Innovation Book Club: Wisdom @ Work

Chip Conley found himself facing irrelevancy at age 52. It wasn’t too long after he’d sold Joie de Vivre, the influential boutique hotel company he’d founded 24 years before, and now he was at Airbnb, recruited by the disruptive home-share platform’s founders to serve as head of global hospitality and strategy. 

“It was a tech company that wanted to be a hospitality company when it grew up,” Conley said in a recent interview with HSMAI, “but what was very clear to me is that I was having to sort of reinvent myself and reimagine myself. As I spent four years there in a full-time role and then a year-and-a-half now as a strategic adviser to the founders, what became more and more apparent to me is how many of us in mid-life are going to have to reinvent ourselves, especially if we’re going to live till age 100.”

Conley’s new book, Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, is an attempt to explain what that reinvention might look like for middle-aged “elders” like himself. “We have two things happening at the same time,” he said. “We’re going to live longer, and yet in many industries power is moving younger because of our increasing reliance on digital intelligence, or what I call ‘DQ.’ There are more and more people who are faced with what could be a 20-year irrelevancy gap, because if you’re going to live 10 years longer but the power’s going to be 10 years younger, there’s an additional 20 years of life that actually means you’re irrelevant, which is not a good feeling. That’s what led me to feeling there was a value in talking about what I learned from my experience.”

What made you want to get started in the hospitality business?

I graduated from Stanford Business School at age 23 and went to work for a real-estate developer in San Francisco for two to three years. I was doing commercial real-estate development, but what intrigued me about hotels was that if you did your job well, you made people happy. I liked that, which is what led me to imagining how could I get in the hotel business.

In the mid-1980s I started researching that and said, “Wow, this thing called boutique hotels is coming along. Maybe I could become a boutique hotelier.” I decided to start my company and call it Joie de Vivre — joy of life — because that’s similar to my perspective of “Hey, make people happy!” Give them joy of life. I went out and raised a million dollars to buy a broken-down, bankrupt motel in the middle of San Francisco, and that’s how I got started.

What have you learned about hospitality and lodging from your experiences with Joie de Vivre and Airbnb?

I think that there’s a balancing act of scale and soul. What does that mean? It means, generally, the bigger you get, the more scale you have, the more you potentially lose the soul of what was there originally. Whether it’s the soul of the employees feeling really invested and connected to the founder or to the original intent of the business, or whether it’s the design — you start to move in the direction where things start to become a little bit more cookie-cutter.

One of the key things to know is that if you’re going to scale quickly, you need to invest in the soul. Otherwise, you end up with a product 10 years from now, 20 years from now, that feels like it’s functionally fine but it’s missing the nuance and the soul of what is beautiful hospitality or design.

Who’s the intended audience for Wisdom @ Work — elders, young people with high DQ, or both?

It has three intended audiences. The first audience is elders, and when I say elders, let’s be clear what I’m talking about: people in mid-life. Some people say, “Mid-life is not elders.” Well, listen, if you’re 52 and you’re surrounded by people who are on average 26, you are an elder. I was two generations away from most of these people — they were Millennials, I was a Boomer.

The secondary audience is people who are younger who would like to create what I call a “mutual mentorship relationship” with someone who’s older, or who are just plotting their own path for the future. And then, thirdly, it’s really written for CEOs and HR leaders — people who run organizations. How can they create the conditions for more intergenerational collaborations to occur?

Does the irrelevancy gap you describe come down to technology skills, or is it more than that?

There’s definitely a mindset at work. The thing I want to make sure that I give people comfort in is, you don’t have to become a software engineer. You just need to be savvy enough and be open enough. The best word to describe all this is “curiosity.” How do you turn that fear into curiosity?

I was speaking to a group in New York City a few weeks ago, and there was a lot of fear. “I just don’t know this.” Okay, how do you start learning it? “Well, I feel like, I’m 45 years old, I can’t learn anymore.” Guess what? If you do the math on how much of your life is still ahead of you, at age 45 you’ve been through 27 years of your adulthood, and 27 years from then is 72. You still might be working at 72, so you’re not even halfway through your adult career at age 45. Why would you ever stop learning at that point?

What are some other things that elders need to do to close the irrelevancy gap?

There’s four lessons that I talk about in the book. The first one is to evolve. Evolving speaks to this idea that we have gathered a lot of identities, a lot of business cards, and a lot of knowledge, and as you grow and age in life, it’s not like you throw all that away. But you do strategically edit what’s most important. For me, I was a CEO of a boutique hotel company, and then all of a sudden I was at Airbnb and I’m no longer the CEO. I’m helping the three founders be as successful as they can be. My role is not to be the person onstage. I had to downsize my ego to just be more the person supporting the three of them.

The second lesson is learning. If you have adapted yourself, meaning you aren’t just holding on to all of your identities and titles and knowledge of the past, you create some space for some new learning to happen. And if you do that and you do it well, that’s the best part of this. You all of a sudden realize, “My gosh, I know a lot of new things.” It’s amazing how much learning and the process of curiosity can actually make you feel younger. Because it’s like, “Oh, I’m still relevant.”

The third piece is to collaborate. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize in the tech world is that all companies are basically full of teams. Teams do best when there’s collaboration, and one of the things that’s very clear based upon empirical studies is that the older you get, the more emotional intelligence you gain. You get smarter about yourself and other people. As such, you can be a better collaborator.

And then the fourth lesson is to counsel. That basically means you’re there to advise. A lot of people, once they get older, they think, “That’s the thing I’m going to do first. My role is to preach.” No one wants a preacher. No one wants a parent. What they do want is to be listened to. There’s a great old phrase: “Knowledge speaks and wisdom listens.”

How are you feeling about the hospitality and lodging industry these days? Do you see it as a vital space?

I do. I think that as we see a growing middle class in countries as diverse as Peru, Poland, and Pakistan, there’s a growing number of people who are traveling as a family for the first time. Travel is an aspiration that most of us want to live up to as we get to middle class. I think Airbnb has helped support that in many places, but I think the hotel industry is just as vibrant as it has ever been, because hotels provide a set of services that most Airbnb listings could never provide. That’s why I have, for five-and-a-half years now, said that I think hotels and home-shares can coexist.

Any there any recent innovations in the space that really excite you?

There are these companies that I call “boutique rental operators,” like Sonder, which is based in Montreal, or The Guild, which is based in Austin, Texas. These are companies that go out and, working within the regulations of the city, rent a collection of apartments or sometimes build buildings with hotel licenses with the intent of creating extended-stay lodging. And so they are combining home-sharing with boutique — because there’s a certain brand promise they have in terms of their design — and really creating a product that didn’t exist out there. You had boutique hotels and then you had Airbnb, but if you combine boutique hotels and Airbnb, you get these boutique rental operators.

Insight Type: Articles