Who were the biggest influences in your early career and what did they teach you?
I think your direct boss is probably the most important person at all stages in your career journey. You can have sponsors in other areas of the company – and that is really great – but it is fundamentally your boss who can open up opportunities for you, give you stretch assignments and help you to reach your potential.
During my time at Symantec, the company was going through a high-growth phase and had a great leader in former CEO John W. Thompson. From the time I joined to the point at which I left, staff numbers had risen from 2,000 to 17,000. The boss I had at that early stage in my career encouraged me to take on different roles within the company and to make the move to the US. I ran an engineering group under him, which hadn’t been a role I had pictured myself in. That was really the kickstart for me in terms of my growth as a manager.
I am a big believer in your personal brand. At Symantec, I saw what good leadership looked like and, over the course of that journey, I built a personal brand. They used to call me the “Queen of Fix-it”. If something was broken and needed to be addressed, I became the go-to person to take on that challenge.
My sponsorship came from very different avenues and my biggest sponsor was actually James Beer, former CFO at Symantec. That surprised me, because my background is not in finance. I had created an overview of how the company was spending its money and I was able to show him that the planned strategic initiatives were not going to bring commercial benefit.
He was keen to understand why and how to fix, so we cancelled all those programmes and then created a new programme with an investment worth $400 million. James was so much happier investing this much larger amount than required by the previous plan, because CFOs are always about what will grow the business. People tend to think they are very focused on profit and loss and on controlling costs. Through my experience at Symantec, I learned that CFOs care about growth and making the right decisions to fuel that growth.
What are the most important lessons you have learned over the years about managing people and strategic leadership?
I always lead from the front. You must have a plan, a vision or a strategy of where you want to go. If you can’t get people to buy into that, you are just an empty vessel.
Teamwork is equally important. Over the years, I have built a lot of teams and I am a huge believer in creating the right culture to support strong high-performing teams. We have a hashtag for our team – #OneTeamOneDream – and we often use it to sign off, because no one person takes credit. I don’t believe in grandstanding and I certainly wouldn’t do it myself. Team culture is really important to me.
It’s also important to hire people that are better than you. I just hired two new people for roles here in Dublin and in Singapore. At the interview stage, my hope is that I can identify people with the capacity to succeed me one day and to really push me in the meantime – hopefully, not off a cliff! I want people who can challenge decisions and add a strong voice to the room. Leaders need to empower their teams to have a voice and then listen to that voice, even if it is contrary to their own views.
In terms of personal development and upskilling, how do you stay current in your sector?
I think everyone learns on the job. That’s a given, because you have to continually keep up. When I joined Airbnb, we had 600 people. Now we have 31 offices globally and over 3,000 employees. Airbnb is probably on the high end of “dynamic”, but no matter what organisation you work for, it will always be changing.
Customers change, the environment changes and so does the wider economy, so you must be prepared to learn. You can’t say “oh I’ve got a job now and it will be the same in five years time”. That might have been possible a few years ago, but I don’t think it is really viable in any role these days.
I have done my fair share of management training over the years. I recently completed one module of an internal growth and development course, and I’ve signed up to do another in November. It covers topics I’m pretty comfortable with, but I want to understand the language used by everyone on the team. We have a very young workforce here with a very different mindset. You have to make sure that you’re continually adjusting management styles to suit the wider culture and also lead by example.
When you travel for pleasure, where do you go and why?
I have two kids and my son, who is 13, loves to ski. When we lived in California, we could drive to nearby ski resorts for the weekend, so he learned how to ski at a very young age. By comparison, I am what I call an “Irish skier”. I can just about get down the mountain, but there’s no finesse.
I try to keep everyone happy so we visited Tahoe in the US recently, stayed in an amazing Airbnb and went skiing. We also visited South Africa and we did a four-day safari and stayed in Cape Town in a lovely Airbnb right on the water.
There isn’t anywhere we visit repeatedly. We like to experience different places and that’s the nice thing about Airbnb. You’re not limited to just a holiday home in France or Spain.
What’s the last great book you read or film you watched? What kind of music do you listen to?
I used to read a lot of management books, but I just don’t have the time now. I have two books now on the audiobook app Audible.com. I travel a lot in my job, so the plan is to listen to them while I’m on the move.
When I read for pleasure, I want to just zone out. I’m not looking for anything intellectual. The last book I read was “Origin”, Dan Brown’s most recent thriller. I read it on holidays and I’d say I finished it in two days.
I travelled to Myrtleville, Co. Cork, last year with my brother to take part in the “Hive Mind” beekeeping experience run by Mark. I found the psychology of the bees fascinating in terms of how it influences productivity in the different hives. It comes back to leadership and the Queen Bee. I thought it was such a strong metaphor for the work environment and how it can be spoilt by one “bad bee”. Mark recommended this book by Laline Paull called “The Bees” and I’ve started to read it. It’s like the “Watership Down” of bees.