Whether by sea or on land, Maria Del Busto is in charge of making sure all is smooth sailing for Royal Caribbean Cruises’ 67,000+ employees, hiring and retaining worldwide talent from Shrek impersonators to housekeepers
Maria Del Busto likes to say that before she was familiar with the name “human resources,” she fell in love with the profession. She traces her break into HR all the way back to the 11th grade when she was sent to work for the personnel department of a local bank after finishing her high school credits early. Del Busto stayed with the job through her college years as the department made its official transition from “personnel” to “human resources,” but for the young go-getter something bigger was at play. This initial, chance encounter with human resources informed her career path for years to come. Now as Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd.’s global chief human resources officer, Del Busto has the very unique responsibility of overseeing employees both at sea and on land. Here, Del Busto talks to us about the complexities of her role at Royal Caribbean.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your HR role at Royal Caribbean?
The biggest challenge is definitely the complexity of our business. We have 40 ships sailing 24/7, moving more than five million guests a year. We hire from 103 different countries in any specialty you can imagine—from Shrek impersonators and cupcake makers to doctors and housekeepers. The true HR challenge, however, is attracting, hiring, training, and retaining staff from around the world. Our turnover is quite low: 20 percent for more than 67,000 employees, ship and shore. Our team does an incredible job of screening the right employees for the right positions and making sure they’re at the right place at the right time. That means accommodating more than 60,000 shipboard employees by handling airline tickets and hotel reservations. Last year alone there were more than 100,000 crew movements to accommodate our business needs.
In a way, you’re steering the ship at Royal Caribbean. How do you handle the weight of these enormous responsibilities?
It helps that I don’t see this as a job; human resources is part of who I am. I love people, I love helping people, and human resources is all about people. Our HR mission statement is clear: “To enable a total employment experience that engages employees in delivering great vacations and brings our guests back again and again.” That’s the goal every day, and it doesn’t feel like work if you love what you do. I want to leave a legacy behind. When I retire, I don’t want it to feel like this is all going to fall apart. It’s about sustainability and we’re building a true company culture here that will live on.
How would you describe your approach to HR?
Very collaborative. My team and I help people understand why we go down a certain path or approach issues a certain way. We work to balance business needs and employee needs, and we’re always looking for continuous improvements. We try to equip all leaders with the right tools and knowledge to be great leaders of people—to become HR folks themselves. The world is changing every day, and if you don’t change with it, you go stale.
In the 12 years you’ve been with Royal Caribbean, HR has made a dramatic shift from an administrative role to a more strategic business partner. How did this shift occur?
It began to change before I even joined the company. My predecessor was running a personnel department, but personnel departments died 25 years ago. He knew we were behind the curve, so by the time I was hired we were already taking a different approach. We aligned HR with the business side by looking at the skill sets within HR and making the most of them, developing true HR leaders and creating centers of expertise when it came to metrics, training and development, etc. You have to get all of these basic fundamentals right before senior leaders will view you as a strategic partner. We basically cleaned house; we got rid of what wasn’t working and improved upon what was working.
Have managers that care for their employees, are engaged in the development of their employees, and deliver business results. Celebrate and reward those that do it well.
Have the senior leaders own the people programs; it should never be viewed as just another HR program.
Have metrics that measure employee engagement, and make the results part of every leaders’ bonus plan.
You oversee employees on shore and on ships, but those on ships are away for as long as six months. How do you cater to their unique emotional needs?
On each ship, we have an HR group supporting the crew, as well as nurses and doctors to address any health or mental-health issues. We want to make sure we hire the right people, people who can work under these unique circumstances. New hires are provided with a very accurate overview of life on the ship through videos that show them their cabin areas and the ports of call. We do what we can to prepare them emotionally and mentally. Our onboard HR staff have been trained to assist the crew through the adaptation phase and detect any changes in behavior in crew members that have been with us for longer periods of time. They’re very in tune, and they know when to reach out.
Tell me about the successful initiatives you’re launched.
Our wellness program looks at wellness from head to toe. When many people talk about wellness they’re speaking in terms of health care: weight loss, preventative care, etc. We focus on those issues as well, but to us wellness means more than physical health. Many of our employees are caring for young children and elderly parents, so we focus a lot on stress. Employees have the option of working out in fitness centers located on each ship, taking yoga classes, or speaking to a professional about the problems they face. We also bring in financial experts as part of our Lunch and Learning program to help employees plan for their futures and make the most of their money. It’s more about wellness of the total self.
Also, our seven-year-old Building On Talent program helped us identify high-potential employees for succession planning. We’ve also launched P 4G, our Performance for Growth program that looks at well-positioned employees not really interested in moving up the ranks to an executive leadership position. It’s about engaging employees who don’t want to be managers, but equipping them with larger skill sets.
What would you tell someone interested in HR—what should they know?
It’s a constantly evolving field and every day is a new learning day. You have to be passionate. The office will become your home away from home, and if you’re not passionate about people, your job will quickly become depressing. This isn’t just work, it’s rewarding work, and if you’re in HR and you feel like you’re just getting a paycheck out of this, you’re not taking away enough and you need to consider another line of work. Every decision you make, every move you influence directly impacts people in either good or bad ways. You always need to do your best to have issues result in the best-case scenario and trying to make it a win-win situation for employees and the company. You must always handle the tough decisions with dignity.
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