How to live your Purpose #5: You need Core Values. They’re the ‘How’ of achieving your ‘Why’.

Douglas John Atkin
Sep 21, 2019 · 19 min read

This is the sixth of a series of articles about ‘Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’ that uses Airbnb as an example. It’s in two parts: Why you need Core Values. And how to get some. Why am I using Airbnb as an example? Because it’s doing it right, mostly…

These are the other articles in the series:

1. How Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one.

2. How to live your Purpose: #1. Purpose must come First.

3. How to live your Purpose: #2. Make ‘Plan-B decisions’.

4. How to live your Purpose: #3. You’re relentlessly focused on the long-term.

5. How to live your Purpose: #4. “Don’t fuck up the Culture”.

6. How to live your Purpose: #5. You need Core Values. They’re the ‘How’ of achieving your ‘Why’.

7. How to live your Purpose: #6. Use your Purpose to Recruit, Review and Reject everybody…even customers.

8. How to live your Purpose: #7. The Purpose must be measured…and given equal status to business metrics.


Airbnb’s three Founders: Joe, Nate and Brian.

Core Values are an essential part of the ‘How’.

Airbnb’s Purpose of ‘Creating a World where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’ is insanely ambitious (as it should be). Indulging in the usual…in the incrementalism of corporate decision making…would never make this seemingly impossible goal remotely real. It would take behaviors and decisions that reach for the impossible from everyone, every day, about almost everything. Thankfully, that expectation is enshrined in ‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur’, one of Airbnb’s four Core Values.

Core Values are fundamental to achieving your Purpose. They are the ‘How’ that will deliver your ‘Why’. They define how everyone should behave, relate and decide things together in order to achieve their collective Purpose. They’re the ‘Rules of the Game’ as Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and Co-Founder, puts it.

‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur’ is about being resourceful, like an entrepreneur. But importantly, it’s about being resourceful in order to achieve the improbable. Each of Airbnb’s Core Values has three accompanying ‘Behaviors’ that define what is expected of everyone. This one has: ‘Be bold and apply original thinking’, ‘Imagine the ideal outcome’, ‘Be resourceful to make the outcome a reality’.

The ‘How’ that this Core Value and Behaviors expects of people is to reach beyond the usual and the habitual. It asks that you don’t just to look at the status quo and figure out an incremental improvement. But that you imagine the ideal, and figure out how to make it happen by working out the steps backwards to where you are now.

This is exactly what Brian and a small band of employees did in 2014 when they buckled down to invent ‘Magical Trips’. Their task was to imagine the ideal trip, and then figure out a way to make it a reality for most travelers. Insanely ambitious, I know. And it would set the product pipeline for Airbnb for the next several years.

Simple, unambitious incrementalism would not take them much beyond the status quo of most travel experiences: hordes of strangers following tour-guides’ umbrellas, taking selfies in front of ‘sights’, sitting on big red buses, or shuffling past the Mona Lisa with thousands of other phone-brandishing tourists.

The new tourism norm…
…distanced. Mere observersation.

This tourism norm has become something that erodes both the soul of the tourist and the toured place. Gone is any connection to the locale, its culture or its people. Curiosity has been banished behind the barrier of a phone and a selfie stick. Rich immersion has been severed by the lofty window of a tour bus. Disengagement and mere observation have become the default. (I live in Florence. I see this as a daily reality for too many travelers.)

Over the next 18 months, Brian and the Magical Trips team worked to define the ideal experience from the moment you leave home to when you return. They invited people on many different kinds of trips that they had invented. They iterated them again and again until they could define the ideal, and scale its delivery.

They learnt that the ideal was a meaningful trip…one that is memorable, and that has the potential to transform the traveler in some big or small way. Or, as Alain de Botton puts it in ‘The Art of Travel’:

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.”

Of course, it was about having fun too. But when I talked to several of these ‘trialist’ travelers after their ‘Magical Trip’ experiences, the personal connections they made to locals and to the other travelers had the most impact. Getting a window into their lives and passions provoked questioning about their own. For many, the trip was a catalyst to a small or big change in their lives, such as starting a new job, or moving location.

The first manifestation of the ‘Magical Trips’ initiative was ‘Airbnb Experiences’, launched in late 2016.
‘Airbnb Adventures’ followed in 2019.

