Our Ladies and Gentlemen: Sue Stephenson

Sue StephensonEach month, The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center (RCLC) features an interview with an employee — a Lady or Gentleman of The Ritz-Carlton — in order to share an insider’s view of the organization. This month’s interview is with Sue Stephenson (@RitzCarltonCSR), Vice President of Community Footprints. Community Footprints® is The Ritz-Carlton social and environmental responsibility program, focused on benefiting the communities where the company operates.

RCLC: What is your role as the Vice President of Community Footprints?
Ms. Stephenson: As the Vice President of Community Footprints and a direct report to our company’s President and Chief Operations Officer (COO), I lead the development of our Community Footprints global strategy. With operations in Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, our approach is to merge our global strategy with local execution and perspectives. This ensures our employees’ volunteer efforts are relevant, impactful and can be adapted to meet local pressing needs.
RCLC: Was there a moment in your career when the idea of social responsibility clicked for you or was it a slower, less obvious process?
Ms. Stephenson: I’ve worked for The Ritz-Carlton for 24 years, and it’s been an organic process. A commitment to the community and environment was embedded in our mission statement when our company was founded with a statement that “The Ritz-Carlton Hotels will be positive, supportive members of their communities and sensitive to the environment.” Our philosophy of service translates into reaching out to others, beyond the walls of the hotels, and I’ve been fortunate to play a role in evolving that commitment into Community Footprints—which is now one of the strategic pathways of The Ritz-Carlton Long Range Plan.

RCLC: How does Community Footprints fit into The Ritz-Carlton culture?
Ms. Stephenson: Community Footprints is woven into the Gold Standards of The Ritz-Carlton through Service Value 4: “I understand my role in … embracing Community Footprints …” Every employee acts on our Service Values so it’s a natural process for our Ladies and Gentlemen to want to be engaged in projects that support their local community. Community Footprints provides a platform for our employees around the world to play a role in tackling serious community issues. They don’t see it as a corporate program, they see it as their program. They make it work and are tremendously proud of their efforts.

RCLC: How do you determine which projects to take on?
Ms. Stephenson: Our initiatives are multifaceted and focus on child well-being, hunger and poverty relief, and environmental responsibility. At every Ritz-Carlton hotel, club and residence around the world we have a Community Footprints Team and at the beginning of each year they plan out how they will support their community and submit a comprehensive Community Footprints Annual Plan. The report details scope and frequency of all planned volunteering and fundraising activities for the year and an overview of their Community Footprints local non-governmental organization (NGO) and community partners. Targets are set for our properties with the results integrated into our company’s Business Priority Metrics and leadership performance measures. We are proud of our year-over-year improvements with, as an example, over 150,000 hours contributed to our Community Partners in 2014 and $5.6 million in cash and in-kind donations.

RCLC: Are there any brand-wide programs that all your hotels participate in?
Ms. Stephenson: Yes. Our Succeed Through Service mentoring program is deployed in over 100 middle and high schools in low-income communities around the world and is designed to make a positive impact on young people. The curriculum brings students to our hotels and takes our Ladies and Gentlemen into classrooms to teach critical career and life skills and introduces the idea of students contributing to their own communities. Since the 2009 launch, we have worked with over 18,000 middle and high school students across the U.S. and around the world. To encourage others to get engaged in helping students flourish, we’ve made our Succeed Through Service materials available on an open-source non-proprietary basis.

RCLC: Can you give us examples of individual projects going on in local communities?
Ms. Stephenson: One of my favorite aspects of my role is that every day I receive images of the Community Footprints projects that are happening in different parts of the world. One example of the multitude of programs taking place to help children flourish occurs weekly at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, where, in addition to many other Community Footprints activities, 20 employees volunteer in the John A. Cumber School Reading Buddies Program. Last year they contributed 1,963 volunteer hours reading to the young students.

In the area of hunger and poverty relief, we provide skills training, make food and supply donations and provide volunteer support. As an example, for over six years our employees at The Ritz-Carlton, Denver have been cooking and serving meals on a monthly basis at Urban Park, an organization that helps homeless youth reach their potential and achieve a successful life.

In the area of environmental responsibility, we focus on reducing our carbon footprint and protecting the environment. A local example is taking place at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Center where the employees are planting and helping conserve the Ghaf tree, a rare desert plant species of culture and ecological significance.

RCLC: How is Community Footprints evolving?
Ms. Stephenson: We’re broadening our volunteer focus to have more of a skills-based focus. We challenge ourselves to ask, “If I am contributing two hours of my time, how can I incorporate any of my business skills into that work?” For example, our chefs could help to plant trees in a local park but what’s even more beneficial is if they help a local hunger relief organization plan well-balanced, cost-efficient and nutritious meals. With this skills-based approach, our Public Relations teams help nonprofits develop their social media strategy; our Human Resources teams teach interview skills at community centers; while our front desk staffs teach social skills to members of the community re-entering the workplace. The possibilities are endless. There’s a reward when you help beyond what your muscles can do — you then engage your mind and heart and those skills are invaluable to a nonprofit or NGO!

RCLC: Are there any recently launched initiatives?
Ms. Stephenson: Yes! Just last December at the United Nations, Herve Humler, our President and COO and I participated in the introduction of IMPACT 2030, a global collaboration between the U.N. and the private sector. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is the first Founding Partner of IMPACT 2030: The Global Initiative for the Advancement of Corporate Volunteering. We are partnering with many global companies, including IBM, Google and Tata Consulting Services, to launch the program in September 2015. IMPACT 2030 will help corporations leverage their volunteer programs to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We’re all very excited about the possibilities of this global program that will help address the most critical issues for our planet and bring about global change.

RCLC: If you could capsulize Ritz-Carlton’s social responsibility efforts, how would it read?
Ms. Stephenson: Our Community Footprints Mission Statement says it best. “At The Ritz-Carlton we have built a legacy of extraordinary service. This tradition extends into our Community Footprints program and inspires us to positively impact the lives of others. Every contribution we make is an opportunity to leave an imprint on our community. It is through this collection of imprints that we can make a meaningful difference.”

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center offers advisory services, courses and presentations to organizations that wish to benchmark the award-winning business practices of The Ritz-Carlton. Your organization can learn about The Ritz-Carlton methodology for customer service, employee engagement and leadership development. We also guide organizations through a multi-step process in order to achieve sustainable culture transformation.