Core Values: Find your How

Your "Why" is important. The "How" just as important and harder.

Douglas Atkin, fmr Head of Global Airbnb Community talk about how to unveil your company's core values. Real core values, that will actually shape your culture and organization. Douglas takes us through his journey of recreating the core values wheel at Airbnb.

How do you keep that culture and insist new hires embrace your mission and purpose? Listen to find out.

Thanks to our friends at Symphony Talent for supporting the Cult Brands Series of podcasts.

This podcast is a companion to Douglas' series authored entitled Purpose Must Come First on Medium.


Disability Solutions connects jobseekers with disabilities with employers who value diversity and inclusion.

Intro (1s):

Hide your kids! Lock the doors! You're listening to HRS most dangerous podcast. CHAD SOWASH and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry, right where it hurts! Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark, buckle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel (14s):

Hahaha!. Aw. Yeah. The Cult Brand series rolls on boys and girls It sure does. Douglas Atkin is back

Douglas (33s):

He's back

Chad (33s):

I'm giddy like a school girl, right now I'm telling you! total Douglas withdraw right now. We had the whole holidays without Douglas. I'm feeling a little excited about that!

Douglas (36s):

Thank you are very sweet,

Chad (36s):

If you don't know who Douglas is, first off, you need to stop right now. Go back to the first of the Cult Brand series and get yourself educated. But Douglas Atkin, he actually wrote the book. I have it right here in my hand. Yeah, The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers into True Believers. Wrote the book!

Chad (1m 8s):

He was the global head of community at Airbnb, held a position as partner and chief community officer at and literally, always one of the smartest people in the room. Once again, I'm a fan boy. That's all you got to say, man, Itty, bitty company, Airbnb, most people have probably heard of it .

Douglas (1m 8s):

Well it was when I joined. I mean, it was, it was any 150 or so people in an office when I joined in San Francisco. That was, that's the kind of exciting, weird and crazy thing about the whole journey.

Chad (1m 44s):

Yeah. You were there for the whole ride. And what I think is great is you've introspectively written a series of posts on that we talk about here on the, on the podcast. And we're now at, at, I guess post number five, which is your longest post. So you have a lot to say about this topic, the title of How to live your Purpose #5: You need Core Values. They’re the ‘How’ of achieving your ‘Why’ Yeah. So what was the inspiration on this one?

Douglas (1m 44s):

This is a longer one because it's actually full of full of some very practical advice about why you need core values and then how to get them and how to make sure that their core I found out since we did this whole exercise at Airbnb, the very people are very, very interested in this. So I decided to sort of lay it down. It's only takes like 18 or so minutes through the article, but there's examples pitches of what we did and so forth. So anyway, yeah, so this is core values are taken extremely, extremely seriously at Airbnb. And in fact, when you're interviewed for a job there, you make it like sort of six or eight interviews like you normally do anywhere else to assess your skill on the job, whether you're a good engineer or a good marketing person, all those kinds of things, but then give them two culture interviews, two core values interviews by people that have nothing to do with your discipline and they have a veto power. So you may be the best software engineer in Silicon Valley or New York or Shanghai or wherever it is. But if you don't pass the core values or culture interviews, you are not hired. It doesn't matter how good you are. That's how importantly Airbnb treats core values. And the kind of critical idea here is that is a couple of things. One is that you're being interviewed to see whether your own personal core values, the values that make you tick as an individual that sort of drive who you are, are aligned with those core values that we all share at Airbnb. If you, if they are aligned, then you're accepted in and you're a part of that larger family. If they're not aligned, then it would be better for you. And for Airbnb, if you find a place where you find, you know, you find a company or wherever you're going to work, that has similar values to your own, right?

Joel (3m 57s):

Where were these interviews typically regimented with the questions that were asked or were they more of sort of a smalltalk situation and getting to know each other?

Douglas (3m 57s):

neither? I mean, it's, they, they were very written that there is a sort of an interview guide and the interview has a form basically that they have to fill in. Well, what they're trying to find is evidence from your personal life of what your core values are as an individual and see whether they align with those at Airbnb. And so there's like for every core value, there is a space on the form that the interviewer must fill in to say that there is evidence that they share that value and they'll write down what it was. And so the way the interviews are conducted are it doesn't feel regimented, like they're ticking boxes. It will feel more like a sort of conversation, fun conversation, but also earnest parts because you should be talking about what makes you tick, what your values are.

