the modern elder @ work | interview with chip conley

Airbnb Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership

You’re a hospitality entrepreneur, a bestselling author. You’ve disrupted the travel industry not once, but twice. You are a leading authority at the intersection of psychology and business. Now you’re defining the modern elder and why creating more inclusive workplaces means good business. Chip, welcome to Project Inclusion.


Q. Let’s start with all the research that you’ve done on happiness and how to bring that into the workplace.

I started a company called Joie de Vivre 32 years ago. I called it that because I thought it was really great that a company’s name could also be its mission statement. Joie de Vivre is French for “joy of life”, and our basic mission was to create opportunities to celebrate joy of life. We did fine for many years, and then we went through two once in a lifetime downturn’s: the dot-com bust, which in the San Francisco Bay Area was like like a depression; and then the Great Recession, which was pretty deep as well.

When you name your organization after an emotion like joy, it does put a certain responsibility on you. A lot of empirical evidence shows that shaping a great company culture that creates happy employees creates happy customers, which leads to market share growth, which leads to more profitability. This makes investors happy, and then they invest again in that culture. So it’s been a bit of a virtuous circle.

During the Great Recession, however, I realized I wasn’t very happy myself. And that’s difficult when you’re creating a happy company and leading 3500 employees. So I decided to go to Bhutan, the country that almost 50 years ago created the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). It began because the then 17 year old king of Bhutan said that happiness was more important than GNP (Gross National Product).

So I went there for a week to study their happiness index: how they measure it, what they do with it. I came back with some great observations. Generally speaking I believe that happiness is more about wanting what you have — meaning gratitude and appreciation — and less about having what you want. I’m not saying the process of striving or pursuing something doesn’t make people happy, because it can. But that’s like putting a carrot in front of a donkey, hoping that it keeps walking forward: at some point he’ll catch up with the carrot. The answer is, I think, learning how to be happy with what you have, learning how to cultivate a culture of gratitude. In a corporate context a culture of recognition is really important in terms of creating happiness, and I’m proud that Joie de Vivre, before I sold it ,was ranked the number two company with the happiest employees in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2008.


Q. You have said that it’s time to figure out a new way to count, and think about, what’s important in life; and that business leaders and investors need to be able to see the connection between creating that intangible happiness, and the tangible financial profit. Can you elaborate? Why is that important for business leaders?

Part of the reason that we get so wrapped up in things that don’t relate to happiness is that it’s ephemeral and difficult to measure. But frankly, the things that are most valuable in life are intangible. I’m a big fan of the Hierarchy of Needs, the famous psychology theory developed in the mid 20th century by Abraham Maslow. Maslow outlined this hierarchy as a pyramid: physiological needs were at the base; safety needs at the second level; third level, social belonging needs; the esteem needs are at the fourth level, and the fifth level is self actualization.

According to Maslow, as people have their basic needs met, they move up this pyramid. As for physiological needs, they are easy to measure, but it’s hard to measure self actualization. It can be defined as “be all that you can be”, and it’s essential to what makes a person have a great life.

Leaders need to start asking the question of how to measure those things that are most valuable. That’s the reason I went to Bhutan. The good news is that the business world has gotten better and better at this: forty years ago we did not have customer engagement metrics for our companies, and today they are quite precise. We can learn to measure a lot of things.

It’s a combination of the two needs: if you focus all on the self actualization, but aren’t paying people enough, creating good work conditions or giving proper benefits, they won’t be able to perform well in their jobs.

The key is to create networks that can evaluate these intangibles. If we only focus on the easy things to measure and benchmark, we’re really not differentiating ourselves. The differentiators are higher up the pyramid.


Q. You’ve said that the leader is the emotional thermostat of an organization. How did you experience that, and what advice do you have?

They’re the emotional thermostat because they set the temperature in the room, they are the climate. If the CEO or founder has a frown on their face, everybody notices it; or if you walk down the hallway and they don’t say something to you, you feel like they’re upset at you. The emotions of a CEO or founder are magnified, but a lot of them don’t realize that. They don’t realize that there’s an emotional contagion of their behavior.

The most important lesson to remember is that leaders are role models; we have a huge effect on the culture of a business or any organization.

There also has to be some connection between the leader and the members of the organization; if you isolate yourself too much from what’s happening you lose that effect.

I once had a Fortune 500 CEO say to me: “I don’t think our company has a culture”. And I said: “if you don’t think your company has a culture, it probably has a bad culture”. And a CEO is absent and perceived as not involved, that’s not neutral. It’s actually negative. The fact that the person feels removed and absent means that they’re not really part of the team, or feeling accessible and engaged.


Q. You’ve been able to start jobs as a young person and as a modern elder, more recently reporting to a younger CEO. Tell us about that.

