Podcast

Scaling Up [S5.E6]: ‘Culture as a Product’ with Anna Binder, CPO of Asana

Part 2 of the People and Culture mini series is with Anna Binder, CPO at Asana (NYSE:ASAN). In this episode, Anna covers novel mental models, ideas for hiring, recruiting, and onboarding, and even a few thoughts on corporate mindfulness.

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Ed (03:15): Anna, welcome to this very special episode of Scaling Up. I’ve been following your career through multiple lenses now for a few years, and of course Asana both as a product and as a company. I think about almost on a daily basis as I go about my work here, it’s a company that really is and has become the exemplar of what can happen when great business outcomes are tied into great cultural outcomes. And I really want to unpack this today, not just the how, but the why. I’d love to start as a baseline. I’ve heard you give this incredible description of what culture is and often it’s so undefined, but I’ve heard you talk about it as the living area between three points of a triangle. I’d love to hear your own further explanation on this.

Anna (04:03): Well thanks Ed. I’m so happy to be here and be talking about this topic that is near and dear to my heart and also just the core of my career journey. So, I love engaging on this with you. In terms of what culture is, it’s funny, every Monday morning at Asana, we welcome somewhere between five and 20 new employees, and I get to be part of a welcoming committee and the very first thing that I talk about is how culture is defined. And I do that so that they understand what our point of view is and so that they understand how they can plug into it and contribute to it. And I ask people to imagine in their mind’s eye a triangle, not unlike the Asana logo of three dots. And at the top of that triangle is the mission for Asana that is helping humanity thrive by enabling all the world’s teams to work together effortlessly.

But that’s just our mission. This applies to whatever your organization’s mission is, but that is really the north star and the very top of the triangle at the other corner of the triangle are the values, whatever they are for your organization. For us it’s nine things. These are the things we endeavor to show up with each other by, we don’t always get it right and we have good days and bad days, but these are our commitments of effort. This is how we’re going to show up with each other. And then the third part of the triangle is, I shorthanded it to the 10,000 things, the 10,000 decisions that we collectively make really every day in all aspects of the company. Whether it’s things in my world, like the language we use on the website to make sure that people from all different kinds of groups are attracted to our jobs and the questions that we ask in an interview process.

But it’s also financial decisions that we make and where we allocate budget. It is what features go into the free version of the product and what features go into the paid version of the product. There are literally tens of thousands of these. And the way that I think about culture is our collective work to make those 10,000 decisions in a way that allows us to achieve our mission while being in line with our values. And if you create a triangle around those three things in the middle of that, that’s where your culture lives. And when I think about the work that I do as a people person or the leadership team does, or the CEO does, everything lives within that triangle.

Ed (06:35): I love that mental model. And it also makes it feel as though just given the shape, the living and breathing nature of it means that it’s constantly hopefully expanding, but it is often contracting, and every decision and people interaction can either add or detract to what’s going on inside that triangle and for people to be really mindful of that. So, I just love that as a starting point, maybe we can dig into why Asana is a culture first business, why this is so fundamental not only to the essence of the business itself, but why it’s important to the success of the business.

Anna (07:12): I’m going to start a little bit at the beginning, and this is true in what the founders believe and what really actually connected me to them at the beginning of me join, like the very first conversation I had with them about joining the company. So, I think about all the CEOs that I’ve engaged with and spoken to or worked with throughout my career and met in Silicon Valley and beyond, right? I think that there are some founders and CEOs who believe culture, I get it. I get that it can be important, but first I need to get products market fit, first I need to get to my first 5 million, first, I need to do X, Y, and Z, and there are other folks who believe, what, I can actually have both. You know, we can do some of the product market fit work and some of the culture work.

We’ve got to make space for both. And what we really believe at Asana and what connects me so deeply to the origin story of the company and the deep roots of the founders is it’s actually your investment in culture. Every dollar hour moment that you spend on building and evolving your culture, those efforts are actually what are going to drive your business success. It’s a false trade off to say that it’s one or other or balancing it, right? Like one drives the other. And in order to believe that and invest in that, you really have to have a longer term mindset because it does take time, it does take effort, it doesn’t just come for free or accidentally, but if you believe in your heart that you are achieving your mission for the long term and that your investment in culture drives your business outcomes, it’s a really clear decision on what you spend time on.

