A few weeks ago, I had the exciting opportunity to interview Jonathan Mildenhall, Co-Founder and CEO of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand and former CMO of Airbnb for my Imperial College Business School Weekend MBA assignment.
The Interview a Leader project is part of the Personal Leadership Journey module on Imperial’s Weekend MBA, which aims to develop our leadership skills to become the world’s future leaders of business and society.
The objective of the project was simple – interview a leader you admire and learn their approach to leadership in theory and practice. A huge thanks to Jonathan for allowing me to share this powerful interview.
Find out what I learned from Jonathan’s leadership journey.
Learning: See difference as a point of value
Jonathan kicked off the interview with a mighty statement ‘see difference as a point of value’. Elaborating on this, Jonathan described how people who have difference and know how to use that difference can create incredible value.
Jonathan said, “You have the choice to use your difference as something that holds you back or use your difference as a means to project you forward.”
Learning: Self-awareness is the most valuable leadership attribute
Jonathan referred to self-awareness as relevant to any leader regardless of gender, culture and hierarchy and with practice can be built through meditation, yoga, gratitude and self-reflection practices.
Jonathan said, “The more one is conscious of their practice to gain a higher level of self-awareness, the more effective they will be as leaders, in and outside the workplace.”
Learning: Build a daily practice of meditation
Sharing an honest account of his leadership journey, Jonathan described when he became Head of Global Creativity at the Coca-Cola Company at 38 years of age. Jonathan recounted how he was given a license to be ‘creative’, which he embraced in his daily interactions. Jonathan’s shared a reflection of the transformative advice his manager Wendy gave him. Wendy alluded to his ‘wonderful energy’ not being channelled in a positive and constructive way, and if left unguarded the negative impact this could have on team spirit.
Jonathan reacted to this by seeking out a coach, who recommended a practice of meditation to understand his physiological responses when his emotions were peaked. Through a strict daily meditation practice, Jonathan could further understand his emotional state within the workday. Once Jonathan became more aware of his emotional state, he was able to use ‘in the moment’ meditation and mindfulness techniques to channel his energy in a positive way. Jonathan felt that his career would have been compromised if he did not take up a daily practice of meditation.
Learning: Building a world-class brand and marketing capability at Airbnb
Jonathan provided an amazing insight into his leadership journey at Airbnb, where he joined the co-founders in building a property rental platform into a global iconic brand. Jonathan started by articulating a vision for the community and for the brand, helping to coin the phrase ‘the world’s first community driven super brand’. Jonathan ensured that everything marketing did was ‘community first’ and executed not like a travel company but like an iconic super brand. Nike, Apple and Disney were the benchmarks used to measure marketing excellence.
Jonathan spoke of building a campaign around the vision to connect with the ‘hearts and minds’ of all key stakeholders including finance, community, consumer and HR. His goal was to ensure stakeholders developed a comprehensive understanding of what ‘the world’s first community driven super brand’ really meant. Understanding of the brand idea was coupled with building accountability amongst colleagues. Ensuring that individuals understood their role in driving the brand plan was critical to growing the Airbnb brand. Jonathan sustained progress for his marketing programme by using objective data, monitoring operational performance and incentivising employees to realise the brand vision, and in doing so, share in Airbnb’s success.
Jonathan communicated the value of external benchmarking to spark ongoing inspiration around a vision, emphasising that there was little Airbnb could learn from the travel industry but there was much to be learnt from Apple’s consistency, Disney’s storytelling and the Coca-Cola Company’s design philosophy.
Learning: Build a career that will make you proud
When I asked if Jonathan would do anything differently in his career, he reflected on how proud he was to have contributed to the British Advertising industry, the Coca-Cola Company and his amazing experience at Airbnb. He mentioned his fascination of the business of fashion and the respect he has for brands such as Gucci; who have revived the brand by enabling the creative and commercial teams to focus on what they do best.
How the interview influenced/changed my perception of leadership
The catalyst for Jonathan’s change in leadership perception was seeing senior women begin to occupy positions of power from a place of authenticity. In Jonathan’s early career, he felt heartbroken to see the few women who managed to break through the glass ceiling, do so by compromising their female traits (emotional, intuitive, expressive and creative) to maintain their leadership position.
“What we have seen in the last 25 years is a lot strong women breakthrough in a way that enables them to protect their own sense of style, authenticity and intelligence,” he said.
Jonathan discussed his joy to see how women in leadership positions in the US have associated a collective social responsibility, evidenced by the formation of strong and supportive social professional groups (like https://sherunsit.org/ and https://www.thefemalequotient.com/the-girls-lounge/ ), working really hard to be visible mentors and role models for the next generation of women.
Working for and alongside talented female leaders has had the biggest influence on Jonathan’s leadership authenticity and style.
Jonathan’s experience made me reflect on the power of authenticity in my leadership style. Sharing my experiences and understanding their value to companies and individuals is an important quality I will carry with me for the rest of my career.
What did I learn?
The biggest learning is to celebrate your point of difference as a means to drive my leadership journey. For a mixed-race professional taking on new leadership challenges, I acknowledge my responsibility to be confident in sharing my story and experiences with my colleagues regardless of hierarchy.
Jonathan reminded me of the importance of a daily ritual of self-reflection to channel my energy. My energy is an asset but only if channelled correctly.
How my self-awareness has developed through the MBA experience
I view leadership as a behaviour regardless of hierarchy. I have started to identify moments within the workplace and within my MBA group, when decisiveness or a new approach is required to drive results.