The man who turned AIRBNB into a West Coast White House.

Former political consultant Chris Lehane has a reputation for being aggressive. Nevertheless, since joining Airbnb, he’s become the company’s second most influential executive, behind CEO Brian Chesky. Right now, though, the public affairs executive is facing the toughest challenge of his career: helping the company weather the devastating new crown pandemic and make it to market.

Chris Lehane is not happy. Lawrence Tosi, the chief financial officer of Airbnb, has accused Lehane of spending millions of dollars on the company before he even signed off on it. But Lehane argued that he didn’t need Tosi’s approval to spend the money.

Finally, one morning in 2017, the two clashed head-on in the parking lot behind Airbnb’s headquarters. Colleagues saw Lehane yell at Tosi and then walk away from the CFO in a huff. Multiple people familiar with the incident said it has become an internal Airbnb legend. One of them said some employees who witnessed the scene were still in shock when they returned to the office. “Ah, the famous parking lot incident,” said one current senior employee.

It wasn’t Lehane’s first run-in with a colleague. He often argues with others in Airbnb’s senior leadership team over financial and strategic issues, but those arguments are usually less heated, too. Most of the time, Lehane always won the argument, said current and former colleagues, thanks to his adept navigating of internal politics and his keen instinct to see the way the startup was viewed from an outsider’s perspective. His ability to anticipate and manage public relations crises, as well as his years of experience as a political consultant, made Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky look at him differently. As it turns out, Chesky has grown to rely on the 53-year-old executive as he plans the company’s future.

A number of Airbnb executives, including Tosi, have left the company over the years, either because they were unhappy with their declining influence at the company or because they were unhappy with the company’s direction. But Lehane has stuck around. He’s now the most senior member of the executive team besides Chesky and the two co-founders; and, arguably, the most influential executive since Chesky. As Airbnb struggled during the neo-crown virus pandemic, Lehane still played a central role. The epidemic hit Airbnb’s homestay business hard this spring and overshadowed the company’s planned IPO scheduled for late this fall.

Lehane’s prolonged presence has been a source of distress for some of Airbnb’s current and former colleagues. The company has repeatedly preached the concepts of community and trust, and built a highly successful global brand based on them. Within the company, however, there was one executive who described himself as a “disaster-buster”. Inspired by his political career, the executive also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie “Dagger Club” and has never been afraid to speak negatively about political opponents. Eight former employees said they found it difficult to work with Lehane, in part because they couldn’t identify with Lehane’s hardline tactics.

In a statement, Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nardi said the description of the parking lot incident between Lehane and Tosi was “inaccurate.


Policy Machine

Lehane’s public policy team has been grappling with ongoing opposition to the company’s expansion into popular tourist cities. Local residents and officials argue that Airbnb is absorbing housing from the city’s real estate market and jacking up rents.

But Lehane’s defenders argue that he has succeeded in building a modern media and political machine within Airbnb. Under Lehane’s watch, Airbnb, a relatively young company, had a way of addressing some very strict regulations. These regulations may or may not have been killing the company’s business in certain metropolitan areas. At the same time, his supporters also say that his addition brings decisiveness to a management team that has always been hesitant to make decisions at critical times.

For five years, Casey Aden-Wansbury reported to Lehane, who ended up at Airbnb in her role as director of federal affairs. She said: “He showed the way for what an active and positive policy team within a tech company should look like. No one had ever tried that before, but he tried and it worked. Others are now emulating his approach.” Earlier this year, Arden Wansbury left Airbnb to run government affairs at Instacart, a grocery delivery company.

Lehane declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the company’s upcoming IPO. The article interviewed 40 people with knowledge of the company who have worked with or against Lehane.


Crisis managers

The new crown pandemic has hit Airbnb hard, with revenues plummeting in the spring quarter this year, forcing the company to fire nearly a quarter of its employees. But the turmoil is highlighting Lehane’s strengths as a crisis manager. Lehane joined Airbnb in 2015 after a career in politics, government and public relations, working briefly for Bill Clinton’s White House to help Clinton rebut allegations of misconduct.

