How to live your Purpose (it’s hard): #4. “Don’t fuck up the Culture”

Douglas John Atkin
Apr 6, 2019 · 13 min read
Airbnb employees at the annual OneAirbnb event

This is the fifth installment in the series of articles about ‘Purposing Companies, Communities and Brands’.

This article is about Culture: what it is (it’s certainly not just ‘fun in the workplace’) and why it should demand your attention and investment. I’m using Airbnb as an example because the Founders take Culture very seriously, giving it a huge amount of their attention and investment. I’m also using it because we learned some important lessons in 2015/16 when cracks began to appear in Airbnb’s famously strong Culture.

This is a story of how we learned to identify what Culture is, and how it can be built or destroyed. And why it’s an extremely important component in living one’s Purpose.

Here’s a list of all the current and imminent articles in this 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.

An Airbnb ritual called ‘The Human Tunnel’ for new recruits.

“Don’t fuck up the Culture”

“Don’t fuck up the Culture” said Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, and now early investor in Airbnb, as he handed over a $200 million check to the Founders in 2012. Brian had just asked him for advice. And this is what Thiel, successful entrepreneur and Silicon Valley investor, considered to be the most important thing he could impress on the three young entrepreneurs to secure his fund’s huge investment in their budding company.

This is not what most leaders prioritize. The prevailing attitude in most organizations is that Culture is a ‘nice-to-have’, not a ‘must-have’. The must-haves tend to be growth, profitability, best product, best people. Culture is merely a happy outcome of running an organization well, the thinking goes. Nice if you can get it. Just get HR to invest a few resources into creating ‘fun in the workplace’, and it will take care of itself.

Thankfully, Brian, Joe and Nate listened well. As we have seen, the Culture at Airbnb is one of the ‘sacred three’, along with Purpose and Values, that they will go to extreme lengths to protect and build.

And it’s instrumental in operationalizing the Purpose.

Culture is the social soup of shared assumptions that an organization has about how its members should behave, relate and decide things together. It’s more tangible things too: the events they share, the rituals that emerge, and the architecture that reflects their collective beliefs. It’s how the leaders lead. And it’s the principled stands that are taken.

And at its base are the main ingredients of the soup: the Purpose and Values that determine everything. A team that’s been marinated in a potent cultural broth such as this is a highly effective one, bonded as it is around shared beliefs and behaviours, and driven to make its collectively-agreed Purpose real.

By 2015, the Airbnb Culture had become a big recruitment draw within the highly competitive market for talent in Silicon Valley. Annual surveys of employees had repeatedly shown how strong it was, and how important it was to employees. Satisfaction was high and turnover was low. The Founders were justifiably proud of the famed Airbnb Culture.

So, it was with great trepidation that I sent an email to Brian over the 2015 Christmas break titled: ‘The Culture is fucked’.

The previous October, everyone’s confidence in the culture had been rocked. An outdoor advertising campaign had been launched and hastily taken down in San Francisco. It had been designed to sway public opinion against a ban on short-term rentals that was on the November ballot. However, its tone created an internet storm of criticism within hours of being posted. The employees and founders were shocked the campaign made it out the door because “It’s not who we are”. Local Hosts were furious and felt it jeopardized public opinion about their legal status.

This was an event that was waiting to happen. It was a lightning rod for growing concerns amongst employees about what many of them perceived to be an erosion of the Airbnb Culture. The company had been growing at between 200–300% annually in terms of users, revenue, and staff to lead it. There was a whispered feeling amongst some that we were growing too fast. That we were hiring “mercenaries”, not “missionaries”. That there were not enough checks on their cultural fit in the haste to put “bums on seats”. Some felt that a couple of the big business bets that had been made that year didn’t square with the ‘Belong Anywhere’ Purpose. And there were growing complaints that a few leaders were acting in ways antithetical to the Core Values.

Joe Gebbia, Co-founder, and the generally acknowledged ‘conscience’ or ‘heart’ of Airbnb, asked me to do a quick check on Airbnb’s culture. A couple of weeks later I reported to Joe and Brian that these concerns were real enough to warrant a proper Cultural deep dive. If Culture was as important to achieving the Purpose as we all believed, then we needed good answers to these hard questions:

· Is the Culture as strong as we think it is? If it’s not, what’s hurting it?

· How is Culture made? Surely, it’s not just “fun in the workplace”…that chronically unhelpful default-definition that most organizations use?

· What is ‘Culture’ anyway? If it’s so important to us, shouldn’t we have a shared definition so that we know what levers to pull and traps to avoid?

· And what is our Culture? How is it defined? For example, is it caring or aggressive? Is it nurturing, or sink or swim? We claim that it’s one of our most valuable assets. Shouldn’t we be able to describe the thing in which we are investing so much?