Ed (08:55): Asana, aside from everything else, has always been long term focused and, one of two companies that is in fact listed on the long-term stock exchange. That speaks to everything that you just touched on. And I love that sense that culture is not an indulgence or at odds with business performance. It’s in fact intertwined and the driver of performance and regular listeners of this podcast hear this so often in every single episode. I guess the difference with Asana is the importance of the product in developing this culture and democratizing the culture of Asana in a sense that for those that aren’t familiar with the product, we can go into that. But essentially if I worked at Asana, I need something done by Dustin, the co-founder, I could tag him, give him a timestamp as to what needs to be done or you could do it likewise for me. There’s this inherent flat nature to the business that is serving itself through the product and that was intertwined in the mission and vision of the business. So, I’m really keen to kind of dig into the importance of the product itself in the culture of the business because it is unique.

Anna (10:02): I’m really glad you asked that question. I feel like the offering that we have at Asana and our value proposition to the world is not just the software, but it’s a way of working. And when I think about the work that I do in building and evolving the culture, I work so closely actually with our head of product to ensure that we’re constantly reinforcing the things that we’re doing in the culture to the things that we’re doing in the product. And I want to try to bring this to life for you. You mentioned anyone can assign each other a task and its actually part of our onboarding. Your very first day in onboarding, you’re supposed to assign your boss’s boss a task just to make it make it a thing. And everybody knows it’s part of onboarding but nobody blinks. And even a step further, you would sign your boss’s boss a task and you give them a due date and say, please do this by this, which is extremely uncomfortable.

And my boss is a CEO so I’m like, okay, here I go. But it is a normal part of the thing. I do sometimes joke when I receive too many tasks in a given week. I say one of the biggest problems with Asana is that anyone can assign me a task, but that’s core to how we work. So, I’ll give you a few other examples just to bring it to life. One of the things that we believe deeply is that a key driver of engagement of employees feeling like they’re connected, engaged in having impact, is that they know that their work matters and that their work is connected to the broader purpose of the organization. I often say I’m actually willing to work that extra hour or, get up that hour early to do this whatever thing it is. As long as I know that my work has meaning has impact, that I’m not just like cogging in the machine. Right?

And to that end, we have a concept at Asana called the Pyramid of Clarity. And it starts obviously with the mission at the top, but below that are the 10 goals that we set as an organization every year. And underneath those goals are all the projects and KRs that are required to achieve those goals. And inside of each one of those projects are tons and tons of tasks, right? And the idea is that an employee is working on a task that may or may not be connected to something on their calendar, but they can ladder that one unit of work up all the way through the pyramid clarity to a KR, to an objective and to the mission and understand why their work matters. There’s only a handful of things that are key drivers of engagement. A lot of them are very, very hard to nail. This one is easy, you got to get this one right.

Ed (12:55): There’s no doubt that feeling that your work matters has to be at the top of the list for employee engagement. I love that openness and the access and the transparency of in fact what’s going on in the organization and how me as an employee is contributing to that. That no doubt energizes your workforce and why you’ve been the gold standard. Let’s rewind a little here. You’ve been at the business since 2016. So, let’s go back to the early days of not just the vision that was laid out by Dustin, his co-founders, and the role they played in that, but maybe how the prioritization and the enactment of this cultural vision giving all the moving parts of a very, very fast-growing business, how that came together, how that prioritization was so key to in fact getting through those scaling pain points.

Anna (13:43): I’m sure a few things that really matter. When Justin and Justin came together to found Asana, they had both come from different career paths and were very committed to doing it in the right way in a way that was true to their values, to their heart. You know, they wanted to find a way to make the next dent in their own next dent in the universe. So, this was a starting point for them. I often tell the story about how in the first week of founding the company in Dustin’s apartment, they wrote the very first few lines of code, and they wrote the very first draft of the values. You can’t make that up, you can’t outsource that, you can’t, they don’t do that for show they did it because they thought that it was the right investment of time.

The other thing that I will say about the beginning and people often ask, wow, Asana was a hundred people before they hired their first people ops person. That seems really late was it a mess and did you have to clean everything up? And absolutely not. I came in and found an organization that had identified the five or six things that were really, really important in the sort of people function and had chosen people to lead those bodies of work and said it doesn’t actually have to be one single person in the early days. So, there was a manager on the design team who led monthly manager trainings. There was a guy on the engineering team who cared deeply about personal development. So, he ran the performance management system, which today we call our growth and impact cycle. There was a lot of onboarding and getting your systems right so, there was somebody on the IT team that ran onboarding. Compensation without frameworks and structures, very, very tricky. And in the early days it’s what 95% of your spend and so the CEO had the compensation AOR. When I came in it was just my responsibility to gather those things, consolidate them and scale them. So, it’s totally easy.

Ed (15:59): Yeah, yeah. Incredibly easy. What it talks to me and what I’m hearing is like any great team, be it sports team or company, everyone is responsible for the company in the business. It’s not just the founder. Every action, decision counts and it talks to, and I’ve heard you talk about epic empowerment before the concept of this area of responsibility but deeply ingrained beneath this is this empowerment of everyone to contribute to those.

