21 September 2021

Workplace Stories Season 2, Integrating Inclusion: What Belonging Really Needs to Take Hold

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst
Stacia Sherman Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the 5th episode of our podcast: Integrating Inclusion, Season 2 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread Research connect with Kate Shaw, Director of Learning at Airbnb.
  • Channeling Airbnb’s mission statement that includes “create a world where everyone can belong” and discovering how to do that.
  • “We are representative of the world that we live in, and while we might be selecting for people who are particularly committed to seeing the kind of world that we’re trying to contribute to, and might have a greater propensity to this, we still have a lot of biases and bad habits that we have to unlearn and think about how we learn something different.”
  • Share data: if we don’t have the courage to share it, then there’s no hope of changing it.
  • How do we share our data? What else do we need to share in order to make our organization and the world we live in a place where everyone belongs? How does the overall organizational culture impact our DEIB approach for our employees?
  • A special thanks to our sponsor, Workday, for its support of this season!

Listen

Guest

Kate Shaw, Director of Learning at Airbnb

DETAILS

In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson connect with Kate Shaw, Director of Learning at Airbnb. Kate discusses how part of Airbnb’s mission —“Create a world where everyone can belong”—drives their push toward a more inclusive workplace and how DEIB has to be woven, vertically and horizontally, in everything that you do. “Creating this culture of Belonging,” Kat says, “means understanding what that world looks like and all of its permutations; it means understanding the fact that we have hosts from all over the world, of every possible background, and that in order to serve them well, we need to be able to reflect that community.” Listen as she shares her story and, as Kate says, be curious and courageous about your own story and others’ stories, because without sharing those, nothing can change.

Resources

  • Airbnb’s public commitment to Belonging is here.
  • In the episode, Kate calls out the great work happening in DEIB at her organization thanks to two colleagues: Beth Axelrod, who was until August 2021 Airbnb’s Global Head of Employee Experience (the acronym ‘EX’ is used in the podcast), and Melissa Thomas-Hunt, Global Head of Diversity and Belonging.
  • Though she does warn us she doesn’t have a chance to get there that often, Kate says it’s fine to connect with her on LinkedIn to continue the conversation.
  • Find out more about our Workplace Stories podcast helpmate and facilitator Chris Pirie and his work here.
  • Catch up on our previous Season of ‘Workplace Stories,’ all about The Skills Obsession, here.

Webinar

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar at the end of this season. When you can meet the team (Dani, Stacia, and Chris) and join in a conversation about the future of DEIB in the workplace. You can register for the webinar and access exclusive Season content, including transcripts, at redthreadresearch.com/podcast.

Partner

We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Working podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

We'd like to thank the people at Workday for the exclusive sponsorship of this second Season of 'Workplace Stories.' Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and engage a more inclusive workforce—it’s your financial, HR, and planning system for a changing world.

As we start to tell the Workplace Stories we think matter, we hope you follow ‘Workplace Stories from RedThread Research’ on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend, as we start to tell more and more of the Workplace Stories that we think matter.

TRANSCRIPT

Five Key Quotes:

Creating this culture of Belonging means understanding what that world looks like and all of its permutations; it means understanding the fact that we have hosts from all over the world, of every possible background, and that in order to serve them well, we need to be able to reflect that community. And we also, of course, have to understand that if we're going to try and create a world where Connection and Belonging are possible outside of our walls, we have to do a great job of helping our employees experience that within our walls.

When COVID started to emerge, 80% of our business dropped out in the space of a few weeks. The first obvious areas where to cut were around our operating expenses. We drastically restructured the business, and unfortunately we just didn't have a way through without letting go a significant portion of our workforce. And so the question became, how on Earth can you stand for Belonging in the face of letting go 1900 employees who were insanely talented and teammates that you've worked alongside, for years in many cases? And so that was a real test to, what does Belonging mean in the face of a layoff?

We do have a vertical within employee experience around Diversity and Belonging, but it is absolutely the expectation that if you are a leader in employee experience at Airbnb, that you are a hundred percent committed, and that you are responsible for instilling practices within your lane that are all about DEIB.

When someone is experiencing a sense of Belonging, they feel freer, they feel more creative and their opportunity to potentially have an impact at work is significantly increased.

There's some things that I think we shared that a lot of organizations would have held back that demonstrated that there is a disparity in our employees’ experience of Belonging, depending on what identity they hold. Sharing that kind of data would make a lot of organizations incredibly nervous and they would make the choice to not do it, and what I really appreciated about her was, no, this is actually what drives change. And we have to have the courage to share it, because if we don't have the courage to share it, then there's no hope of changing it. Those kinds of data are really powerful levers for helping change hearts and minds, regardless of where you sit in the organization.

Stacia Garr:

Welcome to Workplace Stories, hosted by RedThread Research, where we look for the ‘red thread’ connecting humans, ideas, stories, and data defining the near future of people and work practices.

