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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.


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):

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Symphony Talent (11m 29s):

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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 in between there. At massive scale! No, it wasn't like a little company grow. That's a huge rate. It was a big company growing at that huge rate. So, you know, you could have, they could have rested on your laurels and said, well, you know, let's just enjoy this massive growth and make it and keep it going.

Douglas (15m 36s):

But that wouldn't have achieved the goal and the purpose of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. Because we had, we realized that there was more ways and more opportunities of creating belonging in when you're traveling then simply the accommodation. And so Brian put together, you know, as well as being the CEO and running the company, he also ran the sort of skunk works little unit in a, in a little garage in the office called Magical Trips. It was nicknamed at the time. And their goal was to basically reinvent travel, to be the ideal rather than the kind of sometimes great sometimes terrible experience it is right now. And so first of all, they had to do to, you know, basically what they had to do. And they, they knew they had to do this because there is this culture at Airbnb, which is expressed in a cereal entrepreneur value, which is don't be incremental. Don't do a little 10%, 15% improvement on what you already have. Imagine what the ideal it is. No imagine that's the world as it should. And then work back from that, figuring out the steps from that to where you are now and therefore what you have to do to make that ideal a reality. So they basically spent the first few months as this sort of a close knit group, they were a mixture of know software engineers and partnerships, people, marketing people. It was a whole mixture of people, product people, designers, and they, the first part was imagining what an ideal trip was. That's it, that's a common phrase in Airbnb at the moment. This is ideal trip and they defined it eventually through iterating to coming up with many ideas of what the trip could be like, getting strangers to take the trip. Yeah. Interviewing, finding out what it was like for them and then yeah, improving and iterating and improving and iterating. And so eventually realized that the ideal trip is something that is of course fun, but also meaningful and meaningful trip now is a very important catchphrase at Airbnb. Something you come back from that trip and you're slightly yeah changed or maybe changed in a big way, sort of may more meaning to your life in a way. I mean, this can still happen when you're, we're on the beach. You know, it doesn't have to be wild and crazy, but the goal was basically to reinvent travel and to make it as the ideal.

Douglas (16m 6s):

And the ideal they realized having come up with these ideas and interview people was to have some kind of meaningful trip, as well as the fun and the new knowledge and everything else they're doing. And so that's exactly what the cereal entrepreneur Valley is about. It's about imagining the ideal and then figuring out the steps from that ideal backwards to where you are now. And then basically that is your that's. What you have to do over the next six months is follow those steps until you deliver the ideal. And they did. And then there's a basically there's going to be, have been, and there's going to be a series of product launches that will reinvent travel. Basically. The first one of those was experiences that came out in 2015, 16, which is staying in Airbnb, but you can also go and join a different host in the town you're in, who might be, you know, fanatic and love disco. I'm just remembering it. There's a host in LA who does this great experiences where you go to the market, you buy all the seventies disco clothes, and then he takes them out to the discos in LA that night.

Joel (15m 36s):

Chad loves Disco by the way,

Douglas (15m 36s):

Oh, me too! Me too! I grew up with it. And so, yeah, so experiences basically are about, you know, you're, you're, you're doing something interesting with someone who's passionate about it and who's local and with other people who are also passionate about it. So, so that's sort of, that's an example of a core of value cereal. Being a cereal entrepreneur was the way this group works. As I said before, just to recap, is that it, they didn't seek to find modest improvements on the status quo, cereal entrepreneur Valley, forced them to behave and think and decide in a way that imagined any ideal and then work back from that to set the path that they would take to get to the ideal.

Joel (19m 22s):

Was that a hard leap to get employees to make? Because I think in your post, you talk about the typical conversation is, you know, how do we make incremental advances in the product or features that we offer? And, and this is really inviting them to think like a small business or an entrepreneur, was that a really tough job to do? Or do you find, did you find that most of the employees found that a natural thing?

