Rob Chesnut is a phenomenal leader, ethics officer, and human being. Before guiding companies in their ethics, he worked in the U.S. Justice Department for 14 years. When he began to feel that his work putting criminals away––mainly young people––was too negative, he took a leap of faith and sent an email that would change his career trajectory.
Rob Chesnut is the former Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb. He previously led eBay’s North America legal team, where he founded the Internet’s first ecommerce person-to-person platform Trust and Safety team. He was the general counsel at Chegg, Inc. for nearly 6 years. His book, Intentional Integrity, demonstrates how companies that do not think seriously about a crucial element of corporate culture―integrity―are destined to fail.
BRYAN WISH: What’s the One Away moment you want to share with us today?
ROBERT CHESNUT: For this one, I’m going to go back to my days as a federal prosecutor in Virginia. I was putting away bank robbers and drug dealers and spies in Northern Virginia. The job felt negative. It felt heavy. You’re putting away people for the rest of their lives in many cases; a lot of young people. I wanted to do something positive with my life. I wanted something where I felt I was really helping people as opposed to just being the one at the end to put them in prison. I started thinking, “What sort of a business could use someone with a federal prosecutor background?” I talked to a number of businesses.
They said, “Wow, you’re a great federal prosecutor but we don’t prosecute people.” What happened to me was I became an early adopter of the internet because we had this little company in my jurisdiction called AOL. In order to learn about the internet, because I kept getting questions about it at work, I got online. I started looking and using different companies. One of the companies I started using was eBay because I was into photography. My moment came one night around midnight. My wife was an FBI agent. She was out doing a search warrant. I was just waiting for the call that they got in and everything was okay. In that moment, it occurred to me, “Wow, maybe eBay could use somebody with a federal prosecutor’s background.”
I go online to eBay. I look up their jobs. They said they were in San Jose, California but I’d never been to San Jose. I wasn’t sure whether it was in Northern or Southern California. I figured it was California and couldn’t be too bad. They didn’t have any jobs on the website posted for lawyers but I didn’t let that stop me. I wrote a letter to eBay explaining why they’d have problems with illegal items, fraud, and regulation and why I could help them. I sent the email to jobs@eBay.com. My wife called, all good, and I went to bed. I went to work the next day and didn’t think twice. Thought I’d never hear anything again. I got home the next day and there was a message on the voicemail that they wanted to talk to me.
BRYAN WISH: Wow, what a story of vision, persistence, and threading a needle. I’m really curious what it was about eBay and you saying they’re going to have issues with these goods? What enabled you to be able to see and have the foresight to say this might be an opportunity for myself? They clearly weren’t thinking about that.
ROBERT CHESNUT: The first thing is persistence. What I didn’t tell you is how many different companies turned me down and how many rejection letters I got or how many never even bothered to write me back. Persistence is part of it. Part of it is I understood that companies want people who are bought into their mission, who understand them. I thought to myself, if I’m going to work somewhere, I should first be a customer and see if I like it because this is what I’m going to be doing when I go to work and spend hours and hours of my day. Let’s find out if I like it. Let’s understand them.
I read a book by someone on Oracle and Larry Ellison and decided that’s just not for me. I’d read and I’d use products. Then when I found something that resonated with me, that’s when I’d start to think about how my skillset could match with what they need. eBay, fortunately for me, when I joined, I was employee 107. They were still pretty small. They were already getting into trouble with regulators. In fact, they had just been subpoenaed over gun sales at the time that my email fell into their lap. I think part of it was good fortune, part of it was persistence, and part of it is really being a customer first. Seek to understand a place first before you apply there because what really impressed the folks at eBay was I was a user. I had more feedback than half the executive team at that point.
BRYAN WISH: That’s invaluable to go into a company and have a holistic understanding of the product, how to make changes, and then see it from the lens in which you were able to see it. As a kid, were there any experiences or stories that you look at where you were knocked down and you had to overcome?
