How Airbnb’s senior executive turned vulnerability into courage

In Personal Board of Directors, top business leaders talk about who they turn to for advice and how those people have shaped their perspective and helped them succeed. The previous episodes of the series are here.

Two months in a high level position at Airbnb Inc.,

Catherine Powell was thinking, “Oh my God, do I even have a job? Five months later, she landed a massive promotion.

Getting there was not easy. The coronavirus pandemic has ended global travel and crushed Airbnb house rental bookings. Ms. Powell initially ran Airbnb Experiences, a growing division that allows guests to book guided activities such as mountain top yoga, wine tastings, and pottery classes with hosts. Shortly after its onset, the health crisis put an end to this kind of outing.

Organic pieces

  • Age: 53
  • Education: MA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford.
  • Family: Husband Hugh Powell; son Josh, 25, Nat, 24, Laurie, 19; mid-Grandes Pyrénées, mid-St. Bernard dog Ozzy.
  • What you wanted to be growing up: ‘A ballet dancer. I studied dance until I was 15. ‘
  • First job: Production of reports on the Horn of Africa.
  • New pandemic habit: “I listen to meetings from my treadmill every day. My team members and I have become very competitive on daily step count. ‘
  • Secret talent: ‘I grew up on Abba and I still know every word of every song.’
  • Anti stress: Hikes, yoga, beach walks and Ozzy.
  • Favourite book: ‘Kill a mockingbird.’

“It was a vulnerable time for me,” said Ms. Powell, a former Walt Disney. Co.

executive who joined Airbnb as a female senior executive in January 2020. “What should I do? She thought over and over again.

So she put the question to the hosts of the company. They wanted to organize online experiences for people on Zoom.

“And at the start, we thought, ‘No, we wouldn’t do that!’ she said. But the idea came to her and she decided to test it with a handful of hosts.

Airbnb rolled out 50 online experiences last April and grew to over 700 a few months later in August. Activities range from meditation with a Buddhist monk in Japan to learning how to cook from a Moroccan family to virtual training with a former British Olympic gold medalist triathlete.

The combined online and in-person experiences represent a fraction of Airbnb’s revenue. The home-sharing giant isn’t releasing numbers – online experiences can be booked for under $ 15 – but Airbnb’s ability to turn to new offerings has so quickly marked its resilience at a time when its peers of the travel industry were struggling to stay afloat.

Airbnb has stood out in an otherwise battered travel industry. The company posted record revenues in the third quarter of this year, rebounding from pandemic lows on the strength of local stays. Bookings for in-person experiences are also increasing.

The health crisis has taught Airbnb an important lesson: listen to your hosts.

The company faced a backlash from hosts after announcing it would fully reimburse guests for cancellations in the first months of the health crisis, emptying owners’ coffers. Many hosts had borrowed from their income to buy more homes to list on Airbnb.

The pushback prompted CEO Brian Chesky to apologize to Airbnb’s more than four million hosts last year. It also led her to consolidate host management under Ms Powell in July 2020, which the CEO personally managed previously. Ms. Powell has become the company’s Global Head of Accommodation with these new roles, responsible for Hosts who provide experiences and stays, Airbnb’s core business.

Under Ms. Powell’s leadership, the company has initiated regular listening sessions with hosts. He started sharing information like some travelers’ habit of searching for Wi-Fi speeds and pet-friendly homes on Airbnb so hosts can display them more prominently on their listings. Last month, the company announced 50 upgrades to better service hosts, including insurance coverage for animal damage, a more robust language translator on the website, and a built-in tool that checks the Wi-Fi speeds of the hosts.

Ms Powell moved to Airbnb after a 15-year stint at Disney, where she recently oversaw the company’s theme parks in the United States and Europe. Mr. Chesky, a longtime Disney fan, wanted Ms. Powell to elevate Airbnb experiences, borrowing from her expertise in musicals, entertainment and shows at Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Paris.

Ms. Powell previously headed Disney’s operations in Australia and New Zealand.

Raised in Hong Kong by British parents, she began her corporate career at BBC Worldwide, managing sales and licensing, among others, in the Middle East and Europe.

Now based in Los Angeles, Ms Powell says she didn’t approach her career as a ladder, but rather as a series of stepping stones that gave her the chance to learn something new at every turn. She and her husband, a former British diplomat, have moved so often that each of their three sons was born in a different country. But those decisions brought unexpected opportunities and lessons and connected her to people who shaped her values ​​as a leader.

Here are the people she relied on to find her footing at Airbnb and weather the company’s worst crisis since its inception over a decade ago.

Andy Bird

CEO of Pearson PLC

Ms. Powell had never worked for a tech company before. Going from running Disney theme parks to Airbnb experiences was daunting. She called Mr. Bird, the former president of Walt Disney International and his longtime boss, while considering the job offer.

“You can do it because you’re curious and ask the right questions,” Ms. Powell recalls telling Mr. Bird. “If you ask ‘why’ you will understand how things work and then you will know where you, as a leader, can add value. ”

The advice was helpful during the pandemic. Airbnb hesitated when hosts first brought up the idea of ​​online experiences. People within the company have said, “This is not what we do. We’re on the human connection, we’re on the real face-to-face connection, ”said Powell.

So she went back to the drawing board. She explained why Airbnb started experiments in the first place. It was about immersing guests in the world of hosts and fostering human connection through a shared experience.

“Can you do this through a screen?” ” she asked. After a few days of testing the idea with hosts, his team agreed.

Pip marlow

CEO of Salesforce Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia

Ms Marlow was the director of Microsoft Australia when Ms Powell headed Disney operations there. A handful of women were country heads for global companies at the time. They reunited and became close friends.

The women met frequently at dinners and spoke out about their struggles. We would say, “Am I failing? How can I lead the team with confidence? Ms. Powell said. They have given themselves the courage to move forward.

Ms Powell turned to Ms Marlow for help navigate a tech company. “Pip was really good at giving me examples,” says Powell. Ms. Marlow explained to him “how the mind of an engineer can work when it is solving problems or setting its own priorities – and how you need to make sure that when you communicate it is the same way.”

Cressida cowell

Author of the “How to Train Your Dragon” series of books

Mrs. Powell and Mrs. Cowell quickly became friends in college. The two women married young. Their careers took off just as their children were born.

“So we were both going through this tough time where you have a young family, where you have a partner who works as well, and you try to juggle all of that,” Ms. Powell said. They discussed the compromises they had made and reflected on those decisions with optimism.

Ms Powell leaned on her friend during the darker days of the pandemic. Ms Cowell helped Ms Powell feel upbeat and their conversations reminded her of what matters in life. These conversations were “incredibly important as a survival technique,” Ms. Powell said, and were essential “in keeping your sanity and your optimism.”

Peter Kwan

Airbnb host

Ms. Powell virtually met Mr. Kwan, an Airbnb host in San Francisco, during one of the company’s listening sessions with owners last year. His suggestions led to the creation in October 2020 of Airbnb’s first “Host Advisory Board”, whose 18 members come from all over the world.

“It’s such a strong voice,” Ms. Powell said of Mr. Kwan. Based on feedback from a same-sex couple who stayed at their Airbnb apartment after feeling unwelcome at another short-term rental, Mr Kwan asked Ms Powell how the company can train the hosts. to overcome prejudices, even unconscious ones. He also suggested photographing guesthouses in a way that better reflects their personal histories, culture and heritage.

Ms Powell says her team is working on his comments. “It keeps me down to earth as an accommodation manager, reminding me of who I serve,” she said.

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