When Arnold W. Donald weighed anchor as president and CEO of Carnival Corp. in July 2013, the company badly needed a captain with a plan.
The world’s largest cruise company, Carnival was reeling from the January 2012 wreck of its Costa Concordia in Italian waters that left 32 people dead; a fire in February 2013 on the Carnival Triumph that left the ship and more than 4,200 passengers adrift for five days in the sweltering heat of the Gulf of Mexico; and technical problems a month later that crippled three other vessels in full sail. It was hemorrhaging passengers. Its double-digit stock had tanked to single digits.
Donald, 58, was ready. The third president and CEO in Carnival’s 42-year history, and its first African-American in that role, the New Orleans native took the helm, armed with the discipline and moral values of poor, hardworking parents; the chutzpah of an education at St. Augustine, an all-boys, all-Black Catholic high school that won national — “not African-American. National!” — math and debate competitions, and where three times a day the announcement, “Gentleman, prepare yourself: One day you will rule the world,” would ring out; and the unshakeable confidence of the Civil Rights Movement. He was fortified, too, with the critical and analytical thinking of one lettered in economics, engineering and finance; a decades-long track record of transformative leadership at Monsanto Corp. and Merisant Co.; the physical fitness and energy of an avid sports fan; the joie de vivre of a “not-too-bad” alto sax player and dancer; and a global outlook nurtured by years of voracious reading.
“All that stuff adds up. It all creates a world for you, a sense of confidence,” he said. “So I always believed I could be anything I wanted to be and, luckily, my parents reinforced that, the schools I went to reinforced that, and the times I grew up in reinforced that.”
And Donald had a plan
In an interview last summer at Carnival headquarters in Miami, he stressed that he was not turning around the company. Instead, his plan was to build on Carnival’s foundation. “This has been a very successful company. We’re the world’s largest leisure and travel company, far and away the world’s largest cruise company. I’m building on a phenomenal legacy,” he said. “We have one hundred and twenty thousand employees who are passionate, who are committed, who know the business inside out. My job is just to unleash that talent and passion, and direct it in a way that our shareholders and the communities we touch can benefit from it.”
Step one: Listen. “A long time ago I learned that if you listen to your customer — in this case our guests, because our number one criterion for success is exceeding our guests’ expectations — they’ll give you the answers. If you listen to your employees, they’ll tell you how to address what the guests — the customers, in a broader sense — offer up as the things they need for you to exceed their expectations,” Donald said.
He listened to the media; to employees, from cabin stewards and ship captains to brand presidents; travel professional partners; officials at Carnival ships’ ports of call; and government officials in the Caribbean and other countries where the ships docked. “I just listened, listened, listened — very carefully — because you can hear things.”
Step two: Vision and team alignment. Now was the time to get senior managers to articulate their vision for the company and rally around that vision. “By listening carefully you can help people realize for themselves what their vision is. It is not manipulation. It is true discovery and self-revelation,” Donald said.
At a retreat with the presidents of the nine Carnival brands and their chief financial officers, he asked three questions: What does success look like for you and your family five years from now? What does success look like for your brand or your department five years from now? What does success look like for the company five years from now? “We did all the stuff you do for team building and trust building, because they hadn’t really worked closely together ever. They came up with something we’re very excited about, and they were ready to go. I said to them, ‘if I had told you those things, you wouldn’t be so ready to go.’”
Executives who report directly to the presidents were put through the same drill. After three days, they were asked to vote anonymously on the work they had done in teams. Donald explained: “We put up the work that we felt they had aligned around, and I said, ‘here’s what you came up with. Don’t get hung up on the words because we have different cultures, different languages and people from different countries. Let’s talk about the message behind the words and here’s the message that I heard you say. Do you align with that?’” The vote was a unanimous “yes.”
Alignment also was “100 percent” on the most critical things to address in order to achieve [the message]. “We know what we have to organize around. The people own it,” Donald said. “It’s got to be sustained because the message is simple: Exceed guests’ expectations; leverage our scale.”