EVP and CHRO Mike Yonker shares how Marriott Vacations Worldwide transformed its HR approach during an acquisition and the global pandemic.
By Debbie Bolla
Mike Yonker is a man who definitely deserves to take a vacation. As executive vice president and chief human resources officer of Marriott Vacations Worldwide (MVW), he was responsible for navigating the sea of change that the pandemic and its multiple shutdowns brought to the world and in particular the travel and hospitality sector. He did this while continuing to oversee an acquisition from 2018 that nearly doubled the size and scope of the company. He is all about reinvention -in fact, his redesign of all HR processes resulted in $13 million in savings for the organization. And during it all, through his grit, grace, and leadership, Yonker ushered MVW into the new world of work.
“It’s really been a chance to think about how we support our business and how we support our associates,” he says. “We are not resting on our laurels. I think reinvention is such a great word during this time of change.”
For this work, Yonker was honored with the 2020 HRO Today CHRO of the Year Award for Lifetime Achievement. Here he shares the biggest challenges and successes of the last three years, how the pandemic is shaping the HR function, and how MVW leverages employee feedback to make actionable change.
HRO Today: During the recent acquisition, which took MVW from servicing approximately 12,000 associates to 22,000 in expanded and extended geographies, you and your HR team designed a mission to guide the process and decision-making. This mission was to strengthen the team’s position as a recognized strategic partner, delivering operational excellence to the business while enabling leaders and associates to live a life, fulfilled. How do you achieve this today?
Mike Yonker: We continue to transform and unify our platforms, policies, procedures, and compensation and benefits programs to meet the needs of our growing company and simplify the user experience.
Going into 2021, MVW had completed its huge acquisition and integration project two-plus years in the making. With this acquisition, we could have opted for the status quo and simply applied “the MVW way” to the newly acquired team and various businesses. We could have said, “Welcome to the family. Here’s how we do things. We hope you like it.” Instead, we brought leaders of both organizations together to formulate our vision for the growing company. The vision is: “Build long-lasting relationships with our customers and associates to help them live their lives to the fullest.” I think that step in and of itself is so critical to our future -making sure that we were all included and involved in the decision-making as we move forward with this now larger company that nearly doubled in size.
Collectively, our top 100 senior executives created our core values:
- Caring Culture;
- Customer Obsessed;
- Integrity First;
- Excellence Always; and
- Better Together.
We took the best of both of our companies’ ways of doing things and we completely reimagined HR. Ultimately, that elevated the team, its technology, and its processes. Our openness to be inclusive and recognize that we are indeed “Better Together” has been critical to our growth and success. Our whole approach is: “We are better because of you.” We achieved our HR transformation while coming in under budget and keeping our associates engaged.
That engagement is important to us and always has been each year for as long as I’ve been with the company. Each year we conduct an “Associate Engagement Survey” and develop strategies based on what we learn. We think it’s essential to listen to our associates and understand what’s important to them. We value inclusion and diversity and we value each associate and believe every job is equally important. Our culture runs deep. It is critical that we value and appreciate all the individual talents we collectively pull together from our associates and that everybody believes that they’re valued and their roles are critical to our success.
We conducted our last survey in September, and one thing that was very apparent through the turmoil of the last couple of years is how important it is for our associates to be recognized and feel recognized. Following the survey results that we got back in the fourth quarter of 2021, we were able to develop strategies for this year on how to better recognize our associates. The other area where we received feedback was career development. We put together very strong strategies to ensure that we offer this. In fact, we recently held our “Venture Leadership Program,” which is designed for our top resort leaders, where we provide them with instructor-led training in leadership development for the general manager positions. Even with all the challenges of working through the pandemic, we continued to offer leadership training by converting the classes to a virtual learning environment because we believe it’s really important. I was impressed by recent results that I saw for all our leadership development programs: They achieved a positive overall satisfaction score of 96% while reaching over 1,100 leaders globally.
HRO Today: What are your biggest successes and challenges from the last three years?
Yonker: After the acquisition that nearly doubled the size and scope of our company, we transformed our entire HR service delivery model. We were essentially two HR teams, one of which was strung together by acquisitions never fully integrated.
We streamlined and unified our compensation philosophy, strategy, and structure as well as job titling conventions. We consolidated several 401(k) plans and health and wellness plans from dozens to one and followed that up with a successful open enrollment in which 90% of eligible associates took action.
We scuttled our two independent HR platforms and invested in one world-class HR technology, which transformed the way we worked by aligning countless processes and workflows to eliminate administrative burdens while enhancing accuracy. These changes, which included many employee and manager self-service functions, reduced the need for manual transactions and saved everyone time.
Through it all, my leaders made smart decisions and ensured that strong delegation of responsibilities and task ownership occurred across each workstream. And we achieved this transformation while reducing our HR operating costs by 32% and maintaining Kincentric top-quartile associate engagement.
HRO Today: How has the pandemic changed the HR function?
Yonker: We’ve experienced a seismic shift in the last two years, not only in how we work but in our world, in our culture, around social issues. Along with the pandemic, which has been challenging, these changing dynamics allowed us a unique perspective. We turned our focus to building on and aligning around our foundational core values, primarily a “Caring Culture” and “Better Together.”
Since day one, we have made the health and safety of associates and guests at our resorts and corporate offices our top priority. We implemented effective COVID-19 mitigation measures and contact tracing and enhanced our cleaning procedures.
In March 2020, we were able to transition our corporate offices to remote work overnight without missing a beat. We have a technology platform in place, which really facilitated the overnight transition from what was primarily an office environment to just the opposite.
When our corporate associates again transitioned to remote work, after a short time back in the office, because of high transmission rates from the variants, we worked hard to keep them engaged with each other and the company. We all have had to learn to work and lead differently.
At our resorts and sales galleries, our customer-facing associates have adjusted well to ever-changing jurisdictional safety requirements and guidelines pertaining to face coverings and social distancing. We have stayed true to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in our resorts, sales galleries, call centers, and our corporate locations.
HRO Today: How has The Great Resignation impacted your organization?
Yonker: We don’t think of it as The Great Resignation. We think of it as The Great Reevaluation. People have been re-evaluating how they spend their time and what kind of work they want to perform, when they want to perform it, and how they want to perform it.
They have been considering various opportunities for advancement and growth. These are great questions for people to be asking. At MVW, we honestly haven’t had a Great Resignation. We have such a strong brand and such a strong hold and have always experienced very high retention. In fact, when compared to what we call our baseline year, which was 2019, our turnover in corporate, sales and marketing, and call center positions decreased by five to six percentage points. We have, however, seen an uptick during the pandemic in turnover in certain front-facing roles at our resorts, so we are actively working to continue to attract and retain associates.
I think what makes people want to stay with MVW is our culture and the opportunities they have to make a difference with our customers through our many brands and businesses.