My name is Stacia Garr, and I'm the co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research, along with Dani Johnson, who is also co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread, and Chris Pirie of the Learning Futures Group. We're excited to welcome you to our podcast Season: this episode is part of our second Season called ‘Integrating Inclusion,’ in which we investigate your role in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging journey that we believe is a critical force in shaping the future of work.

We talk to leaders, thinkers, writers, and practitioners about the current state of the art in DEIB, and we focus specifically on what people analytics, Learning, leadership, and business leaders can do to move the conversation forward—and why DEIB is everybody's business.

Chris Pirie:

We'd like to thank the people at Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this second Season of Workplace Stories. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and engage a more inclusive workforce—it’s your financial, HR, and planning system for a changing world. You can find out more information about the Workday Diversity, Engagement, Inclusion, and Belonging solutions at workday.com forward/deib.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar at the end of this season when you can meet the team—Dani, Stacia, and myself—and join in a conversation about the future of DEIB in the workplace. You can register for the webinar and access exclusive Season content, including transcripts, at redthreadresearch.com/podcast. Thanks again to the team at Workday for their sponsorship.

If you like what you hear, please follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend as we start to tell more and more of the Workplace Stories that we think matter.

Dani Johnson:

In today's episode we talk to Kate Shaw, who's the Director of Learning at Airbnb.

Kate Shaw:

So I'm the Director of Learning—which is a fancy way of saying that it's my job to understand what kinds of professional skills people at Airbnb need in order to succeed in their roles there, and to grow professionally and personally during their time.

Dani Johnson:

Kate tells us how Airbnb focuses on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, and how that affects her work as a Learning leader.

Kate Shaw:

You know in my experience, we've become a different company every 12 to 18 months, which is necessary when you're growing and scaling as quickly as we've been. But what it also means for the Learning team is, boy, what do we need to know next, and what do we need to know next, and what are we don't need to know next? And that's incredibly challenging and incredibly gratifying, because it means the job just never gets old: we are constantly having to learn and grow ourselves in order to learn and grow the business.

Dani Johnson:

Specifically, Kate shared some really emotional stories about what Belonging means at Airbnb and how they have been able to focus on creating a sense of Belonging, even in the face of some really difficult business decisions.

Kate Shaw:

I think the thing that struck me about Airbnb from the very first moment I joined it, or even witnessed it as I was going through the interviewing process, is just how deeply human it is. It's really all about connecting authentic humans to other authentic humans. There's no question we have to have a technology platform that enables that. The end goal is to really create Connection and Belonging around the world.

Dani Johnson:

She also shares what a culture of Belonging means for developing and supporting meters and how her function is just one part of a whole—all focusing on creating this culture of Belonging.

Kate Shaw:

And that means understanding what that world looks like and all of its permutations; it means understanding the fact that we have hosts from all over the world, of every possible background, and that in order to serve them well, we need to be able to reflect that community. And we also, of course, have to understand that if we're going to try and create a world where Connection and Belonging are possible outside of our walls, we have to do a great job of helping our employees experience that within our walls.

Dani Johnson:

Our interview with Kate was, hands down, one of our favorites: we laughed, we cried, we promised we'd do it again. Listen in; you won't be disappointed!

Hey Kate, welcome to Workplace Stories, and thank you for your time and your effort in preparing to share your insights with our audience today.

Kate Shaw:

I'm so excited to be here; thanks for having me!

Dani Johnson:

We're going to start with some really quick questions to introduce you and your work practice, just so everybody has a grounding on where you're coming from and then Stacia and I will go deeper into some of the things I would love your perspective on. Does that sound okay?

Kate Shaw:

That sounds great.

Dani Johnson:

So the first question is, can you give us a quick overview of Airbnb, its mission, and its purpose?

Kate Shaw:

Airbnb was founded in 2007 by two young designers who were struggling to pay the rent; their names were Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. They had both gone to RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design] together, where they'd studied Design. They were living in San Francisco in a loft on Rauch Street, and there was a design conference coming to town that they were really excited to attend or potentially participate in. And they noticed that all the hotels in town were booked up—that people were having a hard time finding a place to stay. So Joe came up with the idea of let's blow up a couple of air beds, put it on Craigslist and see, see what happens, see if we might be able to lure some folks in, have some fun with some other designers and maybe pay the rent this month.

And it worked. They put up an ad, they got their three first guests, and that was really the origin of Airbnb, was that weekend that turned into what they thought was going to be a money-making event, but turned out to be a really amazing experience for all of them, both Brian and Joe as hosts and for the three guests who came and stayed with them; they had a weekend of exploring San Francisco, hanging out together and making new friends that they still have all these years later. Come forward to now, and we're now a public business with hosts all over the world in tens of thousands of cities around the world and in rural environments as well, hosting everything from yurts and castles to rooms in people's homes to experiences with Olympic athletes. So it's now become a really exciting, robust business; it’s amazing.