ROBERT CHESNUT: I was a worker from an early age. If there was a roof over my head and there was food, I had it better than a lot of people. We didn’t have a lot in my house, by any means. My dad got ill when I was fairly young. If I wanted spending money, I was going to have to go out and earn it. At age 13, I got a job in a restaurant washing dishes. I could ride my bike to the restaurant. I was cutting grass from an early age and raking leaves and working at a department store and teaching tennis lessons. I think I was just industrious. It was really healthy for me to kind of learn the value of hard work. You’ve got to make it happen. It’s on you. I worry about my kids. I want to make sure I don’t do too much for them. If I did too much, I might be robbing them of the value of that experience.
BRYAN WISH: That’s got to be so hard.
ROBERT CHESNUT: It’s impossible. I spoil them but I question myself, as a parent, while I do it.
BRYAN WISH: Let’s take it to the eBay days. eBay left you a voicemail. Take us to that first interview or that first phone call that really opened the door. How did it go? What were the next steps?
ROBERT CHESNUT: I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know the ways of business. I was a federal prosecutor. I go out and there’s a woman by the name of Meg Whitman who takes me to dinner. That’s my recruiting dinner. I didn’t know who Meg Whitman was but I knew she was the CEO. Over dinner, she’s showing me these charts to show how the business is growing. I don’t know what they mean but I know they’re going up and to the right. That was a good thing.
They told me that they were profitable right from the beginning and that sounded good to me. One person met with me to explain how stock and equity worked. I had no idea how any of that worked. It was a great learning experience showing up at this company’s door. I was expecting bigger. I was thinking this was probably a pretty big company. I show up and they’re like on two floors of one building over in an office park. I’m thinking, do I really want to give up this secure government gig? But I did. I had a great time meeting all the folks at eBay but I didn’t know what I was doing but they gave me a job anyway.
BRYAN WISH: They gave you the job. You gave up security for a little risk and adventure. Was it a role you had to come in and design your own day-to-day? How much infrastructure was in place versus how much you had to come in and create what you were doing day-to-day?
ROBERT CHESNUT: There wasn’t much there. The first week, Meg looked at me and said, “Rob, you’re in charge of deciding what we can sell and what we can’t sell. All the rules globally. Go.” Back then, that wasn’t very clear. Could you sell alcohol? Could you sell tobacco? Could you sell guns? Could you sell ivory? How do you deal with transactions between different states like ticket scalping? There as a time where I got a phone call from a state attorney general in Florida who said, “You all are illegally scalping tickets to a football game in Florida.” I remember going online and I said, “Let me look.”
I said, “Tell me what ticket scalping law applies if the buyer is in Georgia, the seller is in Alabama, the game is played in Florida, and the servers are in California?” Then we both laughed because nobody knew. You had to figure out everything as you went. It wasn’t all organized. It was something I had to figure out. The culture was different. When I was a federal prosecutor, every month, if you wanted water like a water cooler, if you wanted to participate in the water cooler so that you could drink the good, fresh, clean water, you had to chip in a few bucks. If you wanted a cup of coffee, you had to put money in a can.
I show up my first day at eBay and there’s a coke machine. I reach in my pocket to get some money and I’m looking at the machine and I couldn’t find where to put the money. Somebody came walking by and I said, “Can you help me? Where do I put my money in here?” They about fell on the floor laughing. They looked at me and said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want a coke.” The reached out, hit the button, and out came the coke. I thought I was in heaven when I found out there were free bagels on Wednesday. For someone working for the federal government, it was completely different and a lot of fun. We didn’t have a ping pong table yet but that came later.
BRYAN WISH: What I find so neat is eBay has thousands or millions of products today and you were responsible for overseeing what could be sold and what couldn’t be sold. That’s more external. You came from a trial and prosecuting world. You were able to oversee a company with a couple hundred people and their internal infrastructure, ethics, and how they operated. I’m curious what you noticed, were looking into, and were aware of from a cultural level and ethical level within the business.
ROBERT CHESNUT: What I learned is that it starts at the top. The personality and the character of the leader sets a tone that everyone in the company adopts. Integrity is contagious. So is a lack of integrity. The main carrier is the leader. I spent time with Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll. They were the founders. They were there going to work every day. We would go over to Boston Market and get lunch together. Meg Whitman was there every day. I noticed that these were people of good character. They genuinely cared about the community. They were genuinely trying to build something that was good for the world. Meg looked at me right at the beginning and said, “You decide what we can sell and what we can’t sell.” She said, “I want you to help figure out where the line is and we’re going to take one healthy step away from that line.” Coming from my background, that was great because I didn’t want to go to jail. I appreciated the fact that the culture was very much, “Do the right thing.”