Douglas (19m 45s):

In fact, it was a natural thing because they had been interviewed and got through the core values tests where people had already sort of probed to see whether these people were entrepreneurially inclined. And so that, so there's that. And then the second thing is, you know, it's just basically in the atmosphere at Airbnbs, certainly when I was there, I think it still is where there's this huge urgency to, to get, you know, big stuff done. So incremental. Isn't just, I mean, I, I joined Airbnb when I was 58, I think. So I've worked in many other companies and with many other companies of all kinds, car companies, banks, and all those kinds of things. And we're incrementalism, it's the norm, you know, and I always found it depressing and Airbnb was so intoxicating because there wasn't any, not in anything. There was no incrementalism there was reinvented and, and figuring out what the ideal is, reinvent it. And that's what we're going to do. There is no status quo that we're, you know, unless it's really proven, and we have to use it, but basically we're going to reinvent everything to do with travel and the way you run a business, even. So that's why I loved it. It's also extremely exhausting, but in the best possible way. So as we talked about in our previous conversations about the culture and so forth, the culture was getting a little bit wobbly in 2015, we were worried about it. And I did a whole exercise to diagnose why it was getting wobbly. And one of the three important reasons why the culture that was getting wobbly was that the core values were good, but not good enough. The six core values that they had to come up with in 2012, and that people were telling me, employees of all backgrounds, ages, every department, every tenure location in the world, et cetera. I said that we love that there are core values and we love that Airbnb takes them so seriously, but they're not always great. You know, they're, they're sort of freestyle, there's too many of them, the six. And I found every day, every single person I interviewed about the Core Values is I want you to remember five, but always forgot to set. And that was a different six. So it was, I mean, that's pretty impressive though. Five out of six, that's not too bad. Right? Right. So, so part of the problem was the way that we diagnose is that it was, there were many that they were too cutely written and weren't straightforward and actionable enough. And some of them, they felt weren't real, that they were aspirational, not truly core. So, and I got this information from them because when I sat them down, I both interviews. And in a group, I said to them, think of any core values, what do you think their ideal characteristics are? You know, should there be lots? Should there be few? Should they be aspirational? Should they be reflect, you know, like a mirror reflect their status quo. What's, you know, what are the ideal characteristics of, of, of COVID like to write them down on the card.

Douglas (22m 46s):

And so they said things like they want to few, less is more. It was easy to remember. They wanted them to be real, not corporate bullshit, someone wrote. Self evident so their real. Feel like truth and indisputable unique to us concise. They wanted them to be clear and self-explanatory, you don't need, you don't need to decode them. So there was, there were a couple of core values that we had, like embrace the adventure that were open to too much interpretation.

Douglas (23m 15s):

They weren't definitive enough. And in fact, they were being abused sometimes. So like a manager might say, I'm sorry, you've got to work the weekend to get this done. Hey, you know, we'd be saying, embrace the adventure. You know, that, that is definitely not how the core value of embrace the adventure was meant to be used, but it was.

Joel (22m 46s):

And that's not the adventure that right.

Douglas (22m 46s):

Exactly. So, so the fact that they could be misinterpreted or, or, you know, badly interpreted was not good enough, they needed to be small, straightforward. It was another thing and actionable for the day to day, as someone said, Actionable concrete, fewer clarity, examples in action. So they wrote all these ideal characteristics down on cards. And then I said to them now thinking of our six core values, I want you to rate them or Mark them, you know, against these, these ideals that you've had. So our core values self-explanatory Oh, the just a few of them, are they actionable? Are they real? And so there's examples in the article on medium, you can see where people put the check marks and cross marks, but basically we didn't do too well.

Douglas (23m 19s):

I mean, there was, there was a couple that, that were really well. We had one really important core value called be a host in reference to Airbnb hosts, but basically be a host was be human, be caring, look out, make sure help other people succeed, make them feel welcome, make them feel like they belong. You know, basically like an ideal host in Airbnb, if you are a guest. And that was really, really clear people totally understood it lived it. There was no debate about it, but there were others like, like, you know, embrace the adventure. As I say that we're too vague. So I went back to the founders and said, Oh, Dan, we're going to have to, I'm afraid change the unchangeable. You should never change your core values because you know, they are the, the, the things that sort of the guideposts, the foundation of how you behave, relate and decide to achieve your purpose. They should reflect who you are. So they shouldn't really be changed. But I said, listen, meet me. You know, much as we don't want to change them, it'd be worse if we didn't, because we may end up with these values that aren't ideal or great.

Joel (22m 46s):

Or real!

Douglas (22m 46s):

You may end up in a place where they're good, but not good enough. Right. We ended up with a culture that doesn't really reflect what we meant about the values. And that's a much worse problem to be in, in say three or four or five years, time better to change them now than have a, have a culture that's drifted into the wrong direction later. And so they agreed and we like literally held hands and said, okay, we're going to do this thing.