Dani Johnson:

Yeah, that’s really cool; there’s an Airbnb in Utah that I'm dying to get to—it’s in a cave in the middle of nowhere; you need a four-wheel drive to get there.

Kate Shaw:

I mean, who wouldn't want to stay in a cave?

Dani Johnson:

I’m going to talk my husband into it! So how long have you been with Airbnb?

Kate Shaw:

I've been here for six years now.

Dani Johnson:

That’s a while. I feel like I've known you most of that time.

Kate Shaw:

I think you may have.

Dani Johnson:
That’s crazy. So explain to us what your work is and maybe your job title and how you would describe the work that you do.

Kate Shaw:

I'm the Director of Learning, which is a fancy way of saying that it's my job to understand what kinds of professional skills people at Airbnb need in order to succeed in their roles there, and to grow professionally and personally during their time. There's a lot of ways in which we might get after that, and so our team is really focused on deeply studying the organization, trying to figure out where we might get our sort of highest points of leverage or really what the strategic differentiators are for Airbnb so that we can focus all our efforts on that—knowing that we can't teach everyone everything or facilitate Learning around every single thing, we really have to focus our efforts and figure out what's going to matter most.

Dani Johnson:

I kind of love that; a lot of organizations don't have that vision and try to be everything to everyone. I’ve always liked the fact that you all are fairly focused. What do you find the most challenging aspect of your job?

Kate Shaw:

It's keeping up with our business. The fantastic news is that Airbnb has been a tremendously successful story, and I think the challenge for any business, for any company that faces that very lucky challenge is, how do you grow and evolve your business at your company at the rate that your business is growing and evolving? Because in my experience, we've become a different company every 12 to 18 months, which is necessary when you're growing and scaling as quickly as we've been, but what it also means for the Learning team is boy, what do we need to know next, and what do we need to know next, and what are we don't need to know next? And that's incredibly challenging and incredibly gratifying because it means the job just never gets old—we are constantly having to learn and grow ourselves in order to learn and grow with the business.

Stacia Garr:

I’d like to turn the conversation to this topic of DEIB, which is really the focus of this podcast Season. And one of the things that Dani and I were talking about before, is how Airbnb actually has an element of Belonging in its mission statement, which I believe is to ‘create a world where anyone can belong anywhere.’ So can you talk about how the overall organizational culture impacts Airbnb's DEIB approach for its employees?

Kate Shaw:

I think the thing that struck me about Airbnb from the very first moment I joined it, or even witnessed it as I was going through the interviewing process, is just how deeply human it is: it’s really all about connecting authentic humans to other authentic humans. While there's no question we have to have a technology platform that enables that, the end goal is to really create Connection and Belonging around the world. And that means understanding what that world looks like in all of its permutations; it means understanding the fact that we have hosts from all over the world of every possible background, and that in order to serve them well, we need to be able to reflect that community. And we also of course, have to understand that if we're going to try and create a world where Connection and Belonging are possible outside of our walls, we have to do a great job of helping our employees experience that within our walls: so what does it mean to feel a deep sense of Connection to one another and indeed a sense of Belonging as they contribute on a day-to-day basis?

So from very early on, we figured, listen, if we're going to try and create this on the outside, we better understand this better on the inside, and we went about getting after a research right away to try and figure out, well, what is this Belonging thing, really? What sort of organizational practices lead to a greater sense of Belonging, what sort of behavioral things might we nudge people around or build skills around to help create a sense of Belonging? And that work's still ongoing, I think for all of us who are involved in this area; we know there's still a whole lot to learn.

But the good news there is that there's just been a lot of creativity and trying to figure out what it is that looks like. And I have to say, having worked with Beth Axelrod, who is our Head of Employee Experience and Melissa Thomas Hunt, who came out of the academic world, was herself a really credible researcher in the Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging space; those of them are very knowledgeable in what it means to actually engage in research, to engage with external partners, to share data back with those partners. They're very savvy about what it means to conduct disciplined research within the world of work.

Stacia Garr:

There's two things about that I especially want to kind of draw out that I love. The first is the focus on basically defining what Belonging is; recognizing that Belonging is an evolving thing, but it's hard to achieve something without a sense of what you're trying to achieve without a definition of what you're aiming for, so I think that that's remarkable. The second thing is you just said the project of Belonging, and I think that is a really wonderful way to frame this—it’s not necessarily an end goal, but it's something we're always working towards; it’s a project that we're all working towards. I think that's powerful.

Kate Shaw:

Absolutely. And I just don't see that ever coming to conclusion; I mean, how on Earth could it, right? But I do think that over time, our understanding of that could deepen and we could all get a whole lot better at this than we are today.

Stacia Garr:

We have another question here about the kind of forces at work: we wanted to talk a little bit about that—the forces at work in your business and how that might frame your organization's overall DEIB strategy.