“Strong, but getting wobbly” was the answer to the first question that we gave the Founders when Dave O’Neill (my excellent partner in this endeavor) and I returned from interviewing over three hundred employees globally at every level, discipline and tenure.

What follows are the answers to these four questions, and the techniques we used to get them. I’m bothering to show you the techniques we developed because they really helped nail the issues that surround this infuriatingly nebulous thing called ‘Culture’.

Is the Culture as strong as we think it is?

Yes. When we asked employees “Why are you here? You could get a good, probably better-paying job elsewhere in this competitive market. Write down the two or three reasons why you came and why you stay”. With one exception (he answered: “The money”) Culture, Core Values and Mission (the ‘Belong Anywhere’ Purpose) were in the top three or four answers, along with “great colleagues” and “I can make an impact”:

What’s more, 89% of people agreed that ‘I am proud of the culture at Airbnb’ in the bi-annual ‘Murmur’ survey in Fall 2015 of all employees.

But worrying cracks were appearing. As one of the respondents said in that survey: “After all the talk of not fucking up the culture, I can confirm that it is thoroughly fucked”. More was revealed when we tried to answer this question:

How is Culture Made?

We asked employees to imagine that the Airbnb culture was a party balloon. The air in the balloon was the culture, and you could make more of it by blowing more air into the balloon. Equally, leaks could occur and the culture could drain out. We asked them to draw the Airbnb cultural balloon and show what was inflating the culture, and what was draining it. Here’s two examples that are typical of the hundreds that were drawn:

The ‘culture-inflater’ themes you can see here were common to all the culture balloons that people drew: “Making tough choices rooted in values”, “Mission”, “Mission-driven people”, “Shared Experiences: OneAirbnb, World@’s, team meetings” and “Founders”.

Similarly, the ‘culture-deflator’ themes:“People who don’t live the values”, “Leaders/Estaff who just don’t get it”, “Putting business before the Mission”, “Hiring non-Mission/community oriented people”.

You can see these same themes cropping up in the other technique we used: ‘Advice to Founders’. Promising to show their work to them (which I did), I asked employees what they wanted the Founders to continue to do, stop doing, and start doing:

So, strong, but getting wobbly. The news was good, but also alarming given that wobbliness was not something we would tolerate in the Culture. Here’s how we broke everything down for Brian, Joe and Nate:

We showed them that the big Culture-Makers were:

The Mission. Having a mission that went beyond business goals towards making the world a better place…and seeing big decisions that executed the Mission…made people want to come to work and be a part of that Purpose.

The Values. Having some, and seeing them being executed on a daily basis (however not always, see below) was also a huge cultural inflator.

The Founders. Having founders who lived the Mission and the Values and who prioritized the Culture was a huge inflator.

Mission and values-driven Colleagues. Being amongst ‘like-others’ (meaning others who, like you, believed in the Mission and the values) created a sense of belonging and joint mission.

Experiences such as OneAirbnb and World@’s

However, there were significant Culture-Destroyers that were causing the wobble. They had to be addressed immediately if the Culture was not to drain away:

Leaders who do not live the Mission and Values. The Founders did, but some of the Management team did not. These people were significantly undermining the Core Values in the organization, and the culture in general. Employees wanted the founders to do a better job of keeping those leaders in line.

Colleagues who do not live the Mission and Values. Whether it was true or not, there was a perception that chasing growth was leading to too much haste in recruiting, and that more “mercenaries” and fewer “missionaries” being hired to manage that growth.

Non-Mission and Values-led Big Decisions. Chasing growth also meant chasing businesses that were seen as not only not delivering on the ‘Belong Anywhere’ Mission, but actively undermining it. The contentious ‘100% Instant Book’ goal (where Hosts would accept bookings without interacting with the Guest first) and entering the ‘Vacation Rentals’ category (one where most properties were purpose-built and managed by companies…not real homes hosted by real locals) were seen as significant dangers to the Culture.

The Core Values: they’re good, but not good enough. People loved that we had them, but complained that they could be contradictory, obscure, and that six were too many (we found that people could remember five at most).

So, what happened next?

I recommended to the Founders that we needed to change the unchangeable: the Core Values. They were the ‘How’ that we used to execute our ‘Why’: our Purpose of ‘Creating a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere’. We couldn’t continue to use a sub-optimal version of something so vital to achieving our Purpose. We drew a deep breath, and held hands. We did change them. More on that in the next article.

I also recommended that we needed to restore trust in the leadership, the big decisions they were making, and that everyone in Airbnb were, in fact, signed up and committed to the Purpose and the Values. I made a pitch to the Founders and the leadership team called ‘Mind the Gap: What we say vs. what we do’ that one by one, took each of the issues we had surfaced, and with survey data and our own research, showed the gap between the ‘talk’ and the ‘walk’.

