In October, 2013, Airbnb’s cofounder and CEO, Brian Chesky asked venture capitalist Peter Thiel for his single most important piece of advice. His reply?
“Don’t fuck up the culture.”
Fastforward to today, and Airbnb has created one of the most well-known and respected company cultures in the world. We wanted to know what “don’t fuck up the culture” means to the company now that they’re a global, multi-billion-dollar organization.
To find out, we talked to Airbnb’s Global Head of Employee Experience, Mark Levy. Having led human resources and people operations at massive multinational corporations like Levis, Gap, and Best Buy, Levy is no stranger to engaging diverse and growing workforces.
We asked him to tell us more about his role at Airbnb, give advice on how to scale culture as you grow, and to share which companies he looks to for inspiration. Here are some of the highlights.
As Airbnb’s Global Head of Employee Experience, what does a day in the life look like for you?
No day is the same. My broad role has me focused on many different aspects of our employee experience. Some examples:
Recruiting: How are we focused on growing our product teams faster than the rest of the organization? As a product-led company, we need to be sure that this team is driving our continual improvement to our interface on mobile, tablet and web. We’re also putting the diversity of our tech team ahead of our growth metrics. Our goal is to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, which means our workforce should represent the makeup of our hosts and guests.
Talent: Our Talent team is focused on designing our talent programs, and we’re in the midst of reinventing the performance system to ensure there is ongoing dialog, unbiased and helpful feedback, and clarity of a career framework, plus development to fuel an increase in internal mobility. Our Talent Partners are responsible for providing input to the talent programs, as well as supporting the business with all of their talent needs.
Total Rewards: We just finished our annual focus review, which includes merit and equity. We look for missionaries not mercenaries, so we look to hire only those who believe in our mission and values, though we need to be sure that they are also paid fairly and competitively.
Diversity & Belonging: I am on-boarding a new Diversity & Belonging leader who joined us from the Peace Corps. David is off to an amazing start, meeting as many people as he can, having office hours every morning in our dining room, hosting a Let’s Talk session with Brian [Airbnb’s CEO] on Diversity, enhancing our employee resource groups, as well as working on addressing discrimination concerns on our platform.
Workplace: This team is focused on Facilities & Environments, Safety & Security, as well as Food. Our latest challenge is how to continue to densify our SF space as we grow and build out our expanded footprint. Sharing is something we do in our own workspace, so we’re getting cozy as we learn to share with no assigned desks and the ability to work in many different environments.
Ground Control: This team is our secret sauce. They’re focused on bringing our culture to life through internal comms, our workspace, as well as employee events, celebration, and recognition. We have a few big projects right now, all of them focused on how we get closer to each other, our hosts and guests, as well as the communities in which we operate. In May we’re going to be doing a week of good where we’ll be volunteering with our hosts to give back to those less fortunate in the cities where we have offices.
VC Peter Thiel’s #1 piece advice to your CEO, Brian Chesky, was “Don’t fuck up the culture.” What does that mean to you?
It’s actually what I was told my job was when I was hired by Brian 2+ years ago, and he constantly reminds me of that. Our Founders created the company they wanted to lead before they had their first hire.
They’re still maniacal about this, and it’s in everything our team does, from the locations we chose for our offices, to the way our environments team creates a space that’s at the intersection of travel and belonging, to the locally sourced and organic food we prepare and serve our teams, to the way we communicate, bring people together, preserve rituals, and create new ones.
It is our shared behaviors, passion for our mission, and treating each other like family that makes us more of a movement than a company. We believe that in order to create a world where you can belong anywhere, it starts here, with creating a place where all of our employees belong. Mark Levy
You recently launched the Sustainable Performance initiative, which proactively addresses things like burnout, and helping people work smarter rather than longer hours. How does this work, and why is it important?
We work hard, and are passionate, and this combination can cause people to lose perspective and forget about taking care of themselves. Our growth has also caused us to lose efficiency as we increased in numbers without a lot of process. We’re now testing ways we can encourage and support our employees to focus on their wellbeing, as well as new ways of working that include how we look at meetings, emails, and decision making.
Does Airbnb offer any coaching or personal development programs for employees?
We have used coaches at more senior levels in the company. Brian likes to say that everyone’s job changes every six months, based on the fast-paced growth of the company. In order to address this, we all need to help make sure that we scale.
We’re also putting development offerings in place. The first ones started on self reflection, and helping our employees think about what they were interested in and what they were good at, including the use of StrengthsFinder or other assessment tools.
We also put in place a Management 101 course, as many of those leading others are new to this role. We have a roadmap for development and internal mobility, including a program called Explorers, where managers can offer up a 1-3 month assignment, in which employees with more than 2 years of tenure can try out something different—in another function or country.
Airbnb offers employees $2,000 each year to stay at Airbnb residences around the world. How have you taken advantage of this perk personally?
I travel a lot for work, so when I use my coupon, it’s usually for family time. We were up in Lake Tahoe for some skiing for a long weekend in February and just stayed at an amazing place on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The most amazing trip was a detour to Cuba over the New Year Holidays (my parents are in Florida, and we felt we were so close, we needed to check it out before it got too popular). We had such a magical four days with Silvia and Roberto, our hosts. He toured us around his city as well as made us the best mojitos we had on the Island. We arrived as strangers and left as family.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Scaling. Keeping up with the growth of the business, and the fact that everything is new. In addition, we’re so unique and have such a special culture that we have to be so careful with every decision we make—so we don’t fuck it up!
What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
The fact that we’re really changing the world. That through the interactions between hosts and guests, we’re helping people understand, embrace and learn about each other. What is so rewarding is how every one of our employees is so immersed in what we’re doing, so proud of what we do, and so focused on how we do this together. As I said earlier, it’s a movement, not a company. We all consider each other family, and are so supportive of each other to create belonging.
What other companies do you think have great (or interesting) cultures, and why?
I have always been infatuated with the airline business, though they do continually disappoint their customers. One company and airline that stands out to me is Southwest. They have democratized travel, and their focus on customer service, not taking themselves too seriously, and creating a self-directed workforce is impressive. We have met with some of their execs and continue to learn from them.