Chip Conley founded Joie de Vivre Hospitality (JdV) at age 26, transforming one inner-city motel into the second largest boutique hotel brand in America. After running his company as CEO for 24 years, he sold it and soon the young founders of Airbnb asked him to help transform their promising start-up into the world’s leading hospitality brand. He served as Airbnb’s Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy for four years and today acts as the company’s Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership.

 A New York Times bestselling author, Chip’s five books are inspired by the theories of transformation and meaning by psychologists Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankl. In his latest book, WISDOM@WORK: The Making of a Modern Elder, Chip shares his experiences—as both mentor and unexpected intern—at Airbnb. Chip holds a BA and MBA from Stanford University, and an honorary doctorate in psychology from Saybrook University. He serves on the boards of the Burning Man Project and the Esalen Institute, where the Conley Library bears his name.

In your new book WISDOM@WORK: The Making of a Modern Elder, you write, “This is the perfect time for elders to make a comeback.” How so?

Chip Conley: Power is cascading to young people (Millennials) like never before because of our increasing reliance on DQ (digital intelligence). Yet, we expect these young digital leaders to miraculously embody the relationship wisdoms we elders have had decades to learn. It’s hard to microwave your EQ (emotional intelligence) and leadership skills. So, pairing “modern elders” with young digital leaders can help them accelerate their skills to be more effective. Plus, Boomers are showing no sign that they want to retire like past generations and want to stay active.

As you explain, a Modern Elder differs from a “traditional elder” in being both a “mentor” and an “intern”—as you describe it, a “mentern”. Why should employers pay attention to what a “mentern” offers?

Chip Conley: There’s ample evidence that diversity on teams helps create more effective teams. But, as we think about diversity, it’s often exclusive to gender, race, sexual orientation, and maybe a couple of other demographics, but only 8% of companies globally that have a diversity and inclusion program have included age diversity in their strategy. And, yet, the cognitive diversity a company receives from having young, middle-aged, and older on a team together is vast.

'The cognitive diversity a company receives from having young, middle-aged, and older on a team together is vast.'Click To Tweet

Additionally, 75% of Millennials say they would love a mentor but they often feel stymied in finding one. In my opinion, the future is all about mutual mentorship in which wisdom is being shared in both directions from old to you and vice versa. At Airbnb, I often found that I was in an EQ for DQ implicit trade agreement with Millennials in which I was offering them emotional awareness and they were offering me digital skills.

'In my opinion, the future is all about mutual mentorship in which wisdom is being shared in both directions from old to you and vice versa.'Click To Tweet

Your home Silicon Valley is, of course, famous for “disruption”. Given the Valley’s particular obsession with youth, do you think it’s possible for it to take the lead in embracing the Modern Elder, or will this type of disruption happen elsewhere first?

Chip Conley: There are many high-profile examples (including Uber) of where investors in a fast-growing start-up should have brought in some senior leaders with experience and good judgment to match them with the brilliant young disruptors. We’re seeing more and more investors look at this as a natural process of company growth, but the key is that the “modern elders” need to be as curious as they are wise. Curiosity opens up the possibilities while wisdom distills down what’s essential and important.

At a time when the unemployment rate in the Valley is so low, it’s a natural for tech companies to look at how they can attract seasoned veterans who are interested in repurposing their experience with new companies.

Which part of our Respectful Exits Longevity Agenda most resonates with you, and why?

Chip Conley: I like the intentionality of tapping into the wisdom of older workers such that they almost become internal “wisdom workers” or coaches. If, at age 60, I knew that I would move from full-time to 40% or 60% time (and have my salary prorated accordingly), I could prepare for this and start developing a journal of wisdom that I could share with the company when I graduate into this role.

Google is famous for the intentionality of their 20 percent time for engineers who have an entrepreneurial idea they want to pursue (so they cut back their workload to allocate 20 percent of their time to these self-directed projects). Similarly, a 60-year-old worker could start allocating a certain amount of their time (maybe 20%) toward learning how to coach or be a “wisdom worker” such that by the phase-down their time commitment to the company to just two or three days a week, they have some skills that make them valuable to the company.

Our tool “ThePhazer” gives aging workers step-by-step guidance to request and obtain extended work and flexible and phased retirement options. From your experience in leadership positions for large companies, how can employees benefit from having this type of help navigating a request for phased retirement?

Chip Conley: Our current process of retirement doesn’t serve either the company or the older employee. To be a 100% employee on a Friday and a 100% retiree (0% employee) on Monday is cruel and unusual punishment and may accelerate poor health conditions since so much of our social life comes from the workplace.

'To be a 100% employee on a Friday and a 100% retiree (0% employee) on Monday is cruel and unusual punishment and may accelerate poor health conditions since so much of our social life comes from the workplace.'Click To Tweet

A large percentage of Boomers say they would like to work part-time during their retirement years and, of course, these, often, long-time employees have institutional knowledge that could serve the company well. It also allows the company to prorate the higher salaries of these older workers to a level that makes it a strong ROI for the company.

photo credit: Lisa Keating