In response the Founders devoted the February 2017 ‘OneAirbnb’ week…the one where all employees are flown into San Francisco…to demonstrate how these issues were being addressed. Revised and improved Core Values were launched. The leadership team went onstage and, somewhat awkwardly, but endearingly, did a ‘mea culpa’ on their actions and re-committed to the revised Core Values and Purpose. And the offending leaders ultimately left the company.

What of the other two Culture questions: ‘What is Culture anyway?’ and ‘What is our Culture?’

At the end of this article is the definition of Culture that I developed using the best bits of the overly academic and simplistic definitions (the only ones I could find), and my own observations. It turned out to be (so people told me) a helpful working definition that we could all use to pull the right levers and avoid the traps. Certainly more helpful than “fun in the workplace”.

What is Airbnb’s Culture?

We had asked employees: “What are the shared assumptions that you believe guide how we behave, relate and decide things with each other?” That, plus the Balloon and the ‘Advice to founders’ exercises surfaced a definition that boiled down to: “Mission-Driven, Caring and Daring”.

Plus one other very important quality: ‘The freedom to be myself’. This is a quality that normally emerges only in groups where there is a high degree of belonging…one where individuals feel they are amongst ‘like-others’. A trusting environment where there’s a safe space to ‘Become Myself’, free from censure or criticism. I knew this from my research on Cults and cult-like communities (‘The Culting of Brands’), working at Meetup, and my time Movement-Making. This was an incredibly interesting finding. One that led to a new initiative called ‘Belong Here’…of which more in another article of the same name.

What is Culture?

There are both invisible and visible aspects of culture:

The Invisible Aspects of Culture:

These are the shared assumptions we all have about how we should behave, relate and decide things together. They are often the unwritten or unspoken rules that are nonetheless (in strong cultures) potent in defining how people interact, communicate, make decisions and get things done together. They are the kinds of things that people might say to a new employee “what you need to know about how things work around here is…”

Shared assumptions develop over time, through millions of interactions and decisions amongst the personalities and aspirations of the group.

The Visible Aspects of Culture:

· Declared Difference.

The invisible aspects roll up into the most important visible aspect of culture: The Purpose and Core Values of an organisation. I call them the Declared Difference of an organisation. They are a crystallization of the shared assumptions and collective goals of the group. If they are good enough (see ‘How Airbnb found its Purpose and why it’s a good one’ and the next article on Core Values) they are the main differentiator of the company, community or brand.

· Leaders

Leaders should be the exemplars of the shared assumptions. They are disproportionately influential in communicating and enforcing these assumptions about how we should behave, relate and decide things. They need to breathe, walk, talk and live the Declared Difference. And the big decisions they make need to be seen to reflect them too.

· Physical

The physical can be the architecture, what people wear, the design of the products, even the design of the presentations. They’re all ways the culture is expressed and reflected back to reinforce the Purpose and Values. At Airbnb, every meeting room is an exact re-creation of a Host’s home somewhere in the world. You can’t have a meeting without being dunked like a tea-bag into the ‘Be a Host’ Core Value, surrounded as you are by a Host’s home in say Rio or Beijing. This particular visible aspect of the culture is so important to Airbnb, that it has its own in-house architectural team.

One of the meeting rooms in Airbnb HQ in San Francisco. Every meeting room in every office is an exact recreation of a Host’s home somewhere in the world.

· Experiences and Rituals

There is an entire department called ‘Ground Control’ whose role it is to organize Experiences, such as ‘OneAirbnb’, that are designed to build the culture by enabling bonds to be built and the Purpose and Values to be expressed in the things they get employees to do.

Rituals will likely emerge that express and reinforce the culture. The ‘Human Tunnel’ is one of these that emerged at Airbnb. It happens at the end of every weekly ‘World@’: a meeting where the Founders and teams share news and issues to everyone on a live satellite feed to all offices. It is itself, a culture-making experience. After the meeting, people in local offices will form a human tunnel down which new employees run and jump onto a bean bag. No-one can remember how or why it started. But it represents a pretty classic initiation ritual for newcomers to feel that they ‘Belong Here’.

· Meaningful Moments

Meaningful Moments are those moments when big decisions are made or actions taken that truly define the organisation. They are often existentially threatening when ‘backs are against the wall’. They are when the Shared Assumptions are at their most visible. And they often become part of the mythology of the organisation…retold to recruits and tenured staff alike to illustrate and reinforce what the organisation stands for, and why it exists.

Fighting the NY Attorney General was one of those, as was ‘EJ’, not buying Wimdu, making cereal boxes to sell on Ebay when the founders had maxed out their credit cards trying to survive and make Airbnb work, and many others. All of these are described in other articles.

A headline in a local NYC paper at the time of the NY AG fight.

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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