The first manifestation of this work is the ‘Experiences’ product, now familiar to many. One where you get to enjoy a local’s passion, maybe learn something, and get to know fellow travelers. ‘Adventures’ is another product launched this summer that seeks to transform how we travel into something more meaningful and exciting…sharing your new experiences with new friends.

Standby for more products that will gradually transform your whole trip into something that is hopefully magical, and memorable. And fun. And definitely not some small improvement on the mediocre norm. Even that most soul-eroding part of it all…getting there and back…will be transformed too:

“There was a time when getting on a plane was a magical trip of its own, but over the years, how you get to where you’re going has become an experience we endure, not enjoy,” according to Chesky. “We believe that needs to change.”” (Brian Chesky: Business Traveler News.)

‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur’ guides employees to think beyond the normal incrementalism of business, one where the conversations normally start with “What’s the size the of the travel market?” “Where is there a business opportunity?” What product improvement shall we make this year?” Instead it guides employees to use their imaginations and to reinvent travel as it should be, not to simply make an incremental improvement on what it already is.

This Core Value, plus the other three, are used every day to guide almost everything, whether it’s inventing a new way of measuring business success, or a new marketplace. It’s one of the ways we’re all guided to achieve the Airbnb’s seemingly impossible goal of ‘Creating a World where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’.

[By the way, if you’re wondering why ‘Cereal’ in ‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur,’ it’s an inside joke, and reference to the time when the three founders had to do what they call “creative hustle”. They had maxed out their credit cards building Airbnb in 2008. In desperation, they came up with the idea of designing cereal boxes with ‘Obama-Os’ and ‘McCain Squares’ which they sold on Ebay to raise money and tide them over until they joined Y Combinator, the celebrated tech incubator. Incredibly, they raised $35k that kept them going for a critical few months.]


How do you find your Core Values?

So, if Core Values are an important part of the ‘How’ of achieving your Purpose, how do you get some? How do you know which ones are yours? How do you make sure they are used by everyone, for everything, all the time, and won’t languish in a Power-point or on a company mug?

This next part of the article will demonstrate how to find your Core Values and what will make them good ones. It will do this by showing you how Airbnb found theirs. Actually, in 2016, Airbnb realized the six they had devised in 2012 weren’t being used enough because they weren’t good enough. I’ll describe what we did to make them better and to be used more. We devised some simple techniques that were incredibly helpful. They might also help you to find, or improve, your own.

1. Changing the Unchangeable.

In the last article (‘Don’t fuck up the Culture’) I described how Airbnb’s famous Culture was getting wobbly. A major reason for the wobbliness was that the Core Values were good…but not good enough. Employees reported that they loved that we had them, and that we took them so seriously. But when they came to use the Core Values as a guide for how to behave, relate and decide things together, they found serious flaws: there were too many. Some were too obscure. And others were not felt to be real.

I delivered this bad news to the Founders in early 2016 and recommended that we zero-base everything and start from scratch to find our true Core Values, ones that were real and therefore usable. The existing Core Values were developed in 2012 when the Founders realized they could no longer interview every employee or be in every meeting. They needed ‘Rules of the Game’, as Brian called them. Ones that would codify the defining behaviors of the organization that had emerged over the past four years in the intimate scrum of a start-up.

They had defined these ‘rules’ as ‘Be a Host’, ‘Champion the Mission’, ‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur’, ‘Simplify’, ‘Every Frame Matters’ and ‘Embrace the Adventure’. They were launched during an immersive ‘Core Values Day’ and key people were trained to be ‘Core Values Interviewers’: people who had veto power on potential recruits if they felt their values did not align with those of Airbnb’s.

Our reluctance to tinker with something that should normally be left alone was outweighed by the realization that Airbnb might not last if they were not improved. Better to address this issue now than have to deal with the consequences of inaction later: a culture that had veered off its path into something that was ‘not us’ and that hindered Airbnb from achieving its Purpose.

2. What are the ideal characteristics of any Core Values?

We asked employees at every level, location, department and tenure to define what they felt were the ideal characteristics of any Core Values. Or, as one smart employee defined it, what would make: “…The Core Values pervasive, and provide a litmus test to do the right thing in terms of actions, decisions, attitudes and behaviors?”

