-based visits, and so it really speaks to us loudly that it is a critical method that our customers want to use to engage with us. We spend a lot of time working on that so that we can offer them the booking opportunities and all the pre-stay kinds of information that they require.

During stay, that experience deals a lot with the associate, and how the associate can engage with the guests as they come on property. So, we are working to equip our associates with tools and capabilities to give them the right guest intelligence, arm them with the information to make that visit more enjoyable, and make sure that they have the relevant and the actionable information so that we can offer our customers a customized experience that we think is so important to our mission and our business.

Post-stay, we attempt to understand the stay pattern and what might be most relevant afterwards for the next visit. If you are a frequent business traveler, how and what mechanisms might be best for us to engage with you? If you are on vacation and a family-oriented traveler, how do we engage with you and offer you the best promotions, as an example, for your next stay with us? So, we think about all aspects of customer experience.

High: I wonder how your experiences as a frequent traveler prior to joining Starwood colored your perspectives going into your new role, and also how you have been able to encourage your IT team to think like a customer when they stay in Starwood properties.

Poulter: I’ve done probably a half dozen visits where I’ve played the role of not just the guest, which to your point I’ve done quite a bit, but I have also operated at the various key interaction points with our guests. We call these “seat rides.” I’ve done a call center seat ride, and I’ve done a front desk seat ride, and new management seat ride, and all the different functions that are part of our hotel operations because, to your point, it’s very important for us as a technology department to really experience and walk a mile in the role of our functional counterparts to understand their key challenges. What are their day-to-day issues? And for the tools that we have armed them with, how are they being used? Also, if they are being used in unexpected or unintended ways, those can be interesting surprises to know about. Likewise, we want to know when they are being underutilized. There is no substitute for walking a mile in our functional counterpart’s shoes and really visualizing how things work day-to-day.

High: As I mentioned, you were new to industry and obviously new to company when you took on your current role. Can you talk a bit about how you prepared yourself in the weeks leading up to the point at which you started?

Poulter: Obviously, I have spent a lot of time as a guest at hotels in my travels both for work and for personal travel. I reflected on that experience. I also spent a lot of time looking at industry publications, guest feedback. I wanted to know what people were talking about in and around the industry that would be relevant for me. What was the buzz? I also got a lot of feedback directly from people in the industry and personal connections who all had a point of view about the industry.

High: And then once you joined the organization, if you think across your first 100 days, how did you divide up your time? Were there discreet activities that you were doing say month one, month two, month three? Were there different ways in which you gathered insights, prepared a plan and began to execute?

Poulter: I spent about 50 percent of my time meeting people, and that meant meeting people in the technology function as well as outside of the technology function, both at corporate and on property to just get to know the different parts of our business and the IT department. What did people do? What were their perspectives and why? What were their points of view on things that were both business topics as well as technology topics? So that consumed a lot of time and was time, I think, very well spent because it was very informative.

Another chunk of time, call it 25 percent, was spent getting to know our history. That was both reading through board materials, prior budget presentations, presentations that had been given to executives across the business to influence strategy, or strategy-setting documents, both on the business side as well as on the technology side. It is important to understand history to not repeat the mistakes of the past, but also to respect that history. It is a very important element to me to respect the time and the energy and the effort that the team has already invested. And understanding decisions at points in time, it really puts the decisions in context.

The remaining 25 percent of my time was spent thinking about the future: where should we go? How should we shape our thoughts around the next couple of years? That is roughly how I divided my time in the first 100 days.

High: As you went through that, did you seek to find quick wins, or were there some insights you were gathering from the various constituents with whom you met that offered opportunities to put some quick focus on some things to develop some momentum for your new administration?

Poulter: To be honest, my quick win was not getting in the way of what was already a very aggressive and business-aligned agenda. I didn’t want to be that disruption, so I spent a lot of time making sure that people felt comfortable with that and that they knew I wasn’t here to reset the agenda that had already been agreed to before I joined.

High: Can you talk a little bit about the substance of your initial plan, and how you see it driving forward now a bit more than a year into your tenure?

Poulter: We have coalesced around a few themes. As a services company, one of the ways I’m thinking about our future is to determine how we harness the value of data as the strategic aspect for a business that can really help our hotel owners and operators act and make more strategic decisions, and act and behave in a more strategic way than ever before. Data is going to be a huge cornerstone of how we formulate our plans for the next several years. Again, making sure we put it on a bit of a pedestal, treat it as a strategic asset, which it is, and even invest more than we already have. We have made data-centric investments in revenue management and sales, to provide a couple of examples.

