Mendoza School of Business

Marilyn Carlson Nelson tells students if they don’t like the world, fix it

Published: November 18, 2010 / Author: Ed Cohen

The chairwoman of the global travel and hospitality company that owns Radisson hotels and T.G.I. Friday’s says she learned about taking personal responsibility when she was 13 and her father told her that if she didn’t like Sunday school it was her job to “fix it.”

In a lecture about business ethics at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business on Nov. 18, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair and former CEO of the family-owned Carlson company, said she was riding home the church her family attended in Minneapolis one day when she announced she was quitting Sunday school.

The classes were filled with unruly children throwing spitballs, she explained, and she wasn’t learning anything. She told her parents she would join them in the sanctuary for the regular service instead. She figured they’d be impressed with her maturity in making the decision.

Instead her father, the entrepreneur Curtis L. Carlson, pulled the car over, she said. He turned around to face her in the back seat, pointed an angry finger at her and said, “You’re going to quit Sunday school?!”

“I sort of said, ‘Well, I thought I was’ and my mother said, ‘Curt, leave her alone,’ and she started to cry. And my sister started to cry. And I started to cry. And we had this horrible family scene. He just he told all of us to be quiet, and he pointed that finger at me again and said, ‘If you don’t like it, fix it.’”

Nelson said that when she got home she was sent to her room and told by her father to make a list of all the ways to “fix Sunday school.” Her mother then had to take her to the church during the week for a meeting with the school superintendant.

It turned out that the church, the huge Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, shared her concerns. The problem, or at least part of it, was that the children were bored. A committee of concerned students and school officials was created to work out solutions. Together they redesigned the Sunday school program, she said.

“And I’ll tell you, as long as I live, when I don’t like something and I want to get out of there or retreat, I see that finger pointing at me and I hear, ‘If you don’t like it, fix it.’”

Looking out at her audience of MBA students and undergraduate business students she said that she was now pointing the finger at them.

“We have a whole society so busy saying, ‘What’s the matter with them, why don’t they do something about that?’ … when perhaps we need to look back and say, ‘OK, there are things that I can’t change, but there are things that I can,’ and stop worrying so much about what THEY aren’t getting done and worry about what WE are getting done.”

The Sunday school story is included in Nelson’s bestselling book How We Lead Matters: Reflections on a Life of Leadership (2008). Copies were made available to everyone in attendance at what was the semester’s final Berges Lecture in Business Ethics.

The Carlson company encompasses more than 1,075 hotels, including Radisson, Country Inns & Suites By Carlson, Park Inn and Park Plaza; more than 1,000 restaurants, including T.G.I. Friday’s and Pick Up Stix; and a majority stake in Carlson Wagonlit Travel. Carlson operates in more than 150 countries and its brands employ about 150,000 people, according to company figures.

Under Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s leadership as CEO (1998 to 2008), Carlson’s systemwide sales nearly doubled, to $40 billion. She has been named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes magazine has regularly selected her as one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. In 2007 EthisphereMagazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics.

The Berges Lecture Series, sponsored by the John A. Berges Endowment, features senior executives speaking on their experiences of the ethical dimensions of business. The series is presented by Mendoza’s Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business and Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide.


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