Chip Conley is an astoundingly talented human-being, and for me, the very model of a CEO who built an organization that strikes a balance between performance and humanity, or as IDEO's David Kelley puts it, between love and money. Shortly after graduating from the Stanford Business School, at the age of 26, he started a 25 year quest to build what has become one of America's most successful boutique hotel chains, Joie de Vivre. It is now some 40 hotels strong -- and each property has its own personality from very first in the chain, the rock and roll themed Pheonix in San Francisco to the upscale and rugged beautiful Ventana Inn located in Big Sur, California.
I've been lucky enough to get to know to Chip a bit over the past year, and have been struck repeatedly with his rare blend of emotionally sensitivity, business acumen, creativity, and generosity. Last week, we had Chip as a guest at the class on Scaling-Up Excellencee that Huggy Rao and I are teaching this term to business and engineering students at Stanford. Chip's stories about the method that he uses to develop a distinct brand identity for each property grabbed everyone in the room: They start by picking the magazine that best represents the experience that they want to design for guests, and then develop five words to summarize the feelings that go with it, and then design to that image. So, at the Phoenix, The Rolling Stone was the magazine they choose; for a more recent property (The Hotel Rex, I think), they choose The New Yorker. As Chip explained, this simple early choice helps guides hundreds of decisions about everything from the target market for the hotel to the kinds of unexpected delights they offer guests.
Chip blends this creative capitalism with impressive compassion and caring for his staff. I was most impressed when he reported that, after September 11 2001 when the hotel business was under siege, especially his hotels (in part, because of the French name -- he got a lot hate mail), rather than shutting hotels and doing layoffs, Chip and his top team decided to take the financial hit themselves and to protect their people the best they could. Indeed, while his top team top a huge cut, and Chip took a "salary sabbatical" for three years, not a single person was laid-off for lack of work. Now that is having people's backs! And much like when Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith defended their people during trying times, the resulting trust, loyalty, and psychologically safety has fueled the growth and spirit of the company. Chip is still heavily involved in chain, opening new properties and he still has a financial stake, but he sold a majority share of the company a couple years back and is now focused on writing wonderful books and speaking (he is one of the best speakers I've ever seen, if you get a chance, go and see him). Indeed, Chip started cranking out books when he was still CEO (a tough thing to do). with his most notable past book being Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.
The main reason I am writing this post is to point you to his new book, Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success. I am not sure I have ever seen a book quite like this, as I could not decide if it was business book or a self-help book when I started reading it. Ultimately, I realized it is both, and for Chip, dealing with and channelling his emotions is the key to his success as a leader and mentor and crucial to whether he travels through his days feeling or bad about himself.
Chip makes a mighty strong case -- using stories, dabs of research, and the lovely simply equations that fill the book -- to argue there are general principles that we can apply to ourselves and others to be better leaders and humans. Chip sees himself as "your emotional concierge" and the book as an "operating manual for being a super human being." He doesn't mean becoming superhuman, to him, that is a dangerous goal; rather, he means not allowing your emotions to get the best of you and instead finding ways "your emotions can represent the best in you."
Chip then presents a series of simply emotional equations and associated stories and advice, things like
Despair = Suffering - meaning
Happiness = Wanting What You Have/Having What You Want
Regret = Disappointment + Responsibility (think about that one)
Authenticity = Self-Awareness x Courage
Wisdom = The Square Root of Experience
I know, it seems silly on the surface. I frankly hesitated to read the book because I hate self-help books (being a psychology major for 10 years has made me cynical about them). Despite that, I just couldn't resist once I started reading the thing. The way that Chip frames these formulas, links them to the daily struggles every leader -- and every other person -- faces as they try to navigate through life, is done in such a compelling and helpful way that the result is the kind of read (and a weird from of useful therapy) that simply doesn't exist in any book I know. I am not the only one who is enjoying this book -- it is already on The New York Times bestseller list.
In the name of full disclosure, I did grow-up in California and I am a big fan of Chip's; but anyone who knows me will tell you I am the least "new age' guy you will ever meet. So you might be as surprised as I was by how instructive and comforting it was to read Chip's delightful and quirky book.
P.S. If you want a fun and quite accurate summary of the book's main idea, check out this "book trailer."