The second one, I would say, is making sure that we continue to get our unfair share of talent. You speak with so many technology leaders across industries. I think we all are grappling with the notion of making sure we’re known for the great work that we are doing for our respective businesses, and that we are thought of as a phenomenal employer of choice for technical talent. And so that sort of scene which has existed I want to continue to amplify and make sure that we’re as well-known as we need to be so we get the right skill sets, the right talent base, and we continue to arm ourselves with the talent that we need for the future.

Third, we are thinking about how to have the kind of team that can address the needs of different properties, different geographies, and different brands. How do we make them even more flexible to adapt to the changing needs in the business models?

High: You have noted several areas in which IT is driving innovation, whether in mobile or in keyless entry. How do you set up your organization to drive innovation?

Poulter: We do think of it as a central pillar of the role that we have to play in the organization. Interestingly enough, as we’re doing all of our kick-off meetings around the world, part of the discussion I have been having with the teams is that it is a role for all of us. It should not be the role for just one subset of our team. We all must be well connected with the external environment that we live and operate in, which is a very technology-based, digitally-based, data-driven, fast-paced, changing environment. We need to track external trends and to play a role in servicing the areas that would most benefit from the application of technical innovation.

We have such great partnerships in the business across the Distribution, Loyalty, Digital, Sales, and Revenue Management teams. We sit in the same space with those business teams. We live their business prophecies. We live their business challenges on a day-to-day basis. We have talked a bit about some of our recent office locations where we are again co-located with cross-functional teams. That proximity spurs innovation.

We also focus on smaller prototypes developed in an agile fashion. Whether it’s in our technology lab at our corporate location, or in the field, we actively experiment. We make a series of small bets, many of them out in our properties and see them come to life, see them operate, adapt to what we see in the field conditions, modify appropriately, and then pivot to the next idea or next generation of the original idea to really make it impactful. So that notion of smaller, bite-sized deliverables that have very visible, actionable prototypes has been a focus for us.

High: Prior to joining Starwood you spent roughly 19 years at GE, often in financial parts of that business as an IT executive. GE is a legendary talent factory. You mentioned the need to think about growing and maintaining great IT talent, and no doubt I’m sure you’ve got some strong perspectives about that based on your experience at GE. GE also has such a strong and often-written about culture. I’m curious: I thought it was very interesting and appropriate that you mentioned that as part of your activities in the first 100 days as you were listening. I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence you were getting to know the culture, getting to know what had worked in the past, paying due respect to the work that had come before you joined the organization. Having spent a long tenure in such a strong culture, how much of that did you bring and apply versus those things, of course, that you were translating appropriately into the new culture you found yourself in?

Poulter: It’s interesting that an almost 19 year tenure was a big part of my training ground. It wasn’t my only place of employment – I worked at a telecom company for seven years before joining GE – but it was an important experience for me. The biggest thing that I have applied is the focus on talent management. As leaders, the best thing we can do probably from a legacy perspective is build the best possible team, ensuring that it is motivated, and that is properly equipped. It is also essential to foster a strong culture that supports the things that a company wants to support.

High: We have already talked about so many important technology and business trends. Are there any others that are of particular interest to you as you look forward in the next year, two or three?

Poulter: As aforementioned, data as an asset is of great interest. I’m not one for the big, hyped terms like Big Data, but I think data as an asset and tying that to whatever business strategy in whatever industry one finds oneself is hugely important. As we all have more access to information and more information becomes available because these analog processes are becoming digital processes, data analytics will grow in importance.

The second trend I would highlight is computing miniaturization. The fact that now computing devices are getting into the miniature models of wearables is of interest. We at Starwood will develop apps for the Apple Watch. Wearables is an interesting area for us as a company. Also, related to the miniaturization, is this notion of the Internet of Things and how we can incorporate those concepts at the property level to optimize what is a very distributed operation at a property level. So I think those continue to be trends that I think will be interesting to our industry.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. His latest book, Implementing World Class IT Strategy, has just been released by Wiley Press/Jossey-Bass. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs. Peter moderates the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.

This article was written by Peter High from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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