BRYAN WISH: Give an example of something that was too close to the line.
ROBERT CHESNUT: I’ll never forget my first week. Somebody in customer support reaches out to me and they said, “Rob, I’ve got an email to send you. Tell us what to do.” They send me this email from a user who said, “You all are going to jail because you’re selling jarts.” I’m like, “Jarts? What’s a jart?” I didn’t want to go to jail and so, I start going on the internet and I look up and find that a jart was something that was also known as a lawn dart. It was a toy but it had these big, plastic fins and the metal tip. Some genius, back in the 80s or 70s, had put out this game where your kids would throw these big finned darts into these circles on the lawn. The problem, of course, was kids being kids. They wouldn’t just throw it in circles on the lawn.
They’d throw it at each other. Kids were showing up in emergency rooms with these big darts sticking out of different parts of their body. The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned these things. I remember thinking, “Oh man, some dummy is putting this on our site. I better make sure we take this down.” I go onto eBay and we didn’t have one set of jarts. We had over 20. That’s when it occurred to me I didn’t have a jarts problem. I had a problem with every item, every baby toy, every power tool that had ever been banned by the government for safety issues. The enormity of it really struck me. How in the world would we know what to do here because people are clearing out their garage? They’re clearing out their attic and putting everything on eBay and we don’t know what’s banned or not.
I did something that I think someone with a business background would never have done but someone with my background, it made sense to me. I picked up the phone and called the Consumer Products Safety Commission and said, “Can I come out and meet with you?” They were a little curious. They said, “Sure.” I get on a plane. I fly to Washington D.C. I meet with the head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission and I bring them a copy of the jart listings. Most companies would never do this. They’d be panicked. You’re turning over evidence to the government. I trusted the government. I said, “Look, we really care about our users. We don’t want our users to get hurt. They’re going to be selling these things somewhere no matter what. We don’t want them sold on eBay. We want to educate and help people. Why don’t we form a partnership? Why don’t we work together to educate people? We’ll give you free space on eBay. We’ll put up free warning messages. You just tell us what the most common recalled items are and be a resource for us when questions come up.” They thought this was a fine idea.
The head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission did a tour of all the TV morning shows to talk about how they were using this new powerful tool called the internet and working with this young, hot internet company to teach consumers about safety. It worked well for them. It worked well for eBay. To this day, eBay has never gotten in any legal trouble for it. eBay takes down, I’m sure, hundreds of items every day that are banned because they’ve got such a good, cooperative relationship with the government.
BRYAN WISH: Wow. What an innovative way to look at how to work across the board and form a partnership. By what you did, you almost got the government working for you to help you.
ROBERT CHESNUT: Yeah, it was their job and ours. It was their job and it was our responsibility. You hear that phrase, “We’re only a platform. We only run the computers here. We’re not really responsible.” That attitude doesn’t sit well with people. They want you to care. They don’t expect you to be perfect but they expect you to try. I really felt as though our users would expect us to do that and want us to do that. It was a way I thought would protect our brand and protect our community.
BRYAN WISH: You said it would protect our brand. I’m in space building. Brands for people. Most people don’t look at the correlation between the legal side and ethical side with brands. As a person building a brand, how do you think about ethics, portraying ethics, and being intentional about how you go about that?
ROBERT CHESNUT: I think the world is changing. With the internet has come a new connected world where people and consumers are empowered. If you work for a company today, you want more than a paycheck. You want to work at a place you’re proud of. You want to work at a place that has values aligned with your own. You want to feel like you’re doing good in the world. Consumers are the same way. Consumers want to do business with companies that have values aligned with their own. We live in an age of conscious consumerism. All the data shows that just in the last 10 years, the needle is swung way over. Now 80% of consumers call themselves values-conscious. They care about the values of the places they do business.