Here’s what we discovered, with some of the cards that they used to make their wish-lists of sought-after characteristics:

Few.

Six were too many. In fact, when we asked them to list the Core Values, every

single person we spoke to could only remember five.

Real.

They wanted values that were inherent and already existing. They might be behaviors that you see exhibited when we were at our best. But nonetheless, they wanted ones that were achievable, and not idealized.

Clear and self-explanatory.

Obscure Core Values weren’t helpful. Some of the existing ones were felt to be too cutely crafted such as ‘Embrace the Adventure’. They wanted rules of the game that were black and white and easily understood.

Actionable for the day-to-day.

Everyone wanted values that were usable everyday, for everything. Not golden ideals but utilitarian and translatable into action.

3. How did Airbnb’s stack up?

We asked employees to compare our current values to the ideal characteristics they had just defined. You can see by their crosses and check marks that the six values didn’t do so well: there were too many. They were too aspirational. They could be too obscure. All of which made them less actionable than they could be.

4. What makes Core Values…Core?

The employees had both diagnosed what was wrong with our existing ones, and described what they needed for them to be to be useful. They shouldn’t be aspirational, for example. Too many organizations claim they have ‘Core values’ when, in fact, they are not ‘Core’ at all. They are wishful thinking…what the organization wishes it could be, versus what it actually is.

Core Values need to be core. They need to actually exist and be clearly manifested in the decision-making and interactions of members of the organization. They are not wishful thinking. They are the visible truth reflected in the everyday. They are the principles that are truly shared by members of the organization.

As such, they are likely to be few. Although they may not be necessarily unique individually, the combination of these Core Values should be unique to your organization. They will differentiate you from others because they describe your unique DNA. Once identified, they will never change. They are the non-negotiables that won’t bend or drift with circumstance.

Patrick Lencioni’s ‘The Advantage’ has the best definition of Core Values that I have seen: “Enduring, successful companies adhere strictly to a fundamental set of principles that guide their behavior and decisions over time, preserving the essence of the organization.” They render the organization vastly more effective because “They provide employees with clarity how to behave, which reduces the need for inefficient and demoralizing micro-management.” (If for no other reason than this, leaders should embrace them.)

Having values that are Aspirational are fine as long as they are flagged as such…and are clearly distinguished from your Core Values. Aspirational Values on their own can be demoralizing: you might rarely achieve the ideals they define, and so a toxic environment of cynicism and bitterness can emerge. In fact, this was one of the problems with the original six values that I saw at Airbnb.

5. How do you find your Core Values?

Ground them in truth. They have to be real. So, find out what your organization’s real values are.

To get to the truth of our real shared values, I used two different techniques to surface the Truth, on two key sources: the Founders, and over 300 employees at every level, department, tenure and location.

Let’s start with the Founders.

They’re obviously a superb source of insight into the Core Values of the organization because they were there from the beginning. And they have had a disproportionate influence. But like many leaders, especially those in Silicon Valley, they can be prone to idealism. In an exercise such as this, that tendency could drift into defining Aspirational, not Core Values. So, I decided to surface their real personal values by getting them to extract them from actual past events where they had employed them.

On a Sunday afternoon in early 2016 I asked them to do two things:

· First, list all the ‘Meaningful Moments’ in the company’s history. They did this individually, and they shared their stories.

· Secondly, I then asked them to extract the ‘Meaning’ from those ‘Moments’. ‘Meaningful Moments’ are those I define as ones where significant decisions have been made on principle, and often at a high immediate cost in terms of money, energy, or time. But that cost is borne, because those principles are too self-defining and precious to sacrifice.

For example, both Joe and Brian had listed the fight with the NY Attorney General (“No, AG” and “AG Fight”). They said it was meaningful because it was an example of us “being human, not corporate”, “caring”, “hosting our hosts”, and “making a ‘Plan-B’ decision”.

Back in 2013 we stood by our fifteen thousand Hosts in New York and refused to hand over their personal information to the AG’s office. Refusing the NY AG was something companies never did. Airbnb was small and relatively unknown then. The NY AG’s office was aghast when we told them we would take them to court and squash their subpoena. It prompted them to ask us: “Do you even have lawyers?” (we had one on-staff lawyer at the time). And “Don’t you know that no-one refuses the New York Attorney General?” Facing up to him felt like a huge and existential threat at the time, but we did it for the reasons the Founders cited above.

