Michael Ford, Hilton’s diversity and inclusion chief, tackles the challenge of diversifying the top end of the org chart.
When you’re a kid, and your mom is a teacher, you learn early on that it’s not enough just to finish your homework—you need to ace it. “In my mind, good grades were critical to success,” says Hilton’s Michael Ford, a Baltimore native and son of a schoolteacher. “My mother always affirmed that education gives you options in life—and that no one can ever take it away from you.”
Indeed, Ford got plenty of good grades and went on to work in law, banking, and then the hotel industry. As the vice president of global diversity and inclusion at Hilton Worldwide, Ford is now helping to bring the power of education to the hotel giant’s workforce—and proving that companies function best when they cultivate their employees’—and even their suppliers’—potential. For instance, Hilton boasts 4,400 diverse suppliers and each year picks one to send to the Kellogg School of Management’s Continuing Education Program.
“I know firsthand that education transforms lives and empowers all, so that they may witness the power of possibility and the energy of achievement,” Ford says.
Outside of work, he acts as a mentor for groups such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust.
Although the hotel industry has long included a diverse workforce, it hasn’t always seen a lot of mobility between the guest- floor hallways and the company’s executive floors. But Ford says that’s changing. Hilton was named one of the top 60 companies for diversity by Hispanic Business magazine and the Top Diversity Employer by Black EOE Journal. Ford touts Hilton’s Diversity Mentoring Program and its team member resource groups, the latter of which provide networking and development for a wide range of different employees, such as veterans, Hispanic/Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and LGBT.
“More than 40 languages are spoken at our properties,” he says. “We are a company of diverse cultures serving diverse guests.”
Diversity Woman asked Ford about his own attraction to the hotel business, how Hilton caters to its diverse workers and guests—and his own heightened standards as a traveler.
Diversity Woman: What in your upbringing got you interested in going into business?
Michael Ford: As a person of color, many times as I was growing up, I was in environments where I was the only African American, or one of few. I swam competitively in high school and college, and I had some white friends whose families seemed wealthy—at least from my perspective. They appeared to have it all: they lived in nice communities with large homes, had country club memberships, and attended private schools. When we talked about their families, they told me their fathers were corporate executives. These conversations exposed me to what was possible in the business world. As I matured, I came to realize that exposure and opportunity are cornerstones of success, and that the business world can be a conduit.
DW: How did you get into hospitality after banking and law? What about the hotel industry appealed to you?
MF: I was an employment attorney for a hospitality company before moving into banking. After a 13-year career in financial services, I had the opportunity to return to hospitality, so it was a full-circle moment. In hospitality, we are in the business of making people feel special, and I believe that all of us want to be seen, heard, valued, and respected. It is an intrinsic quality that makes us human.
DW: What is Hilton’s priority in terms of expanding the diversity of its workforce?
MF: The overall intent is to ensure that our workforce mirrors the communities in which we live and work. When team members bring their whole selves to work, in an environment that allows them to grow and develop, they possess the necessary drive for peak performance. Innovation is the foundation of diversity and inclusion.
DW: Travelers see a diverse workforce in the halls at hotels, but how does Hilton help those hands-on workers move up?
MF: We have leadership development programs for our team members in partnership with Hilton Worldwide University, which offers 2,200 online courses, ranging from personal development to finance to learning more about company benefits.
These offerings enable team members to enhance their skill sets to compete competitively for new opportunities. In addition, we encourage our team members to post internally for job opportunities, job shadowing, and cross training to give them access to an array of more senior opportunities.
DW: How have resource groups helped with mobility?
MF: Team members can participate in mentoring and networking opportunities. As an example, one of the team members of our Hispanic/Latino resource group—he’s the director of budgets and forecast in finance for Hilton Worldwide—has accepted a six-month assignment in our Watford office, located in the United Kingdom, to help build the Center for Excellence in Finance. He was chosen for the way that he manages and inspires people.
DW: The majority of Hilton hotel owners in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are locals. How is diverse ownership faring in other parts of the world?
MF: We need local owners who are familiar with doing business in various parts of the world. They have access to infrastructure to get things done. And it’s important that our guests see diversity not only among our team members but also among our owners, suppliers, developers, and partners.
A main challenge for diverse owners, though, can be acquiring the capital structure to secure one of our brands and the knowledge base to run a successful hotel. In 2004, we were the first major hotel company to develop an effective outreach program to educate minority and women entrepreneurs on becoming owners of our properties.
Hotel ownership is a very expensive business, and during the recession we found that banks were putting significant restrictions on lending money, which affected the hospitality business. Today, we are pleased to see the softening of those restrictions.
DW: The LGBT community has become much more of a focus for hotels, in terms of a customer base, in the past few years. How has Hilton worked in that area?
MF: We strive to lead the hospitality industry in providing exceptional hotel and resort experiences to every guest segment in every market around the world. The LGBT community is critical to our success as a company. With a buying power of $743 billion, this important market segment represents a significant number of business and leisure travelers.
In 2012, Hilton Worldwide launched LGBT and friends team member resource groups in our largest corporate locations. We also created customer-centric promotions focused on LGBT travelers called “Stay Hilton. Go Out” through Hilton Hotels and Resorts and “Party with Pride” Sweepstakes through Hilton Honors.
DW: How has working in hospitality changed the way you travel? Do you have any tips on getting the best hotel room?
MF: I have higher expectations related to guest experiences, and it’s made me a more sophisticated traveler. I prefer a higher floor away from the elevators and street traffic, if possible. As always, I enjoy great service; it is a hallmark of our brands.
DW: Have you recently read any books that have inspired you or shaped your views on your work life?
MF: One book that comes to mind is The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner. I am typically drawn to books like these that speak to the resiliency of the human spirit no matter what the challenge, and to the power of commitment and perseverance. DW
Katrina Brown Hunt is a frequent contributor to Diversity Woman.
When team members bring their whole selves to work, they possess the necessary drive for peak performance.