Kate Shaw:

I think there's a number of ways in which I might take this question. I think one thing that I think we can't avoid talking about at this moment in time is just COVID, and the fact that it really pulled the floor out from underneath our business and was really a test of how committed we were to the notion of Belonging. I'm going to look backwards if I may, and then I may look forward if that sounds okay to you; I think we were at the tip of the spear around COVID in so far as travel was one of the very first things to be hit when COVID started to emerge—80% of our business dropped out in the space of a few weeks.

The first obvious areas where to cut were around our operating expenses. We drastically restructured the business, and unfortunately, we just didn't have a way through without letting go a significant portion of our workforce. And so the question became, how on Earth can you stand for Belonging in the face of letting go 1900 employees who were insanely talented and teammates that you've worked alongside, for years in many cases? And so that was a real test to, what does Belonging mean in the face of a layoff? For me, what that demonstrated in terms of the actions Airbnb took during that time, I think that they tested our mettle around that topic, they tested our capability, they tested our commitment. And I have to say, I think that the way Airbnb ended up handling that layoff was a testament to how committed we are. It was an opportunity to completely rethink what is too oftentimes an incredibly debilitating, demoralizing practice into one that honored people's contributions, gave them time and space with their peers to say goodbyes and honor their talents and contributions, and really allowed them to walk out the door feeling loved, feeling valued, feeling seen for their contributions, and with a sense of dignity.

I wasn't entirely sure it could be done until I saw it. I'd certainly been involved in layoffs that were nothing like that—I’ve seen exactly the opposite unfold. And while it sounds strange to say it, I think it was one of Airbnb's prouder moments.

Stacia Garr:

Can you talk to us a little bit about how do you do that? So I think Dani and I have both read some of the articles that gave a little bit more details, but some of our listeners may not have a sense of how do you do what you just described?

Kate Shaw:

I think that there's a few things. One is that it was clear from our CEO's communications to our employees how incredibly painful it was for him to say goodbye to those people. And it was the heart and the compassion that I think he showed that—that frankly, he insisted that we all show—that I think led the way. I think we put so much stock in what Brian shares with us as a CEO, but that was one of those moments where it was clear he was just deeply, personally impacted by having to make that decision.

But more practically speaking, what it meant was giving people days to wrap up their work, actually orchestrating moments where people were celebrated and recognized and given the opportunity to say goodbye, and inviting everyone who'd been impacted to a final CEO Q&A where he thanked everyone personally, insisting that everyone who was impacted have an individual conversation with a leader who was prepared to share the news that people were being laid off with a true sense of compassion for their circumstances.

So despite the numbers, we weren't gathering people in large groups and making an announcement to all of them: we were insisting on individual conversations that were very much tailored to that individual, that would hold them in that moment and hold their hand through the remaining days that they were going to be with us. And then on the other side, hosting the profiles of those employees on our recruiting website—so we turned our recruiting team to face outward and help place people in organizations directly that we knew were going to scramble to hire them because they were just incredibly talented people that any organization would be lucky to have.

Stacia Garr:

That's amazing. Thank you for sharing that.

Dani Johnson:

Let's turn a little bit toward your responsibility, which is employee development or Learning. What role do you play? So it sounds like Brian’s got everybody, all of the leadership on the same page about this is important to us. What role do you specifically play when it comes to DEIB?

Kate Shaw:

There’s a couple of things. One is just, I'm a member of our employee experience leadership team. As part of that team, I'm involved in strategic conversations around how DEIB practices show up across all of our practices with an employee experience.

We do have a Diversity and Belonging team, which act as sort of experts in the space and consultants in this space, so we do have a vertical within employee experience around Diversity and Belonging, but it is absolutely the expectation that if you are a leader in employee experience at Airbnb, that you are a hundred percent committed, and that you are responsible for instilling practices within your lane that are all about DEIB. So I oversee a series of products within our team that have to do with manager development, mentorship, coaching, et cetera, but all of those products have themes of Diversity and Belonging woven throughout and in addition to having a product that is exclusively focused on Diversity and Belonging. So no matter where you are, you kind of have a vertical and horizontal, it's gotta be not just a piece of what you do, but woven throughout everything you do.

Dani Johnson:

So I love that idea that it's woven through: we talk to a lot of organizations who rely on training only to make people aware of DEIB and they think it works and oftentimes it does not work. You talked a little bit about integrating it into everything you do. How are you integrating those practices into employee development?

Kate Shaw:

Yeah, so if we're developing managers, for example, we help them understand that in setting priorities for your team, you need to be thinking about who you might be favoring with respect to the assignment of certain kinds of work and how you might be offering feedback to people within your employees—so just highlighting the fact that oftentimes underrepresented groups are overlooked for their contributions, that they're judged more, that the work product is judged more harshly, or that women, for example, might be given more feedback on their style as opposed to the content that they deliver or the work product that they deliver. So when you start to just reveal the research and the data around how managers might treat different employees differently, it starts to unfold for them: oh, actually, Equity at work is something we're really committed to and something I can actually do something about.