What we found is that companies that care about values, that are perceived to have values and integrity outperform the stock market and outperform their competitors. In the old days, it used to be business is a dog eat dog world. You can’t worry about being nice. Today, I think, you can’t really achieve your full potential as a business unless you’re thinking about how your business does good in the world, what your company’s values are because that’s how you’re going to attract the best employees today. That’s how you’re going to get brand loyalty. Businesses are slowly coming to this recognition that it’s not just all about money and not all about a short-term perspective. It’s about a longer term perspective and doing the right thing. Ultimately, that’s the better path to long-term success.
BRYAN WISH: Your book Intentional Integrity has come out. You said people want to work for companies that lead first with their values; values that they align with. From what you’ve written, researched, and learned over the decades of your experience, what are companies doing? What can companies do today to really lead first with those values, show their consumers they’re doing that, to attract great talent, to keep customers aligned to their brand? What have you noticed?
ROBERT CHESNUT: First, you have to know who you are. What’s your North Star? What does your company exist? Why is it good for the world? Can you answer that question about your company? If you haven’t defined it and put it on the wall and talked to employees about it, then you’re missing out because profit is not purpose. You need a greater purpose than just making money. What is it? Once you understand that, you’ve got to be able to articulate it to your employees and articulate it to your customers. That’s how you get loyalty both from inside and outside the company. Too many times, people are rushing into business and thinking that it’s only about how can I make money? Yes, you need to make money because otherwise, the business can’t exist but you’ve got to think bigger than that. You’ve got to think why is my company good for the world? You’ve got to slow down for a minute and define that North Star, define that purpose.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s go to Airbnb. I thought, when I first saw Airbnb, “Oh, I get it. They’re like eBay. They’re taking advantage of underutilized resources, something that somebody else isn’t using. Underutilized space.” I get to the company and start interviewing at the company. I find that I’ve got it all wrong. The mission of the company is to connect people. The mission of the company is to connect people from different backgrounds and different cultures through encouraging immersive travel. Instead of traveling and going to stay in a westernized hotel and having coffee at Starbucks, you’re actually staying in a neighborhood and meeting people who really live there and getting to know them. That’s why Airbnb exists. Now that they define that both internally and externally, you now have to make decisions based on that.
My first month at Airbnb, news stories start coming out that guests of color were being discriminated against. That blacks and other users of colors are being turned down when they ask to stay at a place. A movement grew up out of it. There was a #AirbnbWhileBlack where people started telling storis of being discriminated against. I’m the lawyer. I’m the general council at Airbnb. I go off and do my legal research. What is Airbnb’s legal responsibility? Airbnb doesn’t encourage discrimination. Airbnb, in fact, says on the website not to discriminate. Is Airbnb legally responsible when these lawsuits start coming in? Do discrimination housing laws even apply to Airbnb? It’s a private home. I go do my research. I go have my first big meeting as general council with Brian Chesky, founder/CEO of Airbnb.
I sit down with Brian and I start going through the law. Brian holds up his hand to me and says, “Stop. I don’t care.” I said, “What do you mean you don’t care?” Brian said, “Rob, you got to understand that Airbnb’s mission is to connect people. It’s to help people feel like they belong in a different place and help them connect with the local community. Rob, if people are truly being discriminated against because of the color of their skin on our website, we are failing as a company. It doesn’t matter what this quarter’s numbers look like. We’re failing.”
Brian looked at me and said, “Rob, we’re going to fix this. I don’t care what it costs. We’re going to fix it because we’ve got to.” That was it. Airbnb put together a big internal team. They partnered with external groups. They’ve implemented a number of changes to the site that have gone a long way to reducing discrimination on Airbnb; some of it at a cost. I remember one thing we did. We actually put up an intermediary screen that said, “I will accept all regardless of the color of their skin, their nationality, their religion, their sexual preference. Yes, I agree or no, I don’t agree.” That wasn’t the law but Brian said, “I don’t care.” We said, “Brian, we’ll probably have some people that won’t agree to this.” He said, “I don’t care.” We lost 1.1% of our users in 30 days. Gone, just like that. Their bookings, everything gone. Brian said, “I don’t care.”
To the point I made earlier, I think Airbnb’s brand and their business will be much stronger in the long run for having taken a stand like this. We didn’t do the right thing for this quarter’s numbers. We looked and understood our mission and we acted and did the right thing according to the mission. We let the chips fall where they will fall in the long run. Ultimately, the company is doing extremely well and I think will continue to do well.
