Arnold Donald, CEO, Carnival Corporation.
Words matter. Words can shape a person’s life and career. They did for Arnold Donald.
This summer, Donald celebrates his fifth year as CEO of the world’s largest leisure travel company. One of every two cruise ship passengers at sea at any given moment are traveling on one of the nine brands that Donald oversees. It’s an astonishing accomplishment by any standard. But Donald’s back story makes his success even more impressive.
Donald was born and raised in grinding poverty in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. In the 7th
grade, Donald’s parents placed him at St. Augustine, an all-male, all-black school in the time of segregated bathrooms, water fountains, and classrooms. Donald told me that the following message was broadcast over the school’s PA system three times a day—before the first class, at lunch hour, and before the boys went home. These nine words changed Donald’s life.
Gentleman, prepare yourselves. You’re going to run the world.
“They would tell us that three times a day. Three times a day
,” Donald said. “Think about it this way, Carmine. Society was telling us what we couldn’t do. You can’t drink out of this water fountain. You can’t use this bathroom. You can’t. You can’t. The school wanted to get all that out of you and to convince you that you can be anything you wanted to be.”
Three times a day. Each and every day. The message began to take hold. It began to override the message Donald heard from the outside world. In his junior year in high school, Donald had internalized the empowering message and made it his life’s mission.
“At the age of 16, I decided I was going to be a general manager in a Fortune 50 science-based, global company,” Donald recalls. Although Donald’s parents had not finished high school, they believed in education and supported their son’s ambition. Donald “mapped out a plan” which included getting three degrees. At the age of 32, Donald achieved his goals and was named a general manager at Monsanto, where he spent twenty years of his career.
Arnold Donald – in back row, second from left – as a student at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans
“What I find interesting about leaders like yourself is that they talk openly about their early struggles,” I told Donald. “Howard Schultz told me about growing up poor in a Brooklyn housing project. Richard Branson told me about struggling with dyslexia and being kicked out of school. Why do inspiring leaders share these stories?”
“Because you learn so much from it,” Donald responded. “We are all products of our experiences. Those experiences shape who you are and how you think. It’s part of the fabric of who you are. You either grow from the experience or they destroy you. My experiences made me stronger. In some ways, more tolerant. In some ways, more confident.”
Arnold Donald Champions Diversity of Thinking
Donald’s experiences have shaped his career, and the way he leads Carnival Corporation. For example, Donald champions what he calls Diversity of Thinking. “The only way businesses thrive over time is through innovation,” says Donald. “Innovation, by definition, is thinking outside the box. If you bring people together from different backgrounds and different cultural experiences who are organized around a common objective, you’re far more likely to create breakthrough innovation than a homogenous group.”
Within his first three years as chief executive, Donald replaced seven of the nine heads of Carnival Corp’s cruise line brands. Four of today’s leaders are women including Christine Duffy, the president of Carnival Cruise Line (the largest cruise line in the world) and Jan Swartz, the president of Princess Cruises. Donald also brought in Orlando Ashford to run Holland America. Ashford is the first African-American president of a cruise line and his background is in human resources, not travel. Ashford brings a different perspective to a company that values people as its most important asset.
According to Donald, “Diversity of thinking is a business imperative and a powerful advantage.”
Donald’s powerful advantage has powered Carnival Corp’s results. Over his five-year tenure as CEO, the company’s market value has grown nearly 78% to $48 billion. In an upcoming article, Donald will share the lessons he’s learned about leadership communication, employee satisfaction, and customer loyalty.
Donald believes you can be anything you set your mind to if you have confidence and follow a plan. “It’s not that easy, but it is that simple,” he says.