Douglas (23m 16s):

And I said, I'm going to go back out and zero base everything and find out exactly what Airbnb's true core values are. Put the ones we have currently aside and just go back to basics. And, and I also made it really clear to them what we should mean by core values. They need to be who you are as a person naturally, with a bit forcing it. They shouldn't be aspirational, which by the way, most so-called core values in companies and other organizations are they call them core values, but actually they're aspirational values things they wish they would be actually where there's a, I guess for having an aspirational values can be okay. As long as you're clear about that, though, as long as you're saying, we're not this way now, but we want to be, we want to be, and we want to try. The trouble with aspirational values though. Ones that real is that over time, when the employees see that they're not living them, or they're not being lived by their bosses or whatever, or the decisions are not being made, according to the core values, cynicism comes in, it creates a toxic culture and it could be really, really bad. So this is why you need to have core values. Core values are reflective of who you are and remind you who you are and how to behave and relate and decide things together. So I do use this to try to try and get to that. I use this very simple technique that people really like actually outside of Airbnb. I think other companies are using it, which is I asked each individual. And again, this is done with people of every department, senior junior, all over the world, draw two circles on a piece of paper and a Venn diagram. And they will probably overlap. One circle is called Airbnb. And the other circle is called me, which is you. And what you need to do is to write down your personal values, your personal core values that define who you are as a person, as a personality, the things that drive, how you behave and relate and decide things with other people. And you split those between the ones you think you share with Airbnb and the ones that are just unique to you that you don't share. So, so in the overlaps with the circle should be your personal values that you happen to also see, being lived in shared by other people at Airbnb. Then on the, on one side is outside the shared area is going to be the he not shared with Airbnb, but still unique to you. And then I asked them also to write down the values they thought they saw at Airbnb, that they didn't share at all. And so to give you, I can show a couple of examples in the article, but for example, the bit that the ones in the middle, I had words like authentic, caring, human, passionate, proud, entrepreneurial, disruptive, bold, not afraid to stand out, values driven, care for people as people, those kinds of things.

Joel (22m 46s):

And I love this. Yeah!

Douglas (22m 46s):

And so what was great, this I, this I had about 300 of these sheets.

Joel (22m 46s):


Douglas (22m 46s):

I know it's s. So, and by the way, this is only half of what I did to get to our core values. This is what I did with the people. If you like of Airbnb, not the founders, just the everyday workers. And so what was great is that there was basically put people were putting the same things in the overlaps more or less. And just to make sure that I wasn't just hoping for that.

Douglas (28m 55s):

And it was truly true. I went through every single of these sheets and wrote down every single value that they had written in the middle and the shared part on a huge spreadsheet and totaled up how many times had it been mentioned? And what I found was that basically there were three big areas that everyone felt they shared with Airbnb. And it was that one is that they were sort of, they were mission driven. They were purpose driven. They were, they wanted to work with something beyond their salary and they totally bought into belong anywhere. The second one was that there was this caring idea, this hostingnesss looking after other people not being, you know, horrible and toxic and competitive, like it is in some other companies, but actually helping your colleagues succeed. And then thirdly, the other one was which I called caring. And the third one was daring, which was this boldness, this non incremental ism, this thinking of the ideal, that's thinking outside of the box, kind of, of entrepreneur.

Joel (22m 46s):

You have in this sheet. I just want to make sure that we, we, we say this, fuck the status quo, disrupt rebel. Rule-breaker embrace. I mean, so I mean that in itself, I mean, these are the things that you're actually pulling out of your people and you're finding what that real culture is. Totally. Total Honesty Yeah.

Douglas (30m 35s):

So under the whole forge your own path and conventional daring heading or things like that, they wrote, they wrote open-minded, fuck the status quo, rule-breaker pioneer, disruptive, bold, courageous, daring, fearless, confident, entrepreneurial, scrappy, and so on.

Joel (30m 52s):

And I love the one that's just like one circle, like they're all the same values.

Douglas (30m 58s):

It's interesting is that everyone started, they drew the circles and started filling the, the three areas in. Then they always said, Hey, you know, I've done this one. Can I redraw them? I said, yes, of course. So they throw that away and redraw always with the two circles with more overlap than they had before. Because they realized that when they thought about it, that there was a huge amount that they shared in common.