BRYAN WISH: You said ethics start at the founder level. Brian said, “Let’s build a more inclusive culture for everyone that fits our mission for belonging. If it takes a short-term loss, so what.”
ROBERT CHESNUT: Brian always uses the Gretzky quote, “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.” You could see where the world was moving. The way the world’s been moving inspired and motivated Brian, Joe, and Nate to start the company. That dictates the decisions that are made at the company.
BRYAN WISH: Your career has had a lineage of being in similar positions. I’m sure different things across the board. I’m curious when you look at what you’ve done, what you stand for, and even the book that you’ve written. Are there any stories that stick out that need to be shared where you played a pivotal role in changing the course of poor ethics internally or instituting a policy that really changed the shape of how a company operated? Does anything stick out to you?
ROBERT CHESNUT: About 6-7 years ago, the MeToo Movement emerged. A number of problems came out about Uber. I remember reading the MeToo stories, reading the issues at Uber. Uber is right down the street from us at Airbnb. I remember thinking all these companies, all these leaders are having problems at all these different places. The world is really changing. By the way, it’s a good thing but these problems could happen anywhere. We could have problems at Airbnb. Somebody really ought to do something about this. Then I thought for a minute and said, “I wonder who that someone would be?” Then I realized I was a general council. I was the one who got to deal with these problems when they arose.
Why not proactively do something about it to set the tone? Change or set the culture so that sort of thing wouldn’t happen. I remember again talking to Brian. We didn’t have any answers that first day. But Brian looked at me and in typical Brian fashion, he said, “Go big.” I said, “Alright, we’ll do it.” We started an integrity program at the company. Silence is the enemy of integrity. In cultures where no one talks about integrity, that’s where you have problems. Integrity is contagious. If leaders talk about it and then their actions match what their words are, that inspires everyone else. Leaders are the thermostat for integrity. Leaders, by their words and actions, change the temperature of a company; the environment where everyone lives. What we needed to do is we needed to have a conversation about it.
I was thinking, where do companies talk about integrity? We’ve got a code of ethics but the code of ethics is usually something that a law firm mails over to you or you go online and you find another company’s code of ethics and you copy and paste it and put your company’s name at the top. Then you email it out to everybody and say, “Check a box that you’ve read it.” Well, you’re not changing a culture that way. Everybody knows that all you’re doing is satisfying a lawyer or those compliance posters in the breakroom. The ones in the tiny 4 point font that are off in the corner by the dripping pipes that nobody reads, that doesn’t change it. If you want to change the culture, you’ve got to be human and authentic and leaders have to actually do it.
Part of the integrity program that we built, I’d go to every new hire orientation class, every week. All the new employees for Airbnb would come to San Francisco and they’d get a week of training. 25 classes. It became 26. I said, “I want to talk about integrity to the new people.” They said, “Oh, Rob, a lawyer talking about integrity for an hour? We’re not trying to drive these people away in their first week. Come on.” I said, “No, I think we can make this interesting and relevant.” They do blind surveys at the end. The integrity class became the number one ranked class out of all orientation. Beating out even the history of Airbnb which no one thought would ever be beat. The comments people got in the surveys were things like, “I’ve never been at a company that actually talked about this as being an important value. I didn’t think this stuff was actually interesting. I never thought about it.
It means so much to have a leader come in and talk about this to us.” It resonated with people. We did a number of things like that. It became a topic of conversation. We did little 3-minute, funny videos about integrity. Leaders would appear in these videos. People would voluntarily watching. We didn’t require people to watch them. We just sent them out. We’d get over 2,500 employees voluntarily watching an ethics video. It became a part of what we were as a company and a culture. The company is far les likely to have those sorts of issues because it’s something that leaders actually talk about.
BRYAN WISH: It’s the actions. It’s the internal precedence that the people at the top set. Things are brought through the mainstream of the organization. You’ve been able to work with great leaders and also able to be part of inflicting those changes into the undertones of companies through your background and expertise. How cool. What rewarding roles you’ve shared and been able to build internally at companies. If you’re a company today of 10 employees or 100 employees, if you were to go into any of those companies, what are the issues? Where would you orient the compass? What are the things that need to be fundamentally thought about right now in today’s times to make sure companies are aligning their values to where the world is going?
