My first day: Airbnb CFO Ellie Mertz

The Airbnb exec shares her insights on enabling a seamless CFO transition when moving up internally.
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Alex Castro

· 4 min read

This is part of our occasional series on CFOs’ first day on their current job.

Taking over as CFO for a company you already work for has to feel a bit like starting high school when your middle school was connected to the same campus. Yes, there are familiar faces. Yes, the classrooms look the same. Yet suddenly, everything feels different.

But don’t take it from us. Take it from the freshly minted CFO of Airbnb, Ellie Mertz, who had already been with the company for a little over a decade when she stepped into the top finance seat in March 2024.

“I feel like, 11 years in, I’ve been training for this role for that entire decade-plus,” Mertz told CFO Brew. Unlike a freshman waddling around a campus that merely looks familiar, she says she felt “extremely prepared” when it came to institutional knowledge and an understanding of “the business model, the financials, the organization.”

Still, she needed to do her metaphorical homework, and the most important preparation, in her eyes, took the form of the relationships she’d already been cultivating for years.

“Any new CFO coming in can, either internally or externally, learn very quickly the business model,” she noted. “But I think the real value in terms of stepping into a role [where] you’ve known the organization for a long time is actually the value of the relationships that you’ve built. And the trust that you’ve not only built but earned over time, because those obviously don’t materialize overnight.”

Those relationships also played a key role in how the company approached the CFO transition. Alongside Mertz’s CFO announcement, the vacation rental platform said former CFO Dave Stephenson would be stepping into the newly created role of chief business officer.

“We were intentional about announcing [the CFO transition] in December and making it effective in March, just to make sure that it was completely seamless,” Mertz noted. That also gave her and Stephenson plenty of “time to do all the transitions in a very thoughtful, meticulous manner, as opposed to having a moment where things might slip through the cracks,” she explained.

Ellie Mertz

Ellie Mertz

And she credits that planning with the relative ease of her transition thus far. “I’ve been working closely with Dave for years, ever since he joined, [and] we’ve had a very, very strong partnership,” Mertz noted. From both a personal and career perspective, she calls it “the best of both worlds.” She gets to step up and stretch herself professionally, while her predecessor and former mentor “is still here in a different role,” she said. “The partnership that we built over the last several years continues, just with each of us having a different scope in this new world.”

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Stretch yourself. While not every incoming CFO will have a decade of company-based experience, Mertz stresses that there are other ways to use previous roles to prepare for an eventual CFO seat. 

“The general advice I give my team is to be extremely curious in their roles, and to be extremely flexible and agile with regard to taking on new opportunities,” Mertz said.

Often, she said, “the mental model” for aspiring CFOs is often that there’s some kind of linear path to the top finance seat. But Mertz, who served as VP of finance at Netflix before joining Airbnb in 2013, says she’s benefitted from being “less fixated on the next role than what’s the next opportunity I can get to build out my skill set?”

At Netflix, for instance, that turned out to be payments—something she, by her own admission, “didn’t know anything about, nor frankly had a ton of interest in.” Now, she considers it a solid skill set “to have in my pocket for the last 15 years.”

And that curiosity-driven approach aligns with how Mertz’s personal definition of the CFO role has changed in recent years. “You just can’t sit in your finance box as a CFO,” she said. “You need to have a broad understanding and intimacy, if you will, with the other parts of the business.” Particularly at a design and product-led company like Airbnb, she finds it “imperative” to know the company’s product “as intimately as my product colleagues, so that I can be a thought partner to them.”

She continued: “That concept of being a cross-functional, highly engaged thought partner, even for topics and decisions that sit well outside of finance, I think, is critical for me and frankly so many other CFOs in terms of being successful in this role.”

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.