Joel (4m 52s):

Real quick Douglas, we've talked to individuals about culture and how, you know, culture is, is big when it comes to actual actually hiring. And we've heard some companies say, yeah, but that can also lead to bias because you can just say, well, that that person didn't fit our culture. And because they didn't feel right, you know what I mean? And, and that feeling to an extent can really be embedded bias. It could be. So that's why it's not just based on the feeling.

Joel (5m 24s):

That's why the, there are now 500 culture or core value interviews at Airbnb. And it's about 5,000 people there now. Wow. Yeah.

Douglas (5m 36s):

Right. And you have to apply to be a core values interview and you yourself are interviewed and you're sort of record and reviews and everything are consulted to CBRE that you truly do understand there being these values that you do share them yourself. In other words, you know, you have to be a sort of an exemplar of them. Then you have a training session that trains you how to do the interviews. And then as I say, you have this form, you have to fill in where you have to give evidence for your decision and you get that evidence from the person they'll find out whether this person has, you know, sort of has an entrepreneurial streak, for example. And then they'll ask that person to give examples of how they were an entrepreneur entrepreneur, and then those would be put in the form. So, you know, I'm sure like in any field in life, you know, there is unfortunately unconscious bias can, could slip in, but they try and do as much as they can to make sure it's completely eliminated by, by making it very, it's not just, Ooh, they're not going to fit. Not really like us. It's actually evidence-based, you know what I mean?

Joel (6m 33s):

Gotcha And I love that you interview the interviewers. So it's not just picking random people off the floor to talk about.

Douglas (6m 39s):

So you, the reason why the article is also quite long is because core values are really, really, really important for any organization. It doesn't matter whether you're a company or a church or a whatever, you know, political party are. The core values are important because they are the guidelines. If you like the kind of, or as Brian used to call them the "rules of the game", on how you achieve your purpose. So in Airbnb's case, Airbnb's purpose, as we've discussed is creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere, which is ridiculously ambitious as it should be.

Douglas (7m 15s):

And we're going to be discussed why in previous conversations. And so there are now four core values that basically govern the behavior of everyone in Airbnb too. So that, that insanely ambitious purpose will be made real. That's what they're there for. Basically they are there, they are the "how" to make sure you deliver your, "why". The why in Airbnb's case is creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. So you really need them. And it's, if you don't have them, then it's, it's very dangerous because, you know, you're going to say to people, we've got this amazing inspirational, "why"

Douglas (7m 51s):

this amazing, inspirational "purpose", and then you're giving them no tools and no guidelines about how to deliver it.

Joel (7m 56s):


Douglas (7m 56s):

That's so that's what they are basically they are. And the way I think about it is they are the sort of the rules of the game or the, well, they define how everyone should behave with each other, relate to each other and decide things together in order to achieve their collective purpose is all about behaving and relating and deciding things together, what we do basically at work.

Joel (8m 18s):

Yeah. Right. And don't most companies you feel today, they're trying to put out a "purpose" and their "why", but there's really no how attached to that whatsoever.

Douglas (8m 18s):

Exactly. There is. There's, there's not enough "how" I mean, there are great, there's some good authors like Simon Sinek, who, you know, writing about how important it is to have a "why." Right. But there's very little about "how" to get there, where idealistic at Airbnb, but also very pragmatic. We're very, you know, okay. So the next question was, we've got this great purpose. How the hell are we going to deliver it? And so that came down to the core values. Now, the, so what happened was, this was sort of interesting.

Douglas (8m 49s):

Oh, actually, before I tell you about how we changed them, cause there were six core values, originally. They were created in 2012 just before I joined in the summer of 2012. And they were created basically by the founders with some of the sort of longer tenured people, which meant like bond year, two years, there were people in the company, this company that had been going properly really for two, it'd be basically it was the founders realized they couldn't be in every meeting and they couldn't interview every recruit, potential recruit. So as I used to do. So when they interviewed them and Brian told this to me several times, you know, they spend a large part of the interviews, making sure there was an alignment of core values between this person and the founders themselves and the culture they are created in the company. So they couldn't do that anymore. So they said, okay, we need to create some, some core values that sort of articulate what we were looking for when we were doing those interviews ourselves and then train some people we trust who live the core values themselves to do the interviews. And so that's, it all started in 2012 and they came up with six core values, which they did sort of how most people normally do that process of creating their core values. If they do it at all, which is getting the founders or the senior people in the room and sort of hammering out what it is that they collectively stand for and what they believe in and all those kinds of things. So it was, it was done, you know, pretty well, but not as rigorously as I would have liked. At least they did it, Right? And they ended up with six core values. So I'm going to give you, first of all, an example of one of them and then how, and try and give you an example of, you know, how, how this call value helped achieve the purpose of creating world, where anyone can belong anywhere.