ROBERT CHESNUT: From employee 1, it’s got to start with purpose, North Star, defining it. Why does this company exist? Why is it good for the world? You need to have that figured out right from the very beginning. For the one employee task, that’s write what your company’s purpose is. Write your North Star out. It might be one sentence and that’s fine. Hewlett Packard did a page. Great. You’ve got to do that and you’ve got to do it early on. You’ve got to think about diversity early on. Too many times, people talk about diversity just as a good thing to do. In reality, it’s a lot more than that.
Diverse teams com to better solutions faster than homogeneous teams. There’s a lot of scientific data. There’s a guy by the name of Matthew Syed who did a book Radical Minds. It’s about this idea that a team of people with diverse backgrounds, diverse thinking, diverse life experiences, they bring more to the table. I don’t want to walk into a room with five people that look like me because chances are, we’re going to miss something. I’ve never been discriminated against in my life but if I’m not in a room with people who have been discriminated against, I’m going to miss things that I need to understand in order to build a company properly.
If you start thinking about diversity when you’re 1,000 people is it’s really hard to catch up. Diversity is something that I’d be thinking about when you get to 10 employees because when you’re at 1,000, if you’ve got 1,000 people and you’re hiring 100 a year, you have a hard time changing the makeup of your company from a gender perspective and a race perspective. It’s really hard because you’re not hiring enough people. That’d be another one I’d be thinking about.
BRYAN WISH: You’re approaching it from an early stage company. What is the optimal infrastructure that’s going to guide the company for the long-term? What’s the North Star? Also, you talked about diversity. With our company, we brought in a diversity consultant in January. It’s shifted so many things internally. You can’t see it quite externally yet but you’re absolutely right. Being a smaller company and being more nimble, you have the ability to make more swift changes to the underlying infrastructure of what you’re doing.
ROBERT CHESNUT: I’m going to add one more. That is who are your stakeholders? I think for so long, companies operated under this idea that there was only one stakeholder. That stakeholder was your shareholders, your investors. Milton Friedman encouraged this thinking. Whatever is good for the shareholder, that’s what you have to do. In fact, you had to do that. You had no choice. That was what was “ethical.” The problem is if you only are thinking about your shareholder, you’ll do things that are actually bad for your company because you’re thinking about your North Star is the stock price. You might dump a lot of carbon into the air.
Oh, that doesn’t matter because fixing it would hurt our shareholders. Or you might do business with a company on the other side of the world that mistreats its employees. Or you might dump a lot of bad stuff in the river next to your factory. You might say, “I’m just thinking about my shareholders.” The truth is that a modern company needs to think about stakeholders. The stakeholders are who is it that you owe something to? Who are the people that you need to be thinking about whenever you make significant decisions?
At Airbnb, everybody in the company knows who the five stakeholders are. The five stakeholders are guests, hosts, investors, employees of Airbnb, and the world at large. We felt as though we owed something, not in a legal sense, but in a bigger sense of why we exist. We owe something to all five groups. If we make a decision, we are always thinking about what’s the impact on all five? Sure, there are times when you make a decision that’s good for one or two stakeholders and not for others but if you’re consistently making decisions that exclude or ignore one of those stakeholders, then you’re not operating properly. That doesn’t have integrity.
Another thing I’d have companies thinking about, from the early days, is who are my stakeholders? Who do I want to be thinking about when I make decisions? Then what metrics are you going to use to make sure that each of them are healthy? I think if Uber had thought of their drivers as stakeholders, right from the beginning, I think they would have operated differently and probably avoided a whole lot of problems. That’s just one example.
BRYAN WISH: I don’t think a lot of early companies, until it’s too late, give this thought. I appreciate your perspective at such a high level. This has been a fascinating conversation. I want to talk about your book Intentional Integrity. What’s it about? Why did you write it? Who did you write it for?
