Real Leaders

6 Leadership Lessons From Rob Chesnut, Former Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb

Rob Chesnut is a graduate of Harvard Law School and worked for 14 years with the U.S. Justice Department. As a federal prosecutor, he ran the Major Crimes unit and prosecuted a wide variety of cases, including bank robberies, kidnappings, murder, and drug trafficking.

He also handled the prosecution of CIA, FBI and other employees of the intelligence community for espionage. In many ways, he policed the police. In his latest role as former chief ethics officer of Airbnb, he navigated the company through challenging times and pointed its moral compass toward a way of doing business that placed ethics and integrity at the top of the business agenda. He shared with Real Leaders the six lessons he learned from his time at Airbnb.

LESSON #1 // In a world that is increasingly connected and transparent, integrity is now a business matter. 

Integrity used to be a pretty poster on the wall of your staff area with encouraging messages. But now, integrity matters to a host of stakeholders beyond just your staff. The old adage goes: “Do the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Today, everyone is watching everything. Growing up, Chesnut had three news stations to choose from; now everyone is their own news station thanks to social media. Most people have a phone that can record and broadcast instantly. Older generations would ignore unethical behavior in their company because they didn’t want to rock the boat; they simply wanted to see their career out at the same firm and get a gold watch. Today, someone will Tweet about bad behavior as it happens. An age of conscious consumerism is upon us, and customers will spend their money based on their perceived values of a company. If your values don’t align with theirs, they will spend elsewhere. Your employees also want to make more than just a living and to work at a place they can be proud of. Look at the brands and leaders who’ve come crashing down over the past few years from a lack of integrity and ethical behavior. Lead your company each day as if everyone is watching.

LESSON #2 // Companies need to think intentionally about driving integrity into their culture. 

A short while ago phrases such as “dog eat dog” and “nice guys finish last” were the prevailing mindset in business. For many companies, integrity was window dressing. Leaders often feel uncomfortable talking about morality because it’s a personal issue that can sometimes border on religion. Many CEOs find it an uncomfortable topic and usually farm it out to their legal or HR department. This can result in a new uninspiring compliance poster in your break room, with small type that no one can read (and don’t really want to). A code of ethics is typically something supplied by your legal department, or worse, a cut-and-paste from the Internet that’s emailed to all staff with an instruction to read and check a box. This approach may make your legal department happy, but it doesn’t win your employees’ hearts. Instead, consider how your personal morals and ethics as a leader can be conveyed to staff, suppliers, and customers in a personal manner. Let everyone see that you’re living these values in a very public way.

LESSON #3 // Everyone thinks they have integrity, even those at companies that have fallen from integrity issues.

Chesnut has spoken at Boeing, Uber, WeWork, and Volkswagen. Everyone in the room would raise their hand when he asked, “Who thinks they have integrity?” Chesnut thinks we are too easy on ourselves. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, has studied dishonesty. In one experiment, he asks a room of people to complete a long list of math equations in a very short time. When commanded to stop, they are told to shred their papers and tell him how many equations they solved. Everyone is paid a dollar per problem solved. But, Ariely has rigged the shredding machine and still has the originals; he knows exactly how many equations have been answered.

A staggering 70% of people lie in this test — a test he has carried out around the world. As a leader, you need to become aware of any self-justification when doing something bad or unethical. Ethics should not be about how well you can convince yourself that your behavior is justified. Ariely found that creative and successful workspaces were more prone to unethical behavior. Why? Because smart people are really good at coming up with rationalizations for bad behavior. Instead, keep reminding people around you of their better selves, which will help create a culture of trust and fairness. Silence is the enemy of integrity. Integrity is also contagious — try it.

LESSON #4 // Integrity is an uncomfortable topic, but as a leader you must talk about it. 

Make talking about integrity a part of your leadership strategy. Chesnut likes to tell leaders that they are a thermostat for their company. Crucially, a thermometer takes the temperature of a room; a thermostat sets the temperature of a room. A leader through their words and actions is the thermostat. You create the environment (temperature) in which everyone lives. You can’t outsource integrity, as a leader you need to grab it and own it. Start by asking yourself what the purpose of the company is: What’s your North Star? Why does your company exist? Profit is not purpose and usually doesn’t inspire people to work there (unless they are shareholders).

People need to believe that what they do each day at your company has a greater purpose. What is your greater purpose? Secondly, how do you treat everyone inside your company? A 21st century company places purpose first and talks about how it interacts with the world with integrity. Move away from a strategy that only benefits shareholders, to a strategy that benefits stakeholders instead. At Airbnb, there are five stakeholders: Host, guest, employees, investors and the world. Significant decisions at Airbnb are weighed up against each of these stakeholders and the impact on their health taken into account. An unhealthy impact on just one stakeholder is considered unethical behavior.

LESSON #5 // What you measure really matters because you end up doing what you measure. 

At Airbnb, Chesnut and his team had a goal to reach 200 million nights in a year. What happens when you put a number on the wall? Everyone does what you measure and runs toward 200 million nights. But how could this idea possibly be wrong, especially when you’re housing people with an innovative app and making millions of dollars? Chesnut noticed some bad customer reviews and ratings on their website, that gave two or three star ratings. His concern to the Airbnb team was that these negative comments would drive customers away, and a blind focus on 200 million nights might miss other factors that would slow the achievement of reaching that goal and compromise integrity along the way.

Boeing, likewise, was laser-focused on a certain date to get a new airplane out the gates — missing safety and integrity issues that backfired spectacularly when 346 people died from aircraft falling from the sky. Volkswagen’s race to develop a zero-emissions vehicle by any means necessary resulted in cheating that was hugely embarrassing and costly. 

LESSON #6 // Integrity is not compliance. 

An unused company hot-line should be a red flag to any business. You should encourage people to engage, to raise their hands and ask difficult questions. A healthy culture should result in questions like: “This doesn’t feel right,” and “Should we be doing things this way?” That’s the sign of a healthy culture. Nobody wants to become a whistleblower, and most employees avoid legal and HR departments if they can. Your job as a leader is to make people feel comfortable speaking about things that don’t seem right to them.

At Airbnb, Chesnut created a program called Ethics Advisors where everyone could speak openly. He was the chief ethics officer, but wanted to create 5,000 more just like him. Each team throughout Airbnb had an ethics advisor — a representative that anyone could talk to about uncomfortable issues. They became the most sought after representatives in the company — more so than all the other feedback avenues combined. Airbnb management had more than 100 integrity issues brought to them each quarter, and the company was able to head off issues before they became major problems. It led to a culture where everyone knew that integrity mattered.

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