Brian and Nate had also listed ‘EJ’, a host whose apartment had been trashed early in Airbnb’s history. The Founders created a $1 million guarantee overnight for all Airbnb Hosts to insure against damage.

I then asked them to reduce their longlists of Meaning to the most important three or four. They found it hard to boil it down, but they each got to these three. These are not the finished, crafted values, but how I describe the general areas they shared.

Mission-First: “Bleeds Mission” (Brian), “Long-term/Mission driven” (Nate), “Committed to our Why” (Joe)

Caring: “Human” (both Brian and Joe), “People-Oriented” (Nate)

Daring: “Outside the Box/Unconventional” (Nate), “Original Prankster/Breaking Barriers” (Joe), “Creative Hustle” (Brian)

So far so good. Actually, very good. The founders agreed on the main areas of the Core Values. Imagine the problem if they hadn’t! They were rooted in reality and they were just a few…all things that employees had said they wanted.

Now for the general population of employees.

I devised a technique that any organization can use to identify their own Core Values. I’m describing it here because I’ve realized since that there’s a real ‘hunger for the how’ of this kind of thing.

We asked people to draw a Venn diagram with two circles and to write ‘Me’ above one, and ‘Airbnb’ above the other. I asked them to list the personal values that drove their own behaviors and decisions, splitting them into those that they thought they shared with Airbnb, and those that didn’t. I asked them to list their perception of Airbnb’s values that they didn’t share in the ‘Airbnb’-only part of the circle.

Here’s a couple of examples. In general, you can see that there are many values shared between individuals and Airbnb. There was also a huge commonality across all three hundred people irrespective of tenure, seniority, department or location. And, more good news, they were in the same three general areas that the Founders had also identified: ‘Mission-led’, ‘Caring’ and ‘Daring’.

In almost every example, people asked if they could redraw the circles to increase the overlap…a really good sign that they felt they shared many personal values with others at the company.

Some people saw no distinction between their own values and those of Airbnb!:

I listed every single value in the overlaps of 300+ Venn diagrams into a spread sheet and rank-ordered them by number of mentions. Then I, plus 12 other employees recruited from the ‘Core Values Council’ (a panel set up by Brian to consult with, and ensure his decisions were Purpose and Values-led) collated them into the most obvious groupings with the number of mentions listed alongside:

We now had key Core Values based on Truth. Sourced from both Founders and employees, they were real and also truly shared by all. And there were just a few: three. Fortunately, the three areas both Founders and employees had identified matched. What’s more, those three areas also aligned with some of the existing values: ‘Champion the Mission’ (close to Mission-led), ‘Be a Host’ (close to Human/’Hosty’/Caring) and ‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur’ and ‘Embrace the Adventure’ (close to Forge our own Path/Unconventional/Daring). This is not really surprising given people had been recruited against those values since 2012, and they had been continuously reinforced since that time by the Founders.

Tellingly, we found that two of the existing Core Values weren’t in fact ‘Core’. They were Aspirational. ‘Simplify’ (reduce complexity) and ‘Every Frame Matters’ (obsession with executional detail) did not crop up in the shared sections of the Venn diagrams in any great number. Nor were they identified in the exercise with the Founders. As Nate later said, we had to drop them because: “we’re just not good at those things as an organization”.

Dave O’Neill and I (my partner in this endeavor) agreed with the Founders that we should dump the two ‘non-Core’ Values of ‘Simplify’ and ‘Every Frame Matters’. This was a good thing because employees wanted the values to be both real and few…six were too many. After a lot of debate with and between the Founders, we ended up with four Core Values that more or less expressed the real shared values. The Founders decided to keep their original expression: ‘Champion the Mission’, ‘Be a Host’, ‘Be a Cereal Entrepreneur’ and ‘Embrace the Adventure’.