ROBERT CHESNUT: The funny thing is we’ve been talking about my book for the entire hour. The book’s not Plato and Socrates. The book is stories from everything from when I was a prosecutor through eBay and Chegg and Airbnb. All written through the lens of what is integrity and how do you operate with integrity as a business? Why is it actually the best course for you to take as a business?
I was never planning on writing a book. After we did an integrity program at Airbnb, I was telling my wife about it. My wife is a venture capitalist but earlier in her career, she’d been in the publishing industry. She started hearing this. She was like, “You’ve got to write a book. You’ve got to share this with other people.” I’m like, “I don’t have time. I’m a general council. I’m not a writer. I don’t want to do that.” She’s like, “No, you built this great program at Airbnb. Thousands of companies need to be doing this. This is the way all companies need to operate. The way they’ll find out about it is a book.” I said, “Yeah, I know, honey, but I don’t have time.” She said, “I’ll get you a writer and I’ll get you a major publisher to publish the book if you’ll do it.” I said, “Oh yeah. Alright, honey. Y
ou get me a writer and a major publishing deal and I’ll do it.” Of course, my wife, within two months, had a writer and a major publishing deal for me. I sort of went into it begrudgingly. I remember telling the writer, “I’m going to give you Monday nights from 6PM until 10PM. Then you’ll go all through the week and write.” That’s what we did for over a year. By the time I was done with the project, I loved it. I learned so much. You think, when you write a book, that you know everything and you’re going to share it with everybody. In reality, writing a book is itself a learning journey.
You have to think, “I can’t just say that. I kind of need to get another perspective or some proof.” I ended up going on a meeting with a lot of interesting people from all walks of life because I believed in diversity. I spent time hanging out with Carlos Santana who is a big believer in integrity. Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA. Eric Holder, former attorney general. So many interesting people who sort of helped me. Dan Ariely, who is a fantastic behavioral scientist from Duke University. I ended up learning a ton in the entire project and putting it all in the books. What a wonderful experience I’ve had.
BRYAN WISH: That’s fantastic. I just watched Carlos Santana’s MasterClass on creating music with flow because I’m learning the guitar. What a charismatic individual.
ROBERT CHESNUT: What a wonderful man. I’ve really enjoyed my time with him.
BRYAN WISH: It’s so cool that you brought in all these diverse perspectives. What do you think you learned about yourself most by writing the book?
ROBERT CHESNUT: I think the book helped me understand myself better. What I learned is that rules had been sort of a theme throughout my life. I tell a story about my mom in the book and how she went back into the grocery store with me when I was young to return money to the cashier because the cashier had given her too much change and how that impacted me.
As a prosecutor, rules were important. I think it also caused me to think more deeply about what integrity means and how hard it is. Nobody is perfect. We’re all human. Integrity is not perfection. Integrity is about an intentional journey, about defining a North Star, and what integrity means for you. Then even when you fall off the horse, which you’re going to do, having the self-awareness to recognize that you’ve fallen and admit it and pick back up and go again.
I think it really helped me understand my life journey a little bit. My North Star, in writing the book, is to influence business. I think there are too many people living under this old concept of businesses all about just making money and it’s dog eat dog. I think they’re not reaching their full potential as a business and frankly, I think the world needs business to step up and take on more than just making money. I think if they do it, they’ll find that they’re more successful and the world will be a better place. That’s what I’m after.
BRYAN WISH: I love the intentionality behind the book. You have this vivacious personality that comes through. You glow when you talk. This has been a fun conversation. I learned a lot. Where can people find you, connect, buy the book, and get to know a little bit more about you and your career?
ROBERT CHESNUT: The book is available everywhere. It’s called Intentional Integrity. Brian, we’re in luck. I actually have a copy of it here. It just came out in paperback with a snazzy, new, red cover. The original hardback is a very nice, white cover but I like this paperback that just came out. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all fine bookstores. I love local bookstores.
You can reach out to me through LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn just about every day doing a post about integrity in business. I always love hearing from people through LinkedIn. Reach out and connect with me there. There’s also the inevitable website. Mine is www.intentionalintegrity.com.
BRYAN WISH: Can’t wait to keep following you on the journey. Best of luck. Thanks for all the great work you’ve done in the world and are continuing to do. Excited for the book and the venture it takes you down.