So there's research and data on the one end that we present, but we also put a lot of tools in there at their fingertips that help them immediately think through or practice skills that will help them apply concepts that are DEIB-related to their day-to-day work, so that it's not overly conceptual—it’s real. We're actually asking them to name their employees on the page, identify who they actually know, who they don't know as well. Well, why don’t you know those people as well? And how might that be impacting the way that you manage them?

Stacia Garr:

I believe that you all have, in addition to setting the expectation that this will be horizontally woven in, I believe you also have a Diversity and Belonging manager, Learning manager. Is that right?

Kate Shaw:

We have a person on our team that oversees the Diversity and Belonging Learning product area, and she is responsible for delivering Learning that is sponsored by our head of Diversity and Belonging to everyone in the organization. And that really revolves around a couple of core products, but are Learning offerings that we'll continue to build upon over time, and that will continue to be informed by the research that we're doing on Belonging.

Stacia Garr:

The reason I call that out is in all of our conversations on this site, I haven't heard of a lot of folks who are in that type of role. So can you help us understand what was the logic in creating that role, and how do you see that as kind of serving this overall goal of weaving DEIB throughout the Learning organization?

Kate Shaw:

Given that we are all aspiring to bring a greater sense of Connection and Belonging to the world, it's really just imperative that we all understand it. Because whether it's in the way that we conduct our work with one another or the way that we build products, we have to understand how topics around DEIB impact the way that we work, or the way that those concepts might impact our communities.

So for example, if somebody has been exposed to thinking our content around ways in which we might, for example, make snap judgments around people that don't look anything like us; if those people are turning around and designing products on our platform, you could very well imagine a world in which they're creating discriminatory products on our platform. And we have whole teams that are focused on ensuring that doesn't happen, but giving everyone exposure gets everyone bought into why we're doing this, why it's important, how it's connected to our mission, and how they might think about their work differently in a way that enables them to further that mission as opposed to standing in this way.

Stacia Garr:

I love that it's both a combination, as Dani said, of a kind of formal training, but also effectively a set of skills and practices that you expect people to deploy throughout their day, throughout whatever work that they are actually doing.

Dani Johnson:

Yeah. And I was going to comment on the culture. It seems like you have sort of nailed the DEIB culture, which we're studying a little bit.

Kate Shaw:

Well, ‘nailed’ might be a strong word, right? Because while I think that the reality is while I think we are more committed to this than most, there's no question that we still have a lot to learn and a long way to go. I mean, we are representative of the world that we live in, and while we might be selecting for people who are particularly committed to seeing the kind of world that we're trying to contribute to, and might have a greater propensity to this, we still have a lot of biases and bad habits that we have to unlearn and think about how we learn something different.

Stacia Garr:

Well, let's maybe focus on that. So as you think about the primary challenges that you see in this space for DEIB and the opportunity for Learning: what are some of the ones that you all are most focused on trying to solve?

Kate Shaw:

The biggest question for us is we know, for example, that when someone is experiencing a sense of Belonging, they feel freer, they feel more creative and their opportunity to potentially have an impact at work is significantly increased. That's just what people truly, honestly believe, and I think what's been born out by study, after study, after study, whether we attribute that to whoever that researcher happens to be.

The thing is, is that what often gets misunderstood about Belonging—and I think we're still trying to figure this out too—is what is the difference between helping people feel such a strong sense of Belonging that they are able to really bring it and perform amazing at their fullest and do amazing things versus instilling a sense of Belonging means you're safe here, no matter what. You're safe here no matter what the contribution, you're safe here no matter whether your teammates are perceiving that you are fairly contributing or not. And I think this is where sometimes someone who's not quite understanding the project that is Belonging might misconstrue Belonging to being overly nice or conflict-averse, or something that gets in the way of performance as opposed to something that actually fuels it. Sometimes it just requires digging deeper, and just helping people understand that no, no, no, we don't mean that: we mean this. And it's an important distinction to make, because I think some people believe that this is actually something that gets in the way of performance, not something that contributes to it.

Dani Johnson:

So let's dig a little bit into that as well: Stacia and I tend to think systematically about most problems.

Kate Shaw:

That’s why I like you two!

Dani Johnson:

Well, it’s one of the reasons we love you, too! I want to talk a little bit about DEIB as a system at Airbnb. So you've talked about continuously servicing opportunities to help people understand; you’ve talked about assigning a Learning person to create DEIB products or Learning offerings. Talk to me a little bit about the systems that you have in place beyond those to maintain, or continue to build, a DEIB culture?