I started my company at age 26, and I sold it during the Great Recession, right before my fiftieth birthday. Then, a couple of years later, the three young founders of Airbnb - who started their company when they were 26 - approached me and said “We would love to have you help us become a global hospitality brand”. So five and a half years ago I joined them.

I had to make a real shift. I was the CEO of a company, grew it to 3500 employees, and all of a sudden that’s it. Now I’m going to be both a mentor to the CEO -Brian Chesky, who is 31 years old, and I was at that time 52 - but I was also reporting to him. I had never been in a tech company before. So I was in my early 50s, in a tech company, and saw that I had a lot to learn.

The modern elder is as much of a an intern as they are a mentor. We think of elders often as the ones who have all the wisdom and dispense it, but a modern elder is as much a wisdom seeker as they are a wisdom keeper. I was also there to learn all the things that I didn’t know abound technology or the cultural norms of millennials, or a variety of other things.

If we’re not constantly evolving, if we’re not using curiosity as the elixir of life, then we’re just slowly dying. We’ll all die someday; although, who knows, the Silicon Valley geniuses might come up with something [laughs]. But if you judge yourself based upon the measure of youth, which is usually physical beauty, after your 20s it’s all downhill.

If you judge your value based on your salary, in Silicon Valley salaries actually peak and then start going down at age 45. After 50 things are starting to go down in terms of what you can get paid.

If the measuring tools we have are beauty, physical appearance, or how much money we make after 50, midlife looks like a really bad experience. And yet, there’s a lot of evidence about the U curve of happiness that shows people get happier in their 50s and 60s, and their 70s are the happiest decade. That’s because the peak that we have in our 50s and beyond is not physical or financial, it’s emotional. We get smarter about our emotions, we’re better able to curate our lives in such a way that we love how we live it.

One of the things I’m trying to do with this book Wisdom at work, the making of a modern elder is not just talking about the intergenerational collaboration that can happen in companies, but also to say that to everybody 50 and older: the best is yet to come.


Q. What can we expect from the book? Is it more of a holistic approach or is it focused on work?

The book is a compilation of my experience at Airbnb, but also looking at the broader society. There are many stories of other modern elders in it. It tells the story of my experience being the the old person in a very young company — I was twice the age of the average employee in the company. I had to evolve, learn, collaborate and counsel; those are the four lessons in the book. But it goes beyond that: it talks about what helps people repurpose themselves in mid-life; and now, with five generations in the workplace at the same time, how can we create a more intergenerational collaboration.

I call it the EQ for DQ trade agreement. I have more EQ (emotional intelligence) than I did 20 years ago, so I can share some of that; and my young millennial friends at Airbnb had a lot of DQ, or digital intelligence, and they would share that with me. That makes the workplace a generational potluck where everybody brings what they do best, and know best, to the table. That’s what I’m trying to offer: I want to help people see the importance of diversity. Most companies have gotten smarter about diversity when it comes to age, gender, differently abled people, LGBT issues.

But the workplace is not smart yet about age diversity, especially in the tech world: they don’t even think about it. They don’t think about age as a form of diversity, and yet there’s ample evidence that shows that age diverse teams are significantly more effective than teams that are solely young, or solely old.

The tricky thing is with age is that you have all the other types of diversity as well; you have sexual orientation, race and background, and they add to it. That’s why aside from the EQ and the DQ we use the IQ, which is the inclusion quotient: it’s about how inclusive an organization is, both internally, towards their employees, and in their products and services, towards their audience.


Q. What do you think are the biggest obstacles for ending ageism in the workplace?

If you look to sexism, for example, we still have it; but Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963 started a catalyst to create the women’s movement worldwide. I don’t know if my book will be like that for the subject of ageism and of a more age-neutral workplace, but there are a lot of voices speaking out and saying that this is not just a matter of equity and fairness: it’s just smart. There’s so much to offer, and not because elders should be held up for reverence: that’s the old school of thought.

Today it’s about relevance, and relevance means that you as an elder need to be open to learning. Be as much of a curious learner as you are a wise teacher.

That’s what makes a modern elder different than the traditional elder of the past. And why is this curiosity more important today? Because the world is changing so quickly; a person who went to sleep 10 years ago and just woke up today would have no idea how this world works. The acceleration of change requires of us who are older to be in a lifelong learning mode.


Q. Would you say that’s the secret for thriving as that as a midlife worker?

The secret to thriving as a midlife worker is to be curious and adaptive. Adaptive is another way of saying “evolving”, which is one of the lessons in my book. To be adaptive and curious means you will likely be resilient, and that’s one of the core traits of a modern elder. Whatever comes and goes, they’re able to resist. This is not just elders, anybody who’s curious and adaptive will more likely be resilient.