Joel (31m 19s):

Oh, this is a great exercise. Yeah. Oh, it's awesome For you again, because you're, you're trying to figure out the whole wobbliness of the core values, but I think it's also great. Just an interspective for the employees who might not realize this much, this really is more of a realization of the things that you do have in common, right.

Douglas (31m 40s):

It was helping them realize how much we had in common, but what is the reason why I was doing it though, was I was zero basing everything. I wanted to find out exactly what our core values were. Cause I had a, I had a hunch and also I heard it from people that there were a couple of values that weren't, that we had of those six, that weren't Core that weren't real. I mean, people had complained to me about this, that some of them were aspiration and not real. And I wanted to find out what was real, so that we could then go to those values that weren't real and make a decision about them, whether it be should keep them or not.

Douglas (32m 12s):

So that's what we did. And so, so that was very, what was hugely encouraging. And I'm sure you might get this at some places is, as I say, there was a huge amount of overlap. The things they wrote in the overlap were more or less the same across all 300 people. So that was great. And then the other thing that I did to, to figure out what our core values were, was I did a separate exercise with the founders because if you're lucky enough to have founders, that's great because you know, they, they, they have a disproportionate influence on the organization about how people behave and relate relate and decide.

Douglas (32m 47s):

And it all started with them. Anyway, you know, it kind of started from there three personalities and the way they wanted to operate together and build this company. So I didn't do the Venn diagram with them. I did a totally different exercise. Now, the exercise that's normally done by most people and I've seen other people use is put the founders in the room and get them to brainstorm, you know, what they, what they think the values should be. I think that's the wrong approach personally. I mean, it's fine. It can provide some information. The problem with it to my mind is that if you're a leader, especially a leader in Silicon Valley, you are prone to idealism and wishful thinking.

Douglas (33m 25s):

And so what you're likely to get out of that exercise is wishful thinking, not reality. And I wanted to pin the founders down in reality, I mean, as characters they are, you know, of our, all these things, they are all openminded and brave and idealistic and creative. So I wanted them though to, I wanted to get out of them surface from them, their core values that is based in reality, not wishful thinking. So what I ask them to do is separately, we had this, it was a Sunday afternoon in March, I think 2016, I got them into the office. And, and by the way, in the office, every meeting room has an exact recreation of a host home, somewhere in the world, whether it's in Bombay or Cairo.

Chad (33m 25s):

That's Awesome!

Joel (33m 25s):

That is awesome!

Douglas (33m 25s):

So what I did is I called them, put them in the meeting room of the very first Airbnb, which is an exact recreation of the own, their own flat that they shared in San Francisco in Rush Street. That's it, that's one of the meeting rooms in Airbnb, the very first Airbnb. And I said, just as a good environment for them to think back to what it was like when that was their office.

Joel (33m 25s):

Too Cool

Douglas (33m 25s):

And I said, okay, so I want you to think of all the meaningful moments in the history of the company so far. And I defined meaningful moments as those moments where you made a decision or did something that on principle that express your fundamental beliefs. And they're probably moments that had a large amount of risk attached because they were on principle. So, right. All right. Just write on or down notes on all of those events. So they did that and it was great. I got three separate sheets back each reflective of their personalities. Brian had huge sheet covered with like 40 or 50 events in a meaningful moments, which I'm going to give a little plug here, which one of these meaningful moments was hiring Douglas and Chip. Chip was one of my colleagues at Airbnb. He was a, he was a founder of a successful hotel chain in San Francisco. And by the way, when he had that there, I said, why is that a moment meaningful moment? Because we, because we're old, bald and gay whites or what?

Joel (33m 25s):

Laughter and applause

Douglas (33m 25s):

Cause we were we are the oldest people in the company, but both have shaved head and both white, what it is, laughed and said, no, no, no, no He said, he said a really nice thing. He said, you're unorthodox people and do things differently, For hiring people at a senior, in a senior position at that point, apparently that was meaningful him. So that was cute.

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Douglas (37m 39s):

But anyway, he thinks

Joel (37m 39s):

that's great.