Kate Shaw:

I think what the system is—and this is where, well, I think this is where our opportunity might be, frankly—is there is no question we have tons of initiatives going on across EX that are meant to contribute to a greater sense of Belonging on behalf of our employees, or increase our Diversity at the organization. And, on the backend, we are studying Belonging deeply. Wo we have what we call Belonging index; we check in on that index with our employees every so often, we study whether or not things are trending up or trending down, how that might be changing among certain demographic groups, for example. So we have a pretty robust backend to sort of figure out, is this really working or is it not. The challenge is that, of course, it's really difficult to parse when you have so many different interventions going on simultaneously, what's adding the most value and where you need to double down or where you could maybe lighten up or reprioritize.

And so to think about it as a system would seem to imply that there's some sort of mastermind that knows exactly how all these parts work together. There’s not! The reality is we're just doing everything we think we can, and hopefully that data will start to trend in the right direction over time, but isolating any one of those experiences to understand how each one of the component parts of the system is working is nearly impossible—if anyone listening knows how to do that, then we're all ears. I mean, we can certainly drill in on some key concepts; our people analytics team is pretty good at doing this. But I think it's still an art form that we're trying to get after over time.

Dani Johnson:

Since you mentioned measurement, maybe we'll go there next. How do you baseline and measure and monitor progress when it comes to DEIB?

Kate Shaw:

It's largely through survey data. So we ask a number of questions that are recurring over time, and our intelligence around what kinds of questions we need to be asking is just maturing. So as our research and understanding deepens, our questions get smarter, we're able to pinpoint certain things we want to know more about. And sometimes that's through employee engagement surveys, sometimes that's through network analysis—I think we could go even farther with network analysis, because it reveals things that people not might not immediately share in surveys, or that might not become immediately obvious and sentiment surveys—but nonetheless, we’re learning more over time. It's definitely turning out to be a powerful source of data.

Stacia Garr:

Interesting. So Kate, you mentioned an index; can you talk to us a little bit more about how that index works and you mentioned that employees can see it and, and this intersection of DEIB and analytics is one that I'm actually doing some research on right now. And so wanting to understand, how much do you share, what do you keep back, how do you create accountability—all that good stuff?

Kate Shaw:

So this is where I just have a tremendous regard for Beth Axeldrod, who was a big believer in data and a big, big believer in data as a driver for holding organizations and leaders accountable to change. So Beth pushed really hard, not only for investment in our people analytics team, but also she pushed for transparency around the data. So there's some things that I think we shared that a lot of organizations would have held back that demonstrated that there is a disparity in our employees’ experience of Belonging, depending on what identity they hold. Sharing that kind of data would make a lot of organizations incredibly nervous and they would make the choice to not do it, and what I really appreciated about her was, no, this is actually what drives change. And we have to have the courage to share it, because if we don't have the courage to share it, then there's no hope of changing it. Those kinds of data are really powerful levers for helping change hearts and minds, regardless of where you sit in the organization. And she saw that opportunity and took it on. I really respect her for it, because it was a very, very bold decision to make.

Stacia Garr:

Definitely. I think one of the things I see as most important in sharing that data is that it’s the very hard to credibly look at employees and say that Diversity and Belonging is something that we all have responsibility for, but I'm unwilling to share with you how we're doing, or if we've made any progress. How do you do that?

Kate Shaw:

Right—and the real answer is you don’t, because then people don't really know how significant the problem is, or how it's showing up for their peers. The other issue is that it's traumatizing to ask your peers to share stories of not feeling a sense of Belonging at work. And so what we ask when we don't choose to share that data, and instead we lean overly much into stories, and stories are powerful—there’s no question. I mean, I know that my mind has been changed by stories, but what it means is that you're asking those people who already feel marginalized at work to make themselves even more vulnerable in sharing those stories with their peers. And that's not always fair; it doesn't put accountability and responsibility in the right hands.

Stacia Garr:

Right—and particularly if those, if the organization is not saying your organization, but an organization is not one where Belonging is already emphasized, asking those folks to share it can be incredibly risky.

Kate Shaw:

Oh, a hundred percent. A hundred percent. I would even argue that it's difficult in an organization that is about that. Because the thing about the risk that we run at Airbnb and being all about Connection and Belonging, is that people walk in with really high expectations, they really do. And so if those expectations aren't met, then their disappointments are sometimes even larger. I mean, if you know that you're going to work for company X, and X doesn't have any sort of reputation around this, and you're just like, okay, this place is going to be like everywhere else, then your expectations aren't particularly high. And then that might mean that your disappointments don't run so high either because you kind of knew what you were getting. But when you're in an organization that puts a mission like Connection and Belonging out there in the world, expectations are higher, and the standards are higher for delivering on it.

