Alex Dimiziani on taking the road less travelled

Alex Dimiziani is Director of Marketing for the EMEA region at Airbnb. It's fair to say her career path has been far from traditional – a millennial before her time, if you will. She has ventured into advertising, marketing and journalism, but has worked across various categories including two years spent at an NGO. Layered on top of this is Alex's quest for new experiences, which has provided the perfect backdrop to the career choices she has made. She has an incredibly strong moral compass and a high bar for greatness. 

Alex at work, Airbnb

Alex at work, Airbnb

What did you want to be when you grew up? 
A writer, an actress, a lawyer, and my father’s boss’s boss. My first memory of mimicking a work situation or playacting a job was adapting Coca-Cola commercials for Asia when I was 5-years old. Part of me wishes I was joking, but I’m not.  There is cassette tape evidence somewhere in this world to prove it!

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Stephen Fry: Actor, writer, famous depressive, knowledgeable about just about everything and funny as hell. 
David Mitchell: Comedian, writer and political satirist genius. 
Edward Snowden: I’m not convinced that he is who we know him to be and I’d like to find out for myself. 
Tony Blair: I’d like to question him and his motives. I’d like to understand how someone lives with himself as a known war criminal responsible for the blood of an extraordinary number of innocents on his hands.  The same for Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, George Bush, Winston Churchill and many, many more. 

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, for two reasons:
1. The change in my reaction to it. It was on a syllabus when I was much younger and I remember really struggling to get through it and then several years later I picked it up and I couldn't put it down.
2. The ability to imagine and then describe, in intricate detail, a very niche twisted frame of mind.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I am so not one of those ‘Habits of Highly Effective People’ kind of ladies. Bedtime is varied and depends on my workload but generally around midnight.  Mornings are also somewhat varied as it depends on the children and their morning schedule, how late I was up the preceding night and my husband’s schedule. In the main, I’d say around 7am.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
I like Thursday. I usually start the week feeling quite calm. By Tuesday I'm feeling a lot of pressure, which mounts on Wednesday. And then I have this psychological release in my brain on Thursday with the realization of what's done is done, and then Friday is quite calm again. 

Can you briefly explain your career path to today?
Someone once described my career path as ‘lattice’, which I like so much better than ‘fickle’ or even ‘whoreish’.  Let’s go with lattice… 

I started in advertising very young. I had skipped a couple of grades growing up, so I graduated when I was 19. I started in Account Management and moved over to strategic planning. I did that for 5 years until one morning I woke up, opened my closet and saw suits from one side to the other and thought this isn't the person I was meant to be. 

I quit my job and went backpacking around the world for about a year. When I came back to New York I wanted to be in a situation where I could marry my marketing / communications experience with a social cause. I'd been confronted with extreme poverty in that year away and knew there must have been something I could do to help that situation. 

I joined another agency but worked primarily on National Geographic and The Economist. During my time there I found an NGO that is the world's leading social marketing organization. I submitted my CV with them and very quickly was hired to be the Marketing Director in Rwanda. I moved up quite quickly to become the Country Director of both Rwanda and Burundi.

It was a fascinating experience, two incredible years. I found public health as a subject matter so fascinating as well as the process and principles that we used to do our work. However, I got stuck in some pretty unusual situations. With civil unrest, volcanoes erupting, refugees etc. When I finished my contract I did not accept a renewal and instead moved to Paris and wrote a book that was half journalistic and half fiction in nature. I've never published that book because I received death threats. When I left Rwanda that was not the end of my being followed. I was monitored and surveilled for sometime after that.

About a year and a half into my experience in Paris I decided to go back into marketing and became a brand consultant with a US-based brand consultancy owned by Omnicom. I moved to London to reboot the European Division. About a year into that, I was seconded to a client to be their Global Marketing Director. I did not want to take the role as a permanent one. So I started another job search and quickly found Coca-Cola where I was interviewed and hired by a woman at the time who was the Chief Creative Officer and I moved to Atlanta as Global Creative Director (Still Beverages, New Products & CSR).

I was single and Atlanta was probably not my favorite geographical location and so I moved back to London where I was accepted into a program for only 14 people at City University and got a Masters in Investigative Journalism over the course of two years. During that time I met my husband and had my son shortly after I got my Masters Degree. At this point I thought, once again, I should probably go back to marketing! 

So I re-joined Coca-Cola as Content Director for North West Europe and the Nordics. This included all the Digital Marketing, Advertising, Creative Strategy and Design. I did that role for about 4 years. I took maternity leave as well because I had my second child, but at the beginning of 2014 I decided that it just wasn't for me anymore. I resigned without any clue as to what I was going to do next but I felt confident that everything would work out.