Douglas (37m 39s):

And then, you know, Joe put his down, it was all very nicely art directed. And then Nate, who's the most logical thinker of the more put everything down in order of importance, which was amazing. So then I, we discussed each of them to go through each of those events or discuss the more the other two, which they did a, what was gratifying to see was that they shared the same meaningful moments. They've all fought them, same moments, but as meaningful basically, then I went back and said, okay, now this is the reality.

Douglas (38m 10s):

You've written down the reality here. This is stuff that actually happened. Now. I want to do, to go back over those meaningful moments and extract the meaning from them. What was the principle that you stood by when you made that decision? Well, did that action? And so they went back and did that, and I asked them to read out the show me the meaning behind all of those events and those moments. And again, what was also gratifying to see was that they had the same meaning, basically the same. And it was the same as the people I've been talking to the employees.

Douglas (38m 42s):

Once I got the, to sort of narrow it down to a two, three or four key meaningful keep key meetings, key core values. It was in the exact same areas of being purpose and mission lead of being Hosty or human and being, and caring, and also being daring and entrepreneurial and creative and out of the box. All of which was great. So now I had both from the founders and from the employees, some data that was based in reality, it was the founders core values, basically that had been subtracted from an drive from actual things they did.

Douglas (39m 19s):

Not wishful thinking, but things they actually did. And on employees, same thing. I had values that they felt they actually had seen shared between them and the rest of the company.

Joel (39m 19s):

I loved the grassroots approach to that as opposed to top down.

Douglas (39m 19s):

Right. Exactly. As I say, top down is fine. You can do that. But if you just do that alone, you're likely to end up first of all, with, you know, the point that the point of view of some leaders who may well be distant from a lot of people, but secondly, you may well end up with a wishful thinking rather than reality. So you need to do both, you know, you need to do both the people and that. So it was, I went back a little bit later with a big presentation with Dave O'Neill, who is my partner in crime, on this, someone who still works at Airbnb. And we basically presented to the founders and then to, to the whole company, what we found. And we basically said, yay, it's good. We are, we do share a lot of values. And we, we all think they're the same values, basically these three things. And they also, the founders, I showed all the sheets that I use to the whole company.

Douglas (40m 24s):

It was in a big presentation to thousands of people in their broadcast around the world. And one of our world meetings, you know, I showed them their own forms, their own cards. They filled in the spreadsheets, the form, the, the, all the worksheets that the founders had used. And so on and said, we've already made some conclusions here. There are two of the six values aren't core, they're aspirational. Then we had one value called Simplify and another value called Every Frame Matters. But anyway, I said, none of you put that in the middle. You didn't share it. It wasn't a personal value of yourselves except for a few of you and you didn't see it shared and the rest of the company.

Joel (40m 59s):

So we should dump them. They're not real they're aspirational. And so I, first of all, agreed with the founders, and then you sort of announced to the rest of the team, that's, those are no longer our values, but now down to four, and in the end, what we ended up with is four core values that use the original expressions that we had on the original six. But they were real. I think, you know, this was a bit of a compromise to be frank, because I actually wanted the values to be something like, put the mission first, number one, number two, caring, number three, daring.

Douglas (41m 30s):

That was it. That's what I wanted, you know, but actually, well, the founders felt was that we should keep for the original expressions that were in the original six of those four, and then add behaviors that really spelled out in black and white, exactly how you should be.

Chad (41m 30s):

And that's the how!

Douglas (41m 30s):

And that's the how yes, exactly. So it's actually, it works very, very well. So one of the original ones was champion the mission, which is this whole mission, first idea. And underneath it are the three behaviors. For example, it says, prioritize work that advances the mission and positively impacts the community build with a longterm in mind, actively participate in the community and culture. So what is saying, there is a again, no incrementalist them, you have to make, you have to do a check, is what I'm working on today, going to advance our mission. If not, then maybe I shouldn't be doing it. Or at least I shouldn't be prioritizing it.

Chad (41m 30s):


Douglas (41m 30s):

The other one. And the one is be a host and the three behaviors are care for others and make them feel like they belong, encourage others to participate to their fullest, listen, communicate openly and set clear expectations. So it's again, very specific setting up the behaviors. And then another one is embrace the adventure, the problem with embrace the adventure and be a cereal entrepreneur, but really embrace the adventure is that it is a little obscure. You need to explain it, but we do explain it with the behaviors. So that one is be curious, ask for help and demonstrating the ability to grow, own and learn from mistakes, bring joy and optimism per work, and then be a cereal entrepreneur has three behaviors, which are be bold and apply original thinking. Imagine the ideal outcome, be resourceful to make the outcome a reality.