Q. How do you see the role of elders in an organization? In the book you talk about advisors, coaches, mentors.

When I joined Airbnb I was supposed to be Brian’s mentor but it felt like a different kind of relationship. You can actually mentor someone older than you, which is called reverse mentoring: it happens in the workplace when someone younger helps someone older with technology tools, for example. The reason I landed on the word elder is because I felt there was a generational difference: I was two generations older than Brian. I’m a baby boomer, he’s a millennial, and as such we had very different perspectives on the world. But our commonality was that I used to be his age, and I remember what it was like to be a young entrepreneur. I’ve been through that, so I had the ability to give him a sense of what the future would look like.

His future will be different than mine. But there are some commonalities, and being the person who can look at the future and help a younger person imagine what theirs will be like, is a beautiful quality of an elder. The elder is an editor, and the mentor is a mirror. What does that mean? An elder can be a mentor, an adviser or a coach. The elder is related to the idea of a generational difference; so you could be 40 years old and an elder if you’re surrounded by people who are 25. And that generational difference adds a nuance to what might be a mentor relationship.

One thing that made me very happy when I encountered your work is the terminology: the modern elder label is much more dignified than “seniors”, “aging population” or “elderly”.

People are living to 100 years old, so they’re going to be active and productive until their mid to late 80s. That means we have a whole new generation of people who are what we sometimes call the “young old”. The average age of someone who goes into a nursing home today is about 81 or 82 years old, and 50 years ago it was 65. So we’ve added as much as a decade and a half or two decades of life in this last 50 years, and yet we haven’t really acknowledged that as a different short period in life.

A hundred years ago a book came out called Adolescence. Prior to that there was no word to describe your teen years. You weren’t called a teenager, you’re just a child still. It’s time once again for us to start acknowledging there’s a stage of life — I call it the modern elder stage but someone else could call it something else — that is pre-elderly. It’s previous to the time in a person’s life when they have to get support; it’s a time when a person is still very active and has a lot to offer, and yet they’re also maybe 20 years older than people around them.


Q. Do you see any promising signs of innovation, cultural changes, anything that could be giving a new take on age and experienced workers?

In places like Germany and Japan we’re starting to see a much more proactive role by corporations and governments on this matter, and it’s partly out of necessity. Japan, for example, has an unemployment rate of 1.8%; it’s exceptionally low, because frankly there isn’t enough young people in that country. There’s a lot of older people who’ve retired, they don’t have a very open immigration policy, and they’ve gotten to a point where they have to start looking at older workers as a supply

that they hadn’t thought of before.

Also, BMW and some of the other car companies in Germany have completely remade themselves so they could incorporate older workers in the assembly line, but also in terms of diversity in teams. I’m encouraged by the fact that those countries, which were at the most risk of not dealing with this, are starting to do it. That means the rest of the world can do it more easily.

The US doesn’t have as much of a risk on this yet; demographically it is an aging population, but there’s still a much larger younger segment in this country than say in Japan or Germany. However, if there’s an ageist country in the world when it comes to advertising and the concept of what it means to have a good life, it’s the US. It’s a very youth-centric nation in terms of advertising and promotion. The last 10 years have been better, in the sense of trying to have people who don’t look like statuesque models in all the ads.

The process of helping people see that the second half of life may actually be a happier time, though, is really important for us. People after 40 dread the rest of their life because they’re not looking as good physically, because their salary is going to peak pretty soon, their health won’t be as good as it was, and they think that’s all there is. Why would anybody look forward to that?

about chip

Rebel hospitality entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author, Chip Conley is a leader at the forefront of the sharing economy. At age 26 he founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality (JdV), transforming one inner-city motel into the second largest boutique hotel brand in America. After running his company as CEO for 24 years, he sold it and soon the young founders of Airbnb asked him to help transform their promising start-up into the world’s leading hospitality brand. Chip served as Airbnb’s Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy for four years and today acts as the company’s Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership.

Chip’s five books include PEAK and EMOTIONAL EQUATIONS and are inspired by the theories of transformation and meaning by famed psychologists Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankl. In his new book, WISDOM@WORK: The Making of a Modern Elder (September 2018), Chip shares his experiences – as both mentor and unexpected intern – at Airbnb, and why he believes the intergenerational exchange of wisdom is critical to the modern workplace and our society.

Chip is the founder of Fest300 (part of Everfest), San Francisco’s annual Celebrity Pool Toss that has raised millions for families in the neighborhood where he opened his first hotel, and the Hotel Hero Awards that shine a light on outstanding line level employees. Chip is a recipient of hospitality’s highest honor, the Pioneer Award, and holds a BA and MBA from Stanford University, and an honorary doctorate in psychology from Saybrook University. He serves on the boards of the Burning Man Project and the Esalen Institute, home of the Conley Library.

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