Behind the Desk

Don't make this common career mistake in your 20s, says the CEO of Hilton

Christopher Nassetta, chief executive officer of Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., reacts during a Bloomberg Television interview on the opening day of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines

Chris Nassetta didn't start his hospitality career carting caviar to celebrities. He started by plunging hotel toilets at age 16.

The job taught Nassetta, the 60-year-old CEO of Hilton Worldwide — a multinational hospitality company with a $38.86 billion market capitalization, as of Tuesday morning — more than just how hotels operate, he says.

It also showed him the value of on-the-job experience, which he notes young people often lack through no fault of their own. Seeing a TikTok, reading an article or watching HBO's "The White Lotus" can show you a day in the life at a luxury hotel — but it may not prepare you to problem-solve in a fast-paced environment.

"Everything [today] is soundbites, snippets, headlines, Twitter," Nassetta tells CNBC Make It. "Young people have so much access and information to knowledge, but you don't want to confuse that with experience."

In his case, the toilet plunging job led to years of industry work, which Nassetta says were necessary to prepare him to take the top role at Hilton in 2007. In contrast, some of his friends spent their 20s and 30s rising through the career ranks to powerful positions — and quickly flaming out, he says.

Now, Nassetta wants to help people in their 20s and 30s build experience so they can excel at a job like his instead of going into the challenge unprepared, he says. Here, he discusses the challenges of being career-driven, how to ask for help from unexpected sources and the advice he gives his own six daughters.

On prioritizing career and family: 'I wouldn't have been able to make that sacrifice if it wasn't for my wife'

I'm passionate about what I do for a living, because I feel like what we do matters. We serve 200 million people a year [at Hilton], and if we do a good job, we create a little bit of joy in their lives.

But it would be dishonest to say that what I do for a living doesn't require some sacrifice.

On the professional side, I could literally fill every single night with some philanthropic or networking event. On the personal side, I've traveled excessively for decades. My kids are 20 to 30 now. When they were zero to 10, I wasn't around as much as I would have liked.

President & Chief Executive Officer of Hilton Christopher J. Nassetta speaks onstage during the Resorts World Las Vegas Grand Opening on June 24, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Denise Truscello | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

I wouldn't have been able to make that sacrifice if wasn't for my wife.

We were childhood sweethearts, we started dating when we were 17. When we started talking about having kids, she said, "I really want to dedicate this part of my life to being a really good mother." It was a sacrifice she chose to make.

And I worked really hard to — no matter how much it hurt my body — get home religiously on weekends. On those weekends, I'm Dad. I'm going to have pizza night with my kids on Fridays and be soccer dad all weekend in my flip-flops, my shorts and a T-shirt, just like everybody else.

On the advice he gives his own daughters: 'Slow down, take a deep breath, lift up your head'

If I had to give my daughters one piece of career advice, it'd be: Slow down, take a deep breath, lift up your head and look at the battlefield.

When I was 29, I was a chief development officer at a real estate firm, way beyond where I should have been at that age. I was approached by a colleague about starting a private equity shop. At the time, it sounded like a great idea, I was careening forward to do it.

But I'd just gotten married. My wife and I were about to have a baby. I'd just bought my first house with a mortgage, and while I was making a lot of money, I hadn't accumulated any.

I had friends rising fast in their careers. A lot of the decisions they made didn't work out because they fell in love with ideas without thinking them through. So, I had to force myself to slow down and ask my colleague for a couple of weeks to process, even though we had sort of had this "rah, rah, let's do it" moment.

I ended up doing it. It was the right thing to do, and it worked out really well. But I had to force myself to have a moment of discipline to think through the different permutations and possible outcomes.

On finding help in unexpected places: 'To this day ... you just don't know what you don't know'

I like to think I work hard, I'm well educated, I'm reasonably smart. But even to this day, and certainly when I was in my 20s and 30s trying to figure things out, you just don't know what you don't know.

Having the humility to recognize you need help is hard, and great mentors — ultimately, my father was the most important mentor I've had — have been critically important to the success I've had in my career. And, for that matter, my personal life, because they're inexorably linked.

(L-R) Nicky Hilton Rothschild, Paris Hilton, President & CEO of Hilton Christopher J. Nassetta, Kathy Hilton, and Richard Hilton attend the Resorts World Las Vegas Grand Opening on June 24, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Bryan Steffy | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

I've learned a lot from my peers, too. And at my stage in my career and life, my mentors are also younger people: my children, their friends, all the incredible younger people that we have working at this company. I mean, gee, I've raised a bunch of them, but who am I to decide what Gen Zers and millennials want?

Being able to triangulate and assess things from different perspectives has been really helpful. Diversity is so powerful because diversity of thought gets a better result.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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