Douglas (42m 0s):

So that was that thing I was talking about where you imagine the ideal, imagine the steps backwards and then figure out how you're going to get.

Joel (43m 12s):

And do you bring, I mean, were, were people like bringing these to meetings and whatnot to make sure that you were in line and you were prioritizing the right way and you're really focused on what the mission or really the, the, the why and how was?

Douglas (43m 28s):

Yeah. I mean, even before we did this exercise, but certainly afterwards people would say in a meeting. Yeah. But that's not being host, you know, that's not hosting that's we do this or that's not going to achieve the mission. That's just like, I mean, in fact, in, in some of the sort of larger meetings, we had some of the complaints that were brought forward, which I've mentioned before. And some of the articles and the interviews is that some of the big decisions weren't living some of the core values of the purpose, like there was a decision to go off to vacation rentals, which are largely managed by professionals, original hosts.

Douglas (44m 4s):

And people said, that's, that's not going to help us create a world where anyone can belong anywhere. That's cause they're just in it for the money. They're not like most of our hosts doing it because they love it and want to make people feel at home. So that, that was a very active debate and open and out and transparent. No one was whispering it in corridors. It was sort of out there. So yes, it was always like that as Airbnb, but it's even more like that now. And one of the last things I mentioned in the article about this values is you can launch the core values once you've got them. You know, if you use, if you have to use these techniques and you haven't turned up with your real core values that are actionable and few and so forth, what do you do with them? How do you actually operationalize them? And I make people live by them?

Chad (44m 4s):


Douglas (44m 4s):

So there's one thing I say is you can launch them, which in fact Airbnb did in early 20, 2017, February, 2017 at one of the big Airbnb one Airbnb meetings where they bring all the employers from all over the world to San Francisco for a week or of belongingness, basically where we just form relationships and get to know each other and have fun. They, The theme of this, this one in 2017 was the new core values or the revised core values. We've got, went from six to four and there were big speeches up on stage with the founders, bringing on teams who, who gave examples of being a cereal entrepreneur that they had left or being a host or championing the mission. And then there was a sort of awkward but necessary moment on stage where Brian brought up the other two founders and the leadership team, and they had a mayor Culper about how they had fucked up basically in many ways and made decisions or behaved in ways that didn't live the values and what steps they were going to take to, to change that going forward.

Chad (45m 51s):

I mean, that really had to be cathartic for not just them, but everybody. I mean, just somebody you see, I mean, your founders up on stage saying, Hey guys, you're really kind of fucked some things it's like, Oh, you know, that's, that's awesome. Not to mention it automatically pulls them in to the conversation.

Douglas (46m 9s):

Exactly, exactly. And it's, but they had to do that also because you know, this was also partly answering that the problem with the wobbliness of the culture was that not only were they, the, the core value is not usable enough, but they felt that people felt a lot of the leaders weren't embodying them. Weren't using them to make decisions themselves. And, and some of them in fact had been mis-hires that they just did not share Airbnb's values and shouldn't have been there in the first place. And so it was necessary to kind of lay all that out and admit it and show how they were going to change, which they did in this, this huge poll in San Francisco in early 2017.

Douglas (46m 48s):

But so that's not enough though. That's good. What they did. We've had a launch of it and the mayor culpa and showed examples of how they were going to change in the future, but also things they had done in the past that lived the values. All that's fantastic, but you have to do it every day. You basically have to launch the core values every day, launch the mission every day. So that's what they do. So we've already talked about how all candidates for all jobs are given these two core value culture interviews. But the other thing that happens now is that in everyone's reviews, you know, their performance reviews, 50% of the marks, if you like are for what you did, like, you know, how good you were at your job, your skills, how you manifest your skills.

Douglas (47m 28s):

The other 50% is though, is how you did it. Now, did you launch this amazing product while living the four core values? And you have to give examples of how you did that. And so everyone knows that whether they stay in the company or not, or how, whether they're promoted or not, or given a raise or not is also dependent, very dependent on how they behave relate and decide together, according to the core values. So it's built into the review system. The other thing that happens is that every week, Brian Chesky, the CEO cofounder does a live Q and A and answer any questions submitted to him by any employee about anything.