In August 2014 Airbnb hired me as the European Marketing Director. It's a match made in heaven. I feel like I'm exactly where I'm meant to be.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
The expectation to take the path well trodden. Especially as a woman, people expect you to be risk-averse. People’s reaction to my career path is often a quizzical one but that then morphs into intrigue and, I think for the most part, respect.  I can assure you that my unusual career decisions and moves have been very difficult for my parents to comprehend.

What motivates you?
Experience.  Lots of different kinds of experiences of the unexpected.  With the ultimate goal of learning just enough to know that I know nothing.

What advice would you give to your children at the start of their career?
Do what you like – both in the grand scheme of the career choices you make, and the little daily deeds.  Just follow your moral compass and do what you like.  If you do only those two things, you cannot fail. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Leaving the safety and security of the known for the unknown. When I left advertising in New York to travel, when I left advertising again to move to Rwanda, when I left the NGO to write a book in Paris and when I left Coke the first time to study investigative journalism. When I started traveling to far away, off-the-beaten path places on my own.  This act, regardless of context, is my single greatest achievement. 

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
A sense of humor.  I think being highly competent is cost of entry. You can be as intelligent and capable as anyone, but if you are not fun to be around, no one will want to be around you. It is awfully difficult to get anything accomplished in a vacuum. Plus it is just more fun and in stressful times, humor can be a sanity-saver. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
With great risk comes great reward.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
Making decisions for the greater good and everything that entails – starting with being able to assess what the ‘greater good’ looks like rather than being consumed by personal or departmental agenda.
Simplifying and Codifying.
Ensuring a breadth of diversity on a team, rather than hiring mirror images of oneself, and curating points-of-view from that team.
Nurturing talent and, perhaps more controversially, having the strength to eliminate bad actors, whether that is about capability or personality. We have to weed out individuals who bring a team or a workplace down.
Taking smart, calculated risks.
Ensuring the workplace is a fun place people want to be.

Is there a secret to rising to the top?
I do see people rise who have characteristics that I believe should actually be pushing them down or pushing them out. I call it failing up. It makes me sick to my stomach to watch people fail up. People who are aggressive, who walk all over people. Their way of rising is by putting other people’s candles out so that theirs may burn brighter. In my idealistic youth I used to think that these people would eventually get noticed and fail but I'm now too long in the tooth to believe that the baddies always lose. They don't. Often they win. 

The people I've admired who have gotten to the top have displayed a lot of the attributes of great leaders that I talked about before. They are people who are fighting for the greater good, and it's obvious. They're people who are just pleasant to be around and therefore people gravitate towards them. So when I see people rising to the top in my own experience, it has been because of a magnetic personality.

What do you think you've done that's helped you rise up?
I’ve mainly done what I liked and largely stopped doing what I found I no longer enjoyed (though sometimes it took me a while to make that decision for personal reasons).  I think you have a much greater chance of success if you are happy in what you are doing.

I’ve always seen myself in a position of servitude, to some extent.  My existence in a job is always to serve something – a business, a brand, a person – which I think helps to counter-balance the organically egotistical nature of people.  The result is that it forces one to focus on an external agenda rather than accidentally be driven by a selfish, internally focused one. 

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
The truth is myself. I dig down deep in myself. I am my toughest critic. I am the only one who can push myself the furthest. 

A lot of people say that it's impossible to balance family life and a demanding career? How have you found your experiences - what's helped and hindered?
I never feel balanced. One of the greatest female traps was that when more choice became available to us we misinterpreted that as obligation. So women's liberation was a great thing in that it provided women more choice, what women have done with that has actually has been to pile more pressure onto themselves rather than see it as the ability to make choices. I really try to eliminate that pressure. 

Ultimately I feel that I'm not good enough at work or at home. But that's me and my bar is high and I'm always striving for more.

From a pragmatic point of view, I have a husband who has a great deal more flexibility than me. He is incredibly patient with the children and he's the cook so at least I know people are getting looked after!

What's next?
I have no idea, and that's exactly the way I like it. I'm incredibly happy at Airbnb and I'm excited about building out the team in Europe. In terms of my personal life, I'm always seeking new experiences whether it's planning a trip to somewhere I've never been, doing another painting or writing a piece of music, I'm never sitting still.

Alex is based in London.
As told to Caroline Hugall over Google Hangout on Tuesday 13th January 2015.