Frankly, what we gained by keeping the original expressions and minimizing the change to the unchangeable I think we lost in terms of a key employee request: Clear and Self-Explanatory. But we did add the ‘Behaviors’ to each of the Core Values that described exactly what was expected. Here are the complete versions:

CHAMPION THE MISSION
Prioritize work that advances the mission and positively impacts the community
Build with the long-term in mind
Actively participate in the community and culture

BE A HOST
Care for others and make them feel like they belong
Encourage others to participate to their fullest
Listen, communicate openly, and set clear expectations

EMBRACE THE ADVENTURE
Be curious, ask for help, and demonstrate an ability to grow
Own and learn from mistakes
Bring joy and optimism to work

BE A CEREAL ENTREPRENEUR
Be bold and apply original thinking
Imagine the ideal outcome
Be resourceful to make the outcome a reality

6. How to launch your Core Values.

Don’t think of it as a launch.

‘Launching’ implies a one-off big event to make a big impact. What it really takes to embed the Core Values in how everyone behaves, relates and decides things, and for them to do it every day, about everything, is to think of it as a Continuous Launch. One that never stops, and that happens almost every day.

For sure, in early 2017 at the annual ‘OneAirbnb’ event where every employee is flown in from around the world, we did relaunch the revised Core Values. And I think we did it pretty well. The Founders introduced them and described how we’d gotten there. They invited individuals and teams from around the world to come up and give real-life examples of how they’ve lived those values and behaviors. And then the Founders hosted, and participated in a ‘mea culpa’ onstage. It was an awkward but culturally necessary and therapeutic telling of how they and the leadership team had sometimes not lived the values, and what steps they were taking to live them in the future (this was important given how wobbly the Culture had become in the previous couple of years)

But since that one big event, there have been many ways in which they have been Continuously Launched:

· Brian does a live Q&A every week that answers questions submitted to him by anyone in the company, about anything. He nearly always frames the answers in a way that demonstrates the use of the Core Values and Purpose in the decision-making and action that he and others have taken.

· All candidates for all jobs are given two ‘Culture Interviews’ (and the ones for Leaders are longer and conducted by more senior and experienced people). These Culture Interviewers have veto power on the recruitment of the candidate, over and above those interviewers who assess their skills.

· All new hires go through a week-long onboarding experience called “check-in”. The very first session is 90 minutes covering the founding story, mission and Core Values. New hires aren’t given their computers until later on the first day so that their full attention is focused on absorbing the content. At the end of each day, the new employees are asked to journal about the Core Values to deepen their understanding. They are also encouraged to invite skepticism to prevent it feeling like corporate propaganda.

· All performance reviews measure not just what you did, but how you did it, using the Core Values as the measure. Weighting is 50/50 on the What/How. They happen twice a year.

· The bi-weekly ‘World@’ meetings that are broadcasted globally, frame the new product launches, the works-in-progress, the team updates etc. in terms of the Core Values and Purpose and how they’re being used.

For more on these and other ways the Purpose and Core Values are continuously launched, read the upcoming article ‘Use the Purpose and Values to Recruit, Review and Reject Everybody’.

Finally, it’s critical that Leaders own and live the Core Values. If they don’t, no-one will. (See the implications of them not owning and living the Purpose and Core Values at Airbnb here). The Founders are very conscious that they, and the rest of the Leadership team, should live the Core Values in everything they do…and especially in the big decisions they make.

Brian put it well at the end of a OneAirbnb event in 2015. The Leadership Team had been expanded. Many of the jobs that the Founders had done were now being done by these new Leaders. For example, Nate was the original CTO. Now Michael Curtis was leading that function. So, people were asking what the Founders did now. All three Founders went onstage and owned that prime job is to champion Airbnb’s ‘Belong Anywhere’ Purpose, and the Core Values. Brian went step further:

“Hold me accountable ultimately. If the Founders are the caretakers of the Vision and Values, then as CEO, I’m really responsible for executing on the Values and 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

He was saying that his prime role was to ensure we executed Airbnb’s Purpose, and Core Values. His primary focus was not shareholder value. Not being a good leader. Not many of the things that most CEO’s usually tout. He knows they are important, obviously. But Brian wanted to be absolutely clear that he has no more important job than to make ‘Belong Anywhere’ a reality, and to do it by living the Core Values. And he still claims it today.

Douglas John Atkin

Written by

Airbnb, Purpose, Meetup, Author of The Culting of Brands, The Glue Project, various Ad Agencies in London and NY.

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