As the neo-crown pandemic erupted around the world and trips were cancelled in March, Lehane sent a five-page memo, entitled “The Four Stages,” to his staff for the crisis. The memo laid out how the company should turn the pandemic from a crisis into an opportunity to improve Airbnb’s brand image. Lehane writes that the strategy will include “a synchronized offensive and defensive approach to business and consumer media, such as aggressively promoting a responsible image of Airbnb and carefully telling the story of Airbnb’s gradual return to normalcy.”

In the memo, he also mentions that Chesky should visit symbolic locations, such as Wuhan, in the fall to show that “travel is critical to a sense of belonging and happiness.” However, the continuing deterioration of the epidemic has scuttled that idea.

So far, however, most of Lehane’s strategies seem to be working. Despite the lack of concrete data, reports on Airbnb over the past few months have been telling of a gradual recovery for the company.

Lehane has been exposed to politics since childhood. He was born into a middle-class family in southern Maine. There were three siblings in the family, and he was the eldest. Over dinner, the family would often discuss matters of national importance. LeHaan grew up reading history books and his favorite team was the Boston Celtics. Despite being only 1.7 meters tall, he became captain of his high school basketball team. He later said in an interview that he was so competitive at the time that he would lock himself in his house if he lost a game.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, Lehane went to work in the White House Counsel’s office, in the middle of President Clinton’s first term and embroiled in scandal. Lehane wrote a memo outlining a “right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons, a term Hillary Clinton would later use to defend her husband.

Lehane proved to have a real talent for providing “counterpunch” to the media. “Chris is a very competitive person, and that’s what we need,” said Joe Lockhart, who served as Clinton’s deputy press spokesman in 1996.

LeHaan also dismissed early reports of Clinton’s extramarital affair. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the scandal – the Lewinsky scandal – came to light. But by that time, Lehane had changed jobs, serving as a press spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. At the time, Gore was preparing to run for president. Lehane later joined the campaign.

In 2003, Lehane briefly joined the overall campaign of Senator John Kerry. According to reports at the time, Lehane dropped out of the campaign after failing to convince Kerry to take more aggressive measures against his Democratic primary opponent. Later, he also schemed for Admiral Wesley Clark’s presidential campaign, which was Lehane’s last involvement in presidential campaign matters.

Lehane then ran a crisis-consulting firm in California with former White House colleague Mark Fabiani, keeping it small and lean. “He seemed to run the firm by himself. I don’t know if he had assistants,” says Lehane’s friend, billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer. Their clients include Goldman Sachs and Lance Armstrong, among others.


accept death at face value

In 2014, Lehane began consulting for Airbnb. A year later, he joined Airbnb full time and was responsible for policy and communications. Prior to Lehane, Airbnb’s policy and communications were in two separate positions. Lehane was, in a manner of speaking, on call. At the time, a referendum was brewing in San Francisco, where Airbnb is headquartered, to limit the number of nights local Airbnb hosts could rent out their homes, and Airbnb spent only $8 million to easily dismantle the initiative.

Lehane convinced Airbnb executives that if they wanted to avoid similar threats elsewhere, the company would need to expand its policy and public relations team.In 2015, Airbnb had just 15 full-time policy employees, and by the eve of the outbreak, the number had grown to more than 200. Lehane also created a separate marketing team to focus on political campaigns. The team’s budget totals nearly $100 million, and the team’s aggressive hiring and advertising blitz has drawn the ire of other executives at the company, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

In the matter of the team’s hiring, LeHaan moved in with former President Barack Obama’s administration. “At one point, we joked that Airbnb was the White House of the West Coast,” said Nick Shapiro. Between 2015 and 2019, Shapiro served as Airbnb’s global head of crisis management, reporting to Lehane. Today, Shapiro manages his own consulting firm.

From Lehane’s day-to-day style, you’d be hard-pressed to associate him with a hardcore fighter. He’s a bit more informal and often encourages young employees who are eager to learn. His goofy daddy sense of humor and light-heartedness make it easy to not notice his strength. He also gives many employees nicknames, mostly sports-related, and sends text messages with emoticons. Employees send him action plan emails, and if he approves them, he usually replies with just one word: “Strong!”

But not all employees are used to his style. They felt uncomfortable with an atmosphere that smacked of clubbing and machismo. Three former co-workers said he often talked about others in meetings. Another said Lehane had received formal feedback that people wanted him to stop using nicknames and emojis. He did so.

