Regular readers of Next For Me will recognize Chip Conley from our early stories and inspiration. Chip is the author of ‘Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder‘ which will be published on September 18, 2018. After selling his hotel company, the young founders of Airbnb asked Chip to join their company as a mentor and to guide them on running a hospitality company. He soon learned that he was as much an intern as a mentor. Following is the first part of the interview edited for brevity and you can also listen using the player.
Next For Me: Give us a little background on how you came upon the topic of your new book.
Chip Conley: Well, serendipity. Sometimes you stumble upon things you weren’t looking for.
I had started a hotel company when I was quite young, age 26, a boutique hotel company called Joie de Vivre Hospitality. I ran it for 24 years and in the great recession I was completely worn out emotionally, financially – on all levels and sold it in at the bottom of the market and just needed to do something new.
A couple of years after I sold Joie de Vivre, the Airbnb founders, who started Airbnb at the same age that I started JDV, approached me and said, “Listen, we’re a small startup that’s growing quickly and we would love to have you help us turn it into big global hospitality brand.” That was in early 2013 and I joined them with the intention of being CEO Brian Chesky’s mentor, but also to be Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy.
I thought I was supposed to be the smart guy in the room, the one who’s supposed to be wise and all that. Within the first week I came to realize quite quickly that at age 52, I’d never been in a tech company before. I didn’t know a thing about technology. I didn’t understand the lingo. I was twice the age of the average employee. I realized that as an elder in today’s world, if they’re getting it right, you are as much a mentor as they are an intern. They are learning as much as they’re teaching.
That has been my five years at Airbnb. I’ve really been in this role of being both a curious learner and a sage or mentor. I got fascinated by intergenerational collaboration. The idea that I’m at a time when my power may be lost. The world is getting faster than ever to young people because of their digital intelligence.
Is it possible that it’s time for the comeback of wisdom to match that young brilliance, that genius? Especially for the technologists, some wise emotional intelligence leadership thinking from people who’ve had a few extra decades to build skills in some human areas. Those are the kinds of skills that you actually don’t necessarily learn overnight.
NFM: How was your arrival greeted at Airbnb?
CC: I was lucky. I was in my early fifties, but I was somewhat of a rockstar boutique hotelier where they thought, “Hey, Chip’s somebody who knows something about hospitality. At Airbnb we don’t know anything about the hospitality business. We’re good technologists and we know a lot about design.” The third leg of the stool though was hospitality. So I was needed for that technical skill of understanding hospitality.
The thing that was actually interesting is that while I was hired to be the head of hospitality, I quickly became the head of strategy. I became the Head of Learning and Development and the mentor for dozens and dozens of key people in the company. A 51 year old leading a bunch of 24 year olds.
What I didn’t expect was just how thirsty these young people were when it came to leadership and emotional intelligence. Those skills that you build through pattern recognition over time. So I was welcomed, but there are a hell of a lot of people out there in the working world who aren’t welcomed in their fifties.
The world hasn’t yet seen the value of wisdom — that experience that you build over time. But I think the key is for people to learn how to repackage that experience in a way that’s relevant to people who are younger. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do with this book.
NFM: It’s logical that Airbnb would look for someone like you, but then it morphed into this other thing. How did the leadership handle that?
CC: I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if they didn’t seem like they had a growth mindset. A Stanford professor, Carol Dweck wrote a book called ‘Mindset’. She said people can have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset and in different parts of your life you could have different points of view on that. I saw that the senior leadership team and the three founders had a growth mindset, which means that they were really open to learning. They were open to admitting what they didn’t know and they’re really interested in going out and finding an expert in the world on that particular topic and learning from them. That meant that they were really open to learning from me and I was open to learning from them. That’s the symbiotic relationship that developed.
I went from being the sage on the stage to being the guide on the side.
I became the behind the scenes person helping the three founders become better leaders and helping with the strategy of the company. They carried on with the mentoring program.
I’m really proud that they’ve incorporated the lessons in how we hire and in how we create mutual mentoring opportunities. We think about mentoring and then there’s reverse mentoring. It’s usually a younger person teaching someone who is older something they don’t know. Mutual mentoring is when it goes both directions Mutual mentoring is part of the language of the company and it’s really built into it.
One of the things I’m really proud of is last fall we had our most prolific guests in the world brought in for a 10 week senior internship program. They happened to be 72 and 62 years old. They’re a husband and wife who’ve been now on the platform for almost five years, traveling around the world, only living in airbnb homes in over 70 countries. They have stayed in 200 different apartments or homes.
The idea was, okay, let’s learn from some of our most active guests in the world. Everybody thinks of airbnb being a millennial phenomenon, but our actual, most active guests happened to be a boomers and uh, these, these, this couple.
A lot of younger people in the company have learned all kinds of things from the interns. Some of which had nothing to do with age, but for example older people are not apt to spend as much time on a phone as their way to tap into the Internet. They’re more likely to use a tablet or a laptop or a desktop. While Airbnb has done a lot to move to mobile, but the font size sometimes is a little too small or you can just you expect people to have more fluency of how they use their phone to do complex tasks.
It was really helpful. The voice of the customer for Airbnb happened to be a customer who is 25 years older than how a lot of people think of airbnb customers. The fastest growing demographic both for hosts and guests is people over 50
NFM: Since you wrote the book, what other evidence are you seeing about this trend?
CC: I see a number of people right now going out and looking at how do we develop a movement?
How do we help to give some elevation to the idea that age is a diversity just like gender or race or sexual orientation? And it’s one that’s frankly undervalued. In fact, ageism is almost the only socially acceptable bias that still exists out there. I think that there’s a growing awareness of that, especially in an economy like we have right now. The unemployment rate has dropped below four percent, which is what people have historically thought of as a structural floor. When you go below four percent you have to start actually looking for new ways to find talent out in the world. And one out of every four people in their fifties lost their job between 2008 and 2013 during the great recession. And there’s a lot of people who actually left the workforce and never came back.
In the next segment of the interview Chip describes The Modern Elder Academy, a non-profit described as:
The Modern Elder Academy’s mission is to shift the current paradigm of career. We define a career as a limitless working life comprised of thresholds, transitions and transformations. We aim to inspire and empower our students to recognize their own wisdom, relevance, and value, and to imagine possibility when repurposing a lifetime of experience. Our graduates will understand that they are growing whole, not old, mining their mastery and embracing the roles of wisdom keeper and seeker as they return to the modern workplace.
Preorder ‘Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder‘.
Disclaimer: Chip is both an advisor and investor in Next For Me.
Photo: Hali Tauxe/Democrat