How to live your Purpose (it’s hard): #1: The Purpose must come first.

Douglas John Atkin
Mar 26, 2019 · 6 min read

This is the second installment in a series of articles about ‘Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’. You can find the first here: ‘How Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one’

Hopefully, you now have your shiny new Purpose. You’ve made sure its grounded in a universally experienced truth: it’s real and it’s yours. But it reaches for the stars to inspire. It’s about ONE BIG THING so that your organization has both specific direction yet the freedom to do as yet un-imagined things to fulfil its Purpose. And you’ve made it public, so you’re accountable to it.

Now comes the hard bit. Operationalizing, or ‘living’ your Purpose.

Having a Purpose and not operationalizing it is worse than not having one at all. Disuse or misuse will create disappointed expectations that can spawn toxic cynicism amongst staff, the media and the public at large (look at Google’s widely lambasted failure to execute on its ‘Don’t be evil’ promise). So, it has to leave the PowerPoint presentation, the company mugs and the inspirational offsites and be woven into the entire daily functioning of your organization. It’s the most important thing you can do as a leader. It’s why the organization exists after all.

What follows is a series of articles about the lessons that we learned as we operationalized Airbnb’s Purpose: ‘Creating a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’. It’s a warts-and-all story. It’s hard to live your Purpose. Mistakes have, and are being made. I describe them, because of course you can learn at least as much from mistakes as achievements. It’s also a work-in-progress. I’ll update or add articles as Airbnb wrestles with fulfilling its Purpose while meeting its business goals.

I think Airbnb is a good case. It’s forging a new path in this endeavor like almost everything it does as a disruptor. And it’s not just a ‘Camelot’…a well-funded private company that can afford to indulge in the ‘softer’ things like Purpose and Values. It’s getting IPO-ready: it’s preparing for the financial rigors of Wall Street at the same time as not being prepared to put ‘Belong Anywhere’ second to anything, especially short-term financial constraints. It’s attempting to reconcile the supposedly irreconcilable.

By the way, you’ll notice that we use ‘Purpose’, ‘Mission’ and ‘Vision’ interchangeably at Airbnb. I know some people get their knickers in a twist about the supposed distinctions. I just don’t’ care that much about it. What’s important is that we all know that it’s the ‘Why’ that we’re talking about. And that we’re doing something to make it real.

Here’s a summary of all the current and imminent articles about Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’.

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.

Brian Chesky. Airbnb’s Co-Founder and CEO.

The Purpose must come First.

There’s no equivocation if you’re a Purpose-Driven organization. If you have a Purpose, it comes first. It’s why you exist. It should drive everything.

This is Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and co-founder, on a Sunday afternoon in March 2016. I had brought the three founders together to talk about Core Values (much more on this in a following installment). At this point in the session I had asked them which of the Core Values they had identified should come first:

“Mission, obviously Mission-led.

The simplest way to describe it is the Mission comes before everything.

It comes before personal gain of the people who work at the company.

It comes before the valuation.

It comes before profits.

It comes before business performance.

It comes before all the other values.

It theoretically comes before the quality of the product.

I mean I could keep going on, right?”

Brian Chesky.

That’s a brave and unusual thing to hear from a CEO of a large and successful company. I’ve never heard a CEO say anything like it. Most would be incredulous at the idea of putting Purpose before profit. Investors too, would be aghast, Wall St. or otherwise.

It’s brave, because it’s incredibly hard to pull off. It means bucking the instincts of the corporate world since it began in the 17 Century. It means daily fights with your CFO or investors to make bets of money, time and focus that won’t necessarily yield short term financial rewards. It means keeping in view the long-term, especially when dealing with immediate crises.

Brian gave an example of the kinds of fights he and the other two founders have in order to put the Purpose first. Here, he’s talking about investing millions of dollars to fly thousands employees to San Francisco to spend a week at ‘OneAirbnb’: a gathering dedicated to building relationships, communicating and reinforcing the Purpose and Core Values, and investing in the Culture. In other words, making short-term “deposits” as he puts it, for long-term returns:

“I think the decision of having OneAirbnb…like even this year I got pushback for doing it. The pushback I got for flying-in all the employees! It’s expensive and time consuming. Some people say it’s not the best use of time or money. Well, we do think it’s the best use of time and money.

It depends on your horizon. Long-term, you need these investments. If you’re trying to build a company that outlives you, then people have to believe [in the Purpose and Values]. There have to be believers and they have to be wanting to go way above and beyond.

If you think about it that way, people need to feel deeply committed to something, and those commitments need huge amounts of deposits. And OneAirbnb is a huge deposit into the brand, the vision, the values and the culture. And it’s hard to imagine over the arc of a company having that commitment without these seminal moments.” Brian Chesky

As their prioritization of the Mission first sank in, Brian realized he had to set the right expectations: “If we’re serious about this, then it’s our job, but especially mine, to create the right expectations, especially at the Board level. Our investors”. He explained that the investors should now expect him to report not just on revenue, costs and profit, but on how well Airbnb is delivering its Purpose and living its Core Values. Since that session in early 2016 Brian has been setting expectations by framing this prioritization as Airbnb being a ‘Twenty-First Century Company’. One that has an “infinite time horizon”.

So, has Airbnb put its Purpose first?

Mostly. But not always. Let’s examine the successes and failures. One way to successfully live your Purpose is to make what the Airbnb founders call ‘Plan-B Decisions’…the next installment in this series.

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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