A former CIA director gave Airbnb's CEO some smart management advice

Richard Feloni

In a new Fortune profile by Leigh Gallagher, Chesky admits that as an art-school graduate, he didn't feel prepared to lead his room-sharing business to scale.

It's why he decided to give himself the equivalent of a real-world MBA by not only reaching out to Silicon Valley's most prominent investors, executives, and entrepreneurs, but the top performers across a wide variety of fields to learn as much as possible.

For example, Chesky considered the challenge as CEO of building a transparent culture and being available to employees. Who better, he concluded, to ask about leading while keeping information privileged than a former director of the CIA?

He reached out to George Tenet, who served in the role from 1997 to 2004. There were several key takeaways, according to Fortune:

  • Make yourself visible. Tenet said he would always eat lunch in the office cafeteria, choosing a new seat each day.
  • Be personal. Tenet got into a habit of hand-writing notes to employees. "The former CIA chief told him that some of the most meaningful moments in his job were when he'd see a card he wrote an employee years ago still tacked on to his or her wall," Fortune reports.
  • Think of yourself as the captain of a ship. Tenet gave Chesky a simple but profound metaphor: Imagine your company as a ship, with a portion above and below the waterline. As captain, it's your duty to not only steer the ship, but keep it from sinking. A captain doesn't belong in the belly of the ship, but needs to be aware of any holes that may appear in the hull and ensure that the right people are in place to plug those holes. At the wheel, you need to use your unique position to steer the ship according to two or three main principles. Chesky has chosen to focus on product, brand, and culture.

Chesky tells Fortune that he's continuing to learn as much as possible from an eclectic selection of leaders in order to best manage a company that the Wall Street Journal reports is internally valued at $24 billion.

For more on Chesky's self-taught executive training, check out the full Fortune profile.

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