The relationship between the two men, Lehane and Chesky, has grown closer as Airbnb has faced increasing external pressure. The two men communicate regularly, sometimes talking on the phone for hours on end. In early 2018, Chesky wrote an open letter calling for Airbnb to be made into a so-called “infinite” company. “We believe that a company should fight for the next century, not the next quarter,” he wrote.

Soon after, history buff Lehane held a press conference at Airbnb’s headquarters to speak about the political development of Airbnb. He drew parallels between Airbnb’s open platform and the concept of federalism that the Founding Fathers of the United States wrote into the Constitution.

Airbnb’s isolation in the political arena further increases Lehane’s importance within the company. Some employees worry that the company’s entire business may be untenable if too many cities decide to strictly enforce zoning codes. Opposition from hotel unions has also intensified. They oppose the threat that Airbnb hosts pose to the hotel business. Unlike hotels, Airbnb hosts are not required to be licensed or subject to strict safety regulations when renting out rooms. Affordable housing advocates, as well as neighbors who are fed up with the party noise coming from Airbnb rentals, have joined Airbnb’s boycott.

Airbnb successfully defused some of the most troublesome of these proposals, claiming that short-term rentals would help the city raise taxes as well as provide needed revenue for individual landlords. Lehane also tries to get in good with elected government officials. Sometimes, employees see him accompanying the mayor of a major U.S. city as he walks into and out of his San Francisco office.


by hook or by crook

Lehane’s job is to strike deals with cities, to be the local formalization of Airbnb’s business, even if that means agreeing to some new regulations that could affect the company’s growth. But the nature of full time, whole house rentals offered by real estate professionals is very different from a private room or house rented out while a homeowner is away on vacation, and makes Airbnb’s claims of helping individual middle class homeowners earn a little extra income more questionable.

In some major U.S. cities (such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago), labor organizations have significant political clout. Lehane fought these unions tooth and nail. Sources say that in 2016, Peter Ward, head of the influential New York hotel union, complained to Airbnb executives about Lehane’s tactics. At one point, Lehane’s team provided the New York Daily News with the address of a home in Ward’s name, and the paper later broke the story that the top union boss owned several vacation properties.

“The tactics were so dirty,” said Neil Kwatra, a policy strategist for the New York Hotel Guild, “shameless.”

Lehane’s job has also put him at odds with his own sister’s viewpoint. Eileen Lehane works in public affairs for a construction union in California. She says she and her brother were close, but they never discussed labor issues.

“We disagree on this issue,” she says, “but sometimes family ties are more important than politics.”

Last year, Airbnb seemed to be losing ground in the public relations arena. Stricter regulations were enacted in some key markets, as well as barely flat or down year-over-year revenues in markets such as Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and San Francisco, according to estimates by AirDNA, which follows Airbnb’s business.

More trouble lies ahead. In cities like San Francisco, New York and Santa Monica, California, Airbnb ended a series of court cases that forced the company or hosts on the platform to reduce the number of rentable homes listed on Airbnb’s website. Paris is one of the company’s biggest markets. But there, residents may soon be voting on new rules limiting Airbnb’s reach.

Even so, financial documents show that in 2019, Airbnb’s global revenue is still up 32 percent. Most of the growth came from some of Asia’s largest cities. Because of that, land-use policies in Asia are less complex and strict than in the U.S. and Europe. Company spokesman Nalti said Lehane’s help in developing rules in hundreds of cities around the world has created a stable regulatory environment for the company in the long run.

Since the outbreak, fewer people have been traveling to big cities, preferring instead small towns or rural areas. But Airbnb expects city travel to slowly recover after the outbreak ends.

In a June interview, Lehane said he wanted to be prepared and try to use the moment to regain the trust of cities.Airbnb recently launched a software tool designed to help local governments better track and manage short-term tenants. Meanwhile, Airbnb is also working to ban indoor parties after many parties in Airbnb rentals ended in violence.

“I don’t want to be misinterpreted – the epidemic is undoubtedly very bad,” he said, “but because people want to see the economy recover, it’s an opportunity to re-engage with some of the cities. “

But as long as the epidemic continues, Lehane said, “everyone in the travel industry, including us, will remain at a disadvantage.”