Stacia Garr:

Well, let's talk a little bit about those expectations. I think you know that we're doing a study right now on DEIB and skills, and so what we've been looking at is are there specific skills or expectations that we have of managers as well as senior leaders, that they have those skills that will contribute to a DEIB culture—so whether that's in your leadership competencies or leadership skills, wherever you want to put them, but you set those expectations. Have you all done that at Airbnb in terms of, you know, these are the expectations of leaders? We’ve talked about generally, but are there specific expectations and the competency models that you use, or whatever approach you use to express those expectations?

Kate Shaw:

We are not there yet. So one of the things I would love to see us do is declare clearer expectations so that managers know that, if I'm going to sign up for the privilege and responsibility of leading others, then this is what it means here. And we certainly try to drive that kind of messaging through our Learning and development programs, but I think the next stage for us will be to do a better job of instilling that throughout all of our talent practices—not just within our Learning organization. So while I think as an organization, we're philosophically aligned, those philosophies haven't been embedded in our other talent practices much as they could and should be. That’s, no question, a place we can go next.

Stacia Garr:

But I think that should be good news to some extent for some of our listeners, right? Because what you've shown us is that you can still have a culture that is highly focused on this, without having explicitly stated it. I mean, would it be better if it was stated? Yes, of course. Yeah. But you can still do it, and so if folks listening are in an organization where there is a general desire, but maybe not the time, at this moment, to redesign the leadership competency model, you can still make progress and you can still have a positive outcome.

Kate Shaw:

I think that's true so long as there's clarity on ‘why.’ Because I think that the extra advantage that working at a place like Airbnb gives us is, if our founders are about creating a world where Connection and Belonging can happen, that's just a gold mine for people who do what I do, and for people who believe what I believe: if you're working at an organization where there's not such an immediately clear through line from between the thing you're trying to create in the world and the experience you're trying to drive inside your organization, then I think the ‘why’ gets more, can just be more challenging. And if your CEO isn't making it a hundred percent clear that that's what's important, then it will over and over again, deprioritized because it's really hard work. It's rewarding, but it's really hard work.

Stacia Garr:

Well, Dani and I were back-channelling a little bit, and we've got a short list of everything you've said just now for your model. So what I think we heard was, vulnerability and authenticity, courage, transparency, compassion, I would say, and empathy would be another thing that seems like we've heard.

Kate Shaw:

And I would add to that, probably, just a deep curiosity, and just really great listening skills. Like because I think the only thing that allows us to connect across differences is, I just want to know more about you, right? You might not look anything like me; it’s not immediately clear what we have in common, but boy, I want to know all about you and what I can learn from you and maybe we do have something in common. I don't even know what it is yet. But when you look at research in academic settings that says a professor at the front of the classroom is just told that the kid in the third row that looks nothing like them has this one thing in common with them, and the success rate for that student in the third row goes up significantly. That tells you a lot about just how curiosity and questioning and listening will get you really far.

Dani Johnson:

I also think that what comes through really strongly is the effort and energy you all expend on research: you're curious about what's going on, you're not just assuming that you know, which I think is admirable and something we don't see a lot.

Kate Shaw:

And that's the curiosity piece. It’s important because I think we know humans are exceptionally complicated, but there are some great people out there doing great research that is there for the finding, if people are willing to go digging for it. Maybe you two should think about research. I think you might be really good at that 😉

Dani Johnson:

We’ll look into that!

Kate Shaw:

How’s that for a plug?

Stacia Garr:

We’ve talked about a lot of things, and before we actually hit record on this call, you and I were talking a little bit about kind of opportunities for reflection. So I'm going to ask you kind of a reflecting question and that is you've been there at Airbnb for six years working on this: if you were to advise someone else who's kind of at the beginning of this journey of how do I integrate Learning and Diversity and Belonging, what would you advise them to do?

Kate Shaw:

The most important thing is just to figure out, why does this matter to you, why does this matter to your business? Because if you're not clear on that, I am a hundred percent of the mind that you've just no chance of success. I think the people that I speak to who are involved in this space who experience the most frustration, are working in organizations where, I mean, we all know this phrase, they're checking a box as opposed to really invested in a commitment to making this better. And if you're not invested, boy, there's just no hope of progress, because it is hard work, and it does require everybody to be all in. There is such strong alignment across our EX team around the importance of this, that it's a hundred percent clear to me that my partner across the aisle in talent design and recruiting in comms, that we're all in—and that it requires that kind of alignment to actually drive change.

And even with that, it's hard, right? Even with that, it's hard, but it would be impossible if it weren't for that alignment.

Stacia Garr:

And that alignment, that purpose; we’ve actually written about this in our purpose research—that creates the ability for people to have that North Star, to do the work without having to ask, ‘is this the right thing to do?’ all the time. So I know this is what we stand for and I can see how I can apply it without having to—it’s a principle, not rules, kind of approach.

Kate Shaw:

Yeah. It makes it really clear when it's time to celebrate a win. And it gives you a whole lot of motivation to get through the tough times and the skinning of knees and Learnings, right? Because if you all know that, going back to the notion of this being an ongoing project or commitment, if you all know that this is why you're doing what you're doing, you will have wins to celebrate and you will have moments you need to power through, but you will always know why you're doing it.

