I arrived in the United States from Hong Kong in 1970 on a one-way ticket. I had no money, no connections and no way back. I took a job as a dishwasher/busboy at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and that began my long hospitality career, culminating in my becoming the longest-serving CEO of a major global hotel chain.
The hospitality industry has been good to me, and I am grateful for the opportunities that I have been given. I also know firsthand the unique challenges immigrants face as they try to climb the career ladder. My daughter is 40 years old and has three young children. I have seen her struggle as a working mom trying to achieve her career aspiration. I have also seen LGBTQ+ colleagues face intentional or unintentional bias, as is the case with individuals with visible and invisible impairments. Those who may not fit the traditional picture of who a travel industry executive is "supposed" to be or look like are often disadvantaged.
The hospitality industry provides tremendous career opportunities and clear paths for advancement, but even with all the progress we’ve seen, women and minority groups continue to face a broken rung at the upper levels of management and leadership. Our industry is diverse, as is our customer base. However, when you envision the organizational hierarchy as a triangle, this diversity is mainly at the bottom layers of the triangle.
The environment doesn't have to be this way. And to its credit, the travel and hospitality industry is making real efforts to remove the obstacles still in front of "people like me" as they strive to achieve their personal best. I've seen genuine changes at companies like Hyatt, Marriott and Wyndham, where advancement for diverse candidates and inclusion at the most strategic levels has gone far beyond a check-box exercise.
Yet we are still on a journey. We will arrive when diverse candidates have equal access to opportunities, and as they achieve their personal best, the experiences, and ideas they bring with them are evaluated with the same seriousness given to more traditional leaders. There are several studies—including recent ones from McKinsey & Co. and Harvard Business Review—that show how diverse leadership magnifies corporate success. Not only is diversity, equity and inclusion the right thing to do, it is good for business. Especially with a backdrop of low unemployment and the fact that we are all fighting to recruit and retain high-potential candidates, companies that genuinely key into DEI will win in the marketplace.
But I want to go back to the individuals themselves and to the experiences I talked about before—the obstacles, the negative messaging and maybe even the well-meaning but unhelpful advice that can hold diverse employees back from their personal best. I'd like to speak directly to these individuals with advice I wish I’d had earlier in my career.
"I arrived in the United States from Hong Kong in 1970 on a one-way ticket. I had no money, no connections and no way back."
David Kong is the former president and CEO of Best Western Hotel Group, which he grew—through strategic market segmentation and acquisitions—from a single brand when he became CEO of the company in 2004 to 18 brands when he retired in 2021. David was the 2010 chairman of the American Hotel & Lodging Association and has served on the AHLA Executive Committee and the AHLA Foundation Board of Trustees. He also served three years on the U.S. Department of Commerce Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. Kong founded and leads the non-profit DEI Advisers, focused on cultivating diverse leadership candidates to strengthen the travel and hospitality industries.
“Head trash.” Many people who are part of minority groups shortchange themselves from the get-go. I would include myself in that group when I was coming up the ladder as an immigrant. We have all heard the ugly voice in our heads that tell us we are not good enough or otherwise inhibits our potential. We must shift our mindset when we have this "head trash." Asking ourselves, “why this is happening to me?” is reactive and counterproductive. We need to shift to a proactive and constructive mindset and ask ourselves, “I don’t like this so what am I going to do about this?” Try shifting the mindset next time when you are concerned about what other people may think. As an example, minority groups often face the challenge of not seeing many people in leadership positions who look like us or share our background. Those external cues speak loudly, and they will be disconcerting. But we can shift the mindset to, “I have worked hard, and I have earned the right to be at the table.”
Analyze the issues. Sometimes the assumption you have about what will position you as a great candidate could be wrong. Look at how others have succeeded and be critical about what you might need to change in your own advancement strategy. In my own case, I had to realize that the belief that I would get ahead by keeping my head down and working hard—which was very much rooted in my Asian upbringing—would likely not be enough to break through in an American company. My personal advancement wasn't an issue of my capability, but more structural. I learned to subtly advocate for myself, and I looked for mentors and champions within the organization who could help me network and make the connections I needed to climb the ranks toward leadership.
Broaden your horizon and give yourself a good foundation. Listen to your mentors and let them help you understand where your skill sets need work. My industry colleague Heather McCrory, who is now the CEO of Accor for Central and North America, realized that she needed to get her Master's in Business Administration to prepare for her career goals. She made the time to do that, made a lateral move in the organization to learn operations, and filled that foundational gap so she could take her next step toward C-suite leadership. Your path may not lead to higher education, but if it does, there are companies in our industry that offer financial resources to advance ambitious future leaders. Figure out what you need and ask. You won't be the first to do so, and you won't be the last.
Take the risk. Taking a risk can be one of the toughest moves for individuals who have reached a comfortable point in their careers. I left my comfort zone as a general manager at Hyatt and took on a totally unfamiliar role to spearhead the business process reengineering effort for the company in the early 1990s when most people didn’t even know what the term meant. Then I accepted a new role to develop database marketing capabilities for Hyatt in the mid-1990s when few people even knew what a database was. I subsequently took on the additional responsibility to launch the first Hyatt.com, volunteered and participated in the development of a revenue management system and sales force automation system. All these endeavors gave me the qualifying attributes and enabled me to become a consultant with KPMG when I left Hyatt—another unfamiliar role I accepted. All these risks paid off when I went to work for Best Western where I received five promotions in three and a half years to become the president and CEO. I don’t think I would have been prepared for the CEO role had I not taken all the risks along the way.
The industry is waking up to the importance of DEI and many companies are offering meaningful programs to recruit, retain and develop diverse talent. As individuals, we must empower ourselves to leverage these programs to realize our career aspirations. Take charge of our career and be proactive in seeking opportunities to broaden our perspectives, enrich our knowledge base and expand our network. When we are successful, let’s also think about helping those who are still struggling. Let’s pay it forward and make a difference.