Douglas (48m 6s):

And he nearly always frames the answers in a way that demonstrates the use of the core values and the purpose. So, you know, he's constantly reinforcing it. What else? Oh right. All new hires go through a week long onboarding experience called check-in. And the very first session is 90 minutes covering the founding story, the mission, the purpose of belong anywhere, and the core values. And the new hires aren't given their computers until the end of the first day, so that they are actively paying attention and, you know, not getting digressed.

Douglas (48m 37s):

And then there's biweekly. Well that meetings where again, all the new product launches and works in progress, team updates, all framed in terms of the core values and purpose. So as being continuously launched, if you like continuously referred to, it's not something that sits on a PowerPoint or on the company mugs in the kitchen and is never mentioned again, it's used and mentioned by everyone every day about everything,

Chad (49m 1s):

Which is amazing because that provides a framework for how you do business.

Joel (49m 5s):


Douglas (49m 5s):

Yes, yeah. And the other cool. The very cool thing is that there was one of these other one Airbnb meetings. I think it was in 2014 or 2015, right. At the end. There's these all staff meetings that happen once a year, the founders got up on stage right at the end of the week and said, some of you have been wondering what we do. I joined when I joined the CTO was Nathan, one of the founders, you know, and, and Joe was head of product, you know?

Douglas (49m 37s):

So gradually over time they hired people to do those jobs. So people saying, well, okay, Nate, what do you do every day? Because you you're no longer the CTO and Joe, what do you do every day? So that was good. So they basically got up and said, our collective job is to make the purpose real, is to make sure that we deliver on the purpose and we use the Core Values to do so. And then, so we went on, they said, ma our prime job that we own is to champion every Airbnb's belong anywhere purpose and the core values.

Douglas (50m 12s):

And then Brian went up a step further and he said, this is a quote from him, "hold me accountable. Ultimately, if the founders are caretakers of the vision and the values, then a CEO, I'm really responsible for executing on the, and the vision." So if our vision is to create a world where all 7 billion people can belong anywhere, whether we're on that path or not, that's on me, right? Because the CEO, you're the one, you're the key executer. You're the one who executes everything or responsible for how the company executes.

Douglas (50m 43s):

So why execute some whether to execute. So you're saying the three of us are responsible for this, but basically it's on me. And so people do people do hold them accountable on by the retrieving, the mission or not, or whether he or any of the other leadership team, or are living the values or not. It's very healthy. It's very a good thing to say on this overall again, you know, we've heard, and everybody is, has sat and watched videos of Simon Sinek, talk about the why, the golden circle and all those other things.

Chad (51m 13s):

And it's wonderful to be able to bring awareness, to really understand purpose, but there's no question without the "how" to execute that purpose. It's, it's really just bluff and it's air. So we really appreciate, again, you being able to provide us with context and also the ability to, to get to that, "how" right. And not just focus on the purpose, the purpose is incredibly important if it's real, but also how to get it done.

Chad (51m 46s):

So again, Douglas, we appreciate you taking the time, my friend. (applause)

Joel (51m 46s):

Thanks, Douglas.

Douglas (51m 46s):

Thank you for having me, man. It's a pleasure to talk about this stuff. I'm passionate about it. And I feel very, very fortunate and lucky that I was actually able to do it. You know, I'd seen basically purposes and visions, not executed or being badly executed in other companies. And so it was a, it was a joy to be in an environment where I could go to Brian and Joe and they say, Hey, the cultures wobbly, we need to fix it.

Douglas (52m 17s):

Or, Hey, the core values are good, but they're not good enough. Hey, we need a purpose and we need to focus on figuring out what it is and do it, the spec. And they'd always say, yes, you know, they were always up for it again, they didn't deal in incrementalism at all. They were all going for the ideal we're going for the best it could possibly be.

Joel (51m 46s):

Well, thanks, Douglas. You know, you're a busy man and it's a happy hour where you are so you to your wife and have a great weekend.

Douglas (51m 46s):

Talk to you soon. Cheers!

Outro (52m 52s):

Yeah. This has been the Chad and Cheese podcast, subscribe on iTunes, Google play or wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a single show and be sure to check out our sponsors because they make it all possible for more visit Oh yeah. You're welcome.


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