Katie Beirne Fallon went from working for President Obama to heading Corporate Affairs at Hilton Hotels. How did she do it? What traits did she bring with her? Here’s an example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job. Read on!
Katie Beirne Fallon is the Executive Vice President and Global Head of Corporate Affairs for Hilton. She has a peculiar background: She was Senior Advisor and Director of Legislative Affairs for President Obama. She was the President’s Chief Liaison with Congress. Before serving the Obama White House, Katie was the Staff Director of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center in the U.S. Congress. She also worked for Senator Chuck Schumer. How, I wondered, did she transitioned to her current role at Hilton? What were her personal traits that she carried from job to job?
Mariela Dabbah— Which of your personal traits have helped you the most to navigate the major crises you confronted in your career in corporate affairs?
Katie Fallon— My old boss likes to say I’m very balanced.
MD— You mean, President Obama?
KF— Yes. (Laughter.) From growing up in a large family (I’m one of eight kids) and from having a growing family myself, I have the ability to ask what’s really important and to allow that perspective to keep me calm and build my patience. I allow it to give me clarity of vision on how to approach a problem without the anxiety of worrying about what would happen if I fail.
MD— Even when you are in the middle of the crisis you are able to tap into that peaceful place?
KF— Yes, and again, I credit the household I grew up in. (Laughter) Because I needed to be the mediator of the family, the person who injected a joke when things got tense… I took that with me. I think that’s one of the main reasons I entered politics. Because I liked negotiating among strong wills and different personalities.
MD— What number child are you?
KF— Second oldest. And my sister and I were born the same year, so we are only 11 months apart.
MD— Given that you are 6’1”, do you think your height has something to do with your ability to see things from above the fray? To always keep a perspective?
KF— I never thought about it that way. When I was a teenager I had a tough time being so tall. I was 5’8” at 13. I slouched and wore flats… But now I own it. In reflecting back, I recall many moments when being the tallest one in the group or on a team, people naturally turned to me to come up with a plan of action or to respond to their questions. So I think it helped me develop my leadership skills.
MD— Your last job was working at the White House for President Obama. What skills did you develop there that have prepared you to lead corporate affairs at Hilton?
KF— When Hilton’s CEO, Chris Nassetta, offered me to leave public service to come to work for Hilton, he used an analogy that the hospitality industry —and Hilton in particular —replicates the structure of a political campaign. You have all these properties all over the world that function as local campaigns and the general managers of the properties are like campaign managers. “Imagine the potential you could have if you could get all our Hilton hotels to advocate for the same thing. To implement the same changes. To drive social impact. To run global campaigns around corporate responsibility. It could be even more impactful than what you’re doing in politics,” he said. That’s what won me over. I have to say the changes we have done in two and a half years have been larger than what I’ve made in a dozen years in politics.
I don’t think I’d be able to have this impact, however, if I hadn’t had the prior experience. Particularly because there was so much friction and tension in the legislative and advocacy world in the last decade that I had to learn how to navigate very different, polarizing perspectives to get things done. And in a different context, at Hilton we have a variety of stakeholders all aligned to different goals: Owners, suppliers, franchisees, different countries with different regulations… So to navigate all these various perspectives in service of our vision I use a lot of what I learned.
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MD— So what specific traits did you bring from politics?
KF— Putting myself in other people’s shoes so I understand their position, which is a skill I built in my time in politics. Going back to my family, I grew up in a very mixed household, with several very conservative members. I’m one of the few who had more progressive views. Having deep respect for my parents and my siblings’ different perspectives allowed for a civil discourse that ended in us understanding each other.
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MD— Do you think you developed a very thick skin by working in politics and that you apply that in your current job?
KF— Yes. Absolutely. In politics you wake up every morning expecting a crisis. And you had to steel yourself to be able to respond and be confident that your instincts will be sharp. And you are bound to get it wrong. If everyday you deal with a different issue you are bound to make mistakes. I came into politics as a perfectionists and it was hard to adjust to that reality. But you have to bounce right back. Because you have to put your game face back on the next day.
I had the benefit of having bosses who reinforced that in me because nobody understands better the challenges of being publicly scrutinized than elected politicians, so I had bosses who helped me develop that perspective. And over time I became easier on myself.
In my Hilton job, we have different things happening every day and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong. Thankfully, I have a team of people around me who are not afraid to question me and I’m not afraid to take their feedback.
MD— Do you feel that in the last couple of years since you’ve been in this company you’ve seen a clear trajectory for women to the C-Suite and strategies in place for that to happen?
KF— Yes. I’m part of the executive committee that sets our goals every year in terms of women recruiting and women in leadership roles. We co-create the goals with our board which is 44% women. The executive committee is responsible for making sure their functions are tracking those goals. We have a deliberate focus to hold each other accountable to the goals we agreed to. To use myself as an example I may be one of the few women who gave birth while being on an executive committee. I serve in several boards and in one of them they told me they think I’m the only board member who gave birth while serving on a public company board. The fact that they instituted a parental leave policy on the board because of me speaks volumes. When I told Chris (Hilton’s CEO) that I was pregnant he cried. I was worried about the conversation as we were heading into our 100thbirthday celebration, but he was emotionally happy for me. And you can tell from the way the team looks after me when we travel, and pass my baby around on the plane…
MD— So you could truly say, they walk the walk.
KF— They do. They walk the walk. But it’s more than that. I couldn’t do it without them. They are my family.