Chad (8m 18s):

Okay. We'll get back to the interview in a minute.

Symphony Talent (10m 48s):

Building a cult brand is not easy, which is why you need friends. Like Roopesh Nair CEO of Symphony Talent on your side, okay. Ok, Roopesh hiring companies can't hire diverse candidates. If diverse candidates aren't applying for their jobs, what should hiring companies do differently to attract a more diverse candidate? So for diversity, specifically, companies should think about why do they want diversity in their organization and ensure that they are bringing that into the conversations about hiring diverse candidates, because that's how they can be genuine about diversity.

Symphony Talent (11m 29s):

Because just checking a box saying, I want to be hiring diverse candidates is not going to help. So the first thing is thinking about why do you want diversity? What are the different groups we are targeting as you think about diversity and then bringing those messages, which basically is going to resonate to that particular group of diverse candidates into your engagement, whether it is kind of, as you reach out in the mass media and target specific diverse groups, as you basically nurture these diverse groups, once they have connection with you is very important because to your point, you won't get it. You won't get a diverse candidate till you get in front of a candidate. And the only way you can do that is by figuring out what is the connection point between you and the diverse candidate. And it is very, very easy to kind of cast a netting. I want diverse candidate, but the truth is there are many, many groups of that diverse candidate and you need to be really clear on who exactly are you targeting, Let Symphony Talent help activate your brand and keep relationships at the heart of your talent strategy for more information, visit

Douglas (12m 45s):

So there's, there's a, there's a core value called be a cereal entrepreneur, be a cereal entrepreneur, very important.

Joel (12m 45s):

And the way that you spell serial, I love because of the backstory.

Douglas (12m 45s):

Well, yeah, yeah. So cereal is spelled like breakfast cereal. And the reason why is because I think it was about 2008 or 2009, the three founders had been going for a little while a year or so. And they'd just maxed out their credit cards. There was no money to be had. They had no investors, all those kinds of things. This is before they joined Y Combinator, two of the three, which is, Brian and Joe are designers. They were at University together. I'm doing product design. So, and also it was too, it was quite off. Exactly. You know, exactly when it was, it was 2008, the general election when Obama was ultimately elected and they, God knows where they got this idea from, but they said basically, why don't we design cereal boxes well called one Obama Rose? And the other one was, Oh God, I forgot what it was called. The McCain McCain's squares or something.

Joel (12m 45s):

Yeah. Imagine that McCain's squares. He was a pretty square cat.

Douglas (12m 45s):

Exactly. So they designed these really cool cereal boxes and then spent weeks basically ripping over packs of Cheerios and pouring them into these cereal boxes, they designed! Sealing them up again and then selling them on, on eBay. And they made 35 grand doing that, which was enough to make Airbnb continue to exist until they got to Y Combinator. And you know, it all went upwards from there.

Joel (12m 45s):

And that is an entrepreneurial Cool story if I've ever heard.

Douglas (14m 29s):

Well, exactly. That's why it's called the, be a cereal entrepreneur. So there's be, I mean, there are many, many examples of them doing crazy stories like that in extremists when you're really having to be creative and take a huge risk, but that's the one that's sort of defines that quality. And so, yeah, so there's be a serial entrepreneur and a good example of that, of how that is sort of used to achieve the purpose of Airbnb is in 2014 business, the core business of homes in people's staying in people's homes was because this is the point in about 2013, 2014, 2015.

Douglas (15m 4s):

That was really, really, really taking off. And Airbnb was beginning to be a household name growing at between 200 and 300% a year, from that business. So, you know, on the, I know it's insane, but most people would be happy ten percent growth, but this was 200 to 300% into somewhere i