There are executives who thrive on fame—think business cards that read “I’m CEO, Bitch”—and then there are executives who just get shit done. Belinda Johnson, second in command at Airbnb, is the latter.
Johnson was general counsel at Mark Cuban’s startup AudioNet, which she shepherded through a $5.7 billion sale to Yahoo! in 1998. In 2011, she joined Airbnb as general counsel, becoming CEO Brian Chesky’s first executive hire. She then ascended to chief business affairs and legal officer, a role she held until February 2018, when she was named chief operating officer.
To say that Johnson, who is often dubbed the “Sheryl Sandberg of Airbnb,” seamlessly transforms constraints into business advantages is a profound understatement. When Johnson joined Airbnb, it was valued at $1 billion and facing seemingly endless legal battles—now it’s worth over $31 billion, profitable, and has more than $5 billion on its balance sheet. As Jessi Hempel explains in Wired, she “encouraged Chesky to get to know regulators before conflicts even arose. She is largely responsible for the fact that Airbnb is a company that makes love, not war—especially when it fights.”
Under her watch, Airbnb has navigated thousands of local housing laws, taxation issues, and countless lawsuits. Johnson’s strength is her conciliatory approach to conflicts of all kinds; she hashes out every debate with a disposition toward saying “yes”—a trait that’s exceedingly rare among lawyers and executives. “She really taught me that you always talk to people. She was like the secretary of state,” Chesky told Wired.
But despite her two-decade track record of turning internet startups into billion-dollar successes, Johnson leads by deflecting her own success and elevating others. ”Ask her how she manages a hypergrowth strategy and she says, ‘I have lots of colleagues and we work on that together,'” writes Hempel. “Ask her about a new product she oversaw, like, for example, the host protection insurance program the company launched in January , and she’ll praise the person who reports to her: ‘Oh, Sharda did an amazing job on that!’ she’ll say, referring to deputy general counsel Sharda Caro.”
In an interview with Quartz, Johnson explains how leaders are best defined, the importance of earning the public’s trust, and why she admires today’s young people.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
There’s a lot of debate among tech companies about platform responsibility, and I spend a lot of my time thinking about Airbnb and our approach to the issue. We believe that enduring companies will be those worthy of the public’s trust, because they can show that their products are good for the world.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Persistence pushes me to be bold and seek out the opportunities I’ve wanted. It starts by envisioning what you want, no matter how big or small, and believing that you can achieve it. You must be determined and willing to do what it takes to make the vision a reality.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Programs that encourage mentorship, workshops that teach women how to self advocate, and even employee resource groups that are focused on women in the workplace are all very powerful outlets that foster safe-space conversations. If companies show that they support these initiatives, I think we’ll begin to see many more women reaching their career goals and pursuing leadership roles.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
When I think back to the early years of my career, I wish I would have been less tolerant of the norms of that time. Compared to today’s generation, my generation didn’t call attention to unfair practices like equal pay and promotion tracks as often.
I look at the current generation of women in the workforce and am in awe of their courage to create change and take a stance on the issues that matter to them. When I see there’s so much advocacy among women today to challenge unacceptable societal norms, I reflect on my early career and think about how I could have done more. I’m thankful to be in a position in my career where I can advocate for better policies and partner with future generations, like my daughters, to be a voice for change.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
Before joining Airbnb, I got to a point where I felt like I was no longer being challenged or growing professionally. I felt that I had stopped growing at that point and my entire career has been built by challenging myself despite uncertainties. That’s when I decided to take some time to think about my next move, which ultimately led me to Airbnb.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
As the leader of a team, I stress the importance of learning from one another and I communicate to my colleagues that their contributions are appreciated and valued. Everyone, no matter what, can learn something from someone else. By seeking feedback and advice from colleagues, you’re not only improving yourself, but you’re also building trust and respect among your team.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be afraid to fail. Some of the best learnings I’ve had have happened through failure. That mindset has taken me far in my career. Also, I’ve never been afraid of rejection and that has given me the courage to go for opportunities at every level.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, what would it be?
Valuing differences and diversity of opinions is essential to any successful team. A good leader seeks out potential in others and makes the effort to encourage others to speak up and show them that they are a valued asset to the team.
I wish people would stop telling me… spoilers to Game of Thrones.
Everyone should own… their mistakes.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.