Dani Johnson:

Just a couple of questions to wrap up: the first one is, are there companies that you admire that are doing things in DEIB that you would like to emulate?

Kate Shaw:

The honest truth is, I don't know enough about what the others are doing in this space to answer that question very well. And I think it's partly because we are so focused on what this means for us and what we can learn from academics and researchers who have studied this for a whole lot longer than, frankly, most corporate cultures have.

Dani Johnson:

That’s a very good answer.

Kate Shaw:

There is just way more research and experimentation that's happened in academic circles than in corporate ones. And so when it comes time to look up and out around corporate practices, thus far there isn't a lot, I think, to work with. And also I think because a lot of organizations are afraid of sharing data: there’s not a lot of obvious wins out there to point to. So in the world of academics, that's not the challenge.

Stacia Garr:

Yeah. It's interesting; since last summer, it feels like people have become so much more open. And that's been a big driver behind this podcast Season, but also some of our other research. We wanted to go out and tell stories, and when we started the DEIB and analytic study, I actually told everybody that we were going to interview, I said, I don't have to cite you, I said I don't have to say who you are, but what I do need is your stories. Because we have to start sharing stories about what we're doing to, number one, spread knowledge and accelerate our ability to do this well, but two, to just to normalize it and on this. We're all working on this and we're only going to make progress if we talk about it.

Kate Shaw:

And how do you make progress? Like, show us the data that actually tells us that that thing worked. Because in a world where we don't have endless resources to get after this, we have to pick and choose what it is we're going to try and implement or get after. And without the data to back up those stories, sometimes it feels like we're all picking our way through the dark a little bit.

Dani Johnson:

Definitely. I think you've given us some really good things to think about, and obviously our audience as well: how can people connect with you and what you're doing?

Kate Shaw:

You know, LinkedIn probably wouldn’t be the worst place; I am on LinkedIn, that’s probably the best place to get me, because I do occasionally check it. If I'm slow to get back to you, don't take offense. It’s just that I'm not particularly active, but I do pop up from time to time.

Dani Johnson:

Perfect. And then this is the final question we always ask people, the final question of the podcast: Why do you do what you do?

Kate Shaw:

I'll give you two answers to that. One is that growing up, I was the youngest of five kids, and my father died when I was young. My mom, who'd always worked at home, went to work for the very first time and had a horrible go. She was the highest performing employee in her office and was just treated horribly. And she already had her hands full with five kids as a single mom; her hands were made much, much fuller by the fact that her work was unnecessarily challenging and threw up obstacle after obstacle after obstacle, because she was the only woman in her office—and was treated frankly really poorly by her colleagues. So much so that my mom was part of a class action lawsuit, and quite literally weeks before she passed away, received a letter saying that she'd won.

Dani Johnson & Stacia Garr:

Wow.

And I'll never forget the moment that I saw her face, when we read the letter to her. I'm just a hundred percent convinced that work can be a better place, and that it's just been really hard for some people who have incredible talents to bring those talents to work because of what they look like, or who they are. And I think that's a tragedy: I think that's a tragedy for them, I think that's a tragedy for all of us, and I'm a hundred percent committed to making sure that it doesn't happen to people. That's why I do what I do; I just think work can be better for everybody.

Dani Johnson:

That’s one of the best answers I think we've ever gotten. Stacia and I were back-channeling earlier on when you were talking about Brian and how you had to let go of those people and how the organization handled it; I was practically in tears and now, see, she's telling me that she's crying. So we really appreciate your vulnerability, your honesty in talking about this topic; it’s just been fantastic.

Kate Shaw:

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me; it’s an honor to share with you, and thanks for listening to the Learnings. I learn with you, I really do; I don't feel like any of us have this figured out. So another reason why I do what I do is it's an endless opportunity to learn, and I like that; I love it, actually—thank you for being part of that.

Dani Johnson & Stacia Garr:

Thank you.

Stacia Garr:

Thanks for listening to the Workplace Stories podcast, brought to you by RedThread Research. Share your thoughts or ideas for guests and topics by sending an email to hello@redthreadresearch.com, and consider sharing your favorite episode with a friend or colleague. As always, thanks to our guests, our sponsors—and thank you, our listeners.

Chris Pirie:

If you'd like to know more about RedThread’s research, including the latest studies on the skills and analytics that organizations need to foster a more inclusive workplace, then check out our website at redthreadresearch.com, where you can also sign up to actually participate in our research projects. It's a great way to share your opinions and your experience about everything from DEIB to people analytics, from Learning and skills to performance management and leadership—and you’ll also meet and exchange ideas with other leaders in the industry.

As always, thanks to our guests, our sponsors—and to you, our listeners.

Written by

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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