Airbnb's Mildenhall: listen to your mentors
A view from Jonathan Mildenhall

Airbnb's Mildenhall: listen to your mentors

Jonathan Mildenhall, chief marketing officer of Airbnb, shares his best career advice and recalls the two women who gave him his biggest break.

I have two essential lessons In leadership from the very special women who taught me – Sarah Patterson, head of graduate recruiting at McCann-Erickson, who I first met in 1990, and Wendy Clark, senior vice-president of marketing at Coca-Cola, with whom I worked for six years.

Invest in talent and talent will invest in you

Sarah is the woman who took the biggest bet on me. Back in 1990, I was an undergraduate at Manchester Polytechnic. Against all odds – my careers adviser said to me: "Jonathan, advertising is white, middle-class and they only ever recruit from Oxbridge. I'm so worried that you will be disappointed," – I applied to four London agencies for a place on their official graduate training programmes.

From the moment I met Sarah, I felt that she saw potential in me that I didn't know I had. She proactively coached me through every stage of the process. I remember the day she called me to offer me the job. She said: "Jonathan, you are not like other candidates but we all agree there is something about you that is very compelling. So congratulations, we'd like to like to offer you a place on our programme." And with that I became the first ethnic minority to join McCann's grad programme.

Sarah took a bet on me. She staked her reputation on a mixed-race kid from a Leeds council estate, studying at Manchester Poly. What she got in return was a trainee that would work, study, create, engage and play harder than even she could have imagined. Every day, I would walk into the office with a simple mantra: prove Sarah right. And every day I would walk out of the office thinking: job done.

Sarah taught me an important lesson: don’t search for the box-tickers or the safe bets. Search instead for talent that is different and has the potential to challenge and surpass your own definition of "the standard". When I consider what, throughout my career, gives me the biggest sense of achievement, it’s not the value I have helped create or the awards I have won, or the industry recognition I have – gratefully – received. In fact, it’s my recruitment record that inspires the most pride.

I have recruited more people who, on paper, shouldn't have been able to do the job. If my own experience has taught me anything it’s that paper can only tell you so much. I have learnt to listen to my gut and follow my instincts. And so it came full circle: men and women walked into the office everyday thinking "prove Jonathan right". The one thing I know for sure is that when you have a team like that, as a leader, you simply cannot fail.

Now when I look at the industry I get such a buzz from the sheer number of leaders, chief executives, entrepreneurs, agency heads and female executive creative directors that I placed an eyebrow-raising bet on, and who have never let me down.

Move away from the Blackberry

No other executive has had a bigger impact on me than Wendy Clark. She is one of the most talented leaders on the planet and I will feel forever grateful that we got to spend six years together at The Coca-Cola Company. By the time we started working with each other, I had established a reputation at Coke for being a highly-talented, creatively-driven marketer, but I was also considered highly volatile.

Having coached me for a few months while observing all my modes of work (meetings, one-on-ones, workshops, agency reviews, conference calls, email), Wendy called me into her office and gave me the biggest lesson I have ever had in terms of executive presence. With the brutal honesty I have come to respect and admire, she told me that my single biggest strength – my ability to communicate with passion, clarity, power and creative presence – was also my biggest weakness when I communicated over email.

She pointed out that when people could see me or hear my voice, no matter how passionate I got, people knew it came from a good place with positive intent. But when I used the same language and expression when responding to challenging emails, the unintended consequences were explosive across the organisation. She helped me see that all the credit and respect I had built up in person with different teams was depleted because of how I expressed myself on email.

Interesting feedback, I thought. But then she delved deeper and shared with me a successful technique that she had taught herself. "Jonathan, like you, I get frustrating emails a dozen times a day from people who should know better," she said. "Like you, I used to respond real time and, like you, I was damaging my own reputation. However, I have trained myself to become aware of my emotional instinct when reading emails."

Now, whenever I get an email that frustrates and angers me, I am conscious of my reaction and I immediately say out loud, "Move away from the Blackberry! Move away from the Blackberry!" And I do. I put down the device and I go for a walk or I go and grab myself a Diet Coke.  Creating that distance, even if just for five minutes, enables me to respond in a less emotive and potentially flammable way. Still to this day, even though I haven't actually held a Blackberry device for more than eight years, whenever something pops up in my inbox that irks me, I say out loud, "Move away from the Blackberry! Move away from the Blackberry." It's a mantra I urge you all to try.

Jonathan Mildenhall is chief marketing officer at Airbnb. He was previously senior vice-president of integrated marketing communication and design excellence at The Coca-Cola Company. Prior to that, he spent 15 years in the advertising industry.