Anna (16:29): Absolutely. And I spoke earlier about how I welcome the new asanas every Monday morning and I introduced these concepts of culture and over the next few weeks of a new employees onboarding, I slowly get to a little bit of a crescendo where I make it clear this isn’t something that you like optionally to get to contribute to. This isn’t something that like, hey, if you have a few hours span on a Friday morning, like this is a core part of your job, we’re in this together. It is a full team sport. And I also recognize that different people are going to engage in different ways. So, we make sure that there’s lots of different ways that people can plug in, whether it is serving on many of our internal people, advisory councils that provide feedback and serve as part of the voice of the employee or it is serving on hiring councils or interview teams.

Another way that is much more organic and meets people where they’re at in Asana is we have a bunch of opportunities projects. So, culture opportunities, onboarding opportunities, and opportunities is a nice way of saying this could be better. I can imagine this being manifesting as a complete box, right? Like I don’t like this, and I don’t like this, but I have to tell you, I follow every single one of those projects. I look at the suggestions, we have a team of people that triage it. Sometimes it is, hey, we’ve thought about this, and this is the answer and we’ve already figured it out over here and maybe you just need to learn a little bit more about it. But a lot of times this is where some of our best ideas come from and because it’s all out in the open and anyone can follow any one of those suggestions, sometimes a long thread starts with people debating back and forth like, well this and that and I learn how people are interpreting things, I learn what the pain points are, I learn about the culture bugs that we have in the system and where I need to prioritize.

So, I think that this concept of a full team sport everybody’s in there together. I’ll be honest with you, it can be really uncomfortable because all your work is out there, but if you can get over that discomfort, you’re going to invariably get to better outcomes.

Ed (18:55): Everything worth doing is uncomfortable at points in time. It talks to the inclusion and belonging in the trust that the product and the culture is building. Let’s dig into a few things that you just raise there. This high growth, high velocity innovative business that Asana is, there would’ve been shifts in culture during these periods of time in this rapid scaling up that you’ve undertaken. How would you describe the culture today? And I think we’ve got a sense of it, but I guess I’m more interested in how many steps removed is it from what the vision that Dustin and Justin set out in the beginning?

Anna (19:32): You may have heard me talk before about the way that we think about building and evolving culture as a product so much in the same way that you’ve got your product building fundamentals. You start with the end user in mind, you do some human centered design, you do your research, then you build some prototypes, and you build your product, and you start to put it out there, you launch it, and you see what happens. You know, you get some feedback, some of that feedback is quantitative, some of that feedback is qualitative. And then you learn what’s working, what’s not working, where the bugs are. And then you move to V2, and you do that over and over and over again. And you do that until you’ve achieved your mission because that’s how long your company needs to be in existence. So, if you have that mindset and it starts with that human centered design and thinking about your goals and your end users and how you want people to feel as a result of it and you continue and you be open to the stuff that I’m building today you need to be embarrassed by the stuff that you launched two or three years ago, right?

Otherwise it took you too long. The same is true of culture and of people. So, Dustin and Justin really designed and thought about the culture early on exactly like that. And we’ve continued to this day, we’re in our annual planning process literally this week on the people team and that’s how we’re doing it.

Ed (20:58): This could be my favorite mental model around culture that I’ve heard put forward culture as a product and having these intended outcomes to inform decision making, to test, to iterate, to retest, to reiterate, until essentially as you say your mission is fulfilled. I’m really interested to understand what happens when you find one of these cultural bugs that you alluded to because we know that products aren’t perfect and culture as a product is definitely not ever going to be perfect because humans are involved in it. It’s not software. So, what happens and maybe you can actually dig into the process of uncovering a cultural bug and then how you patch it.

Anna (21:38): Part of culture as a product is something we call the voice of the employee. And voice of the employee is essentially me recognizing that I have my own biases, I have my own lenses and I can’t rely on my own interpretation of the feedback. So, we have like a number of different ways that we collect the feedback. A big one is the employee engagement surveys that we do on a regular basis with culture. And this is a quantitative methodology to get feedback on a whole host of different things. But even with that quantitative feedback, I know that when I read the results and I try to prioritize I’ve got my own biases and I’m seeing what I want to see. So, I ensure that I’m hearing from like 10 different groups of variety of flavors across the organizations. Whether it’s the ERGs or the executive team or the HR business partners, right?

They all bring their own lens and from there I get to make a list of what the most important things that we need to work on. So, we got our engagement results back about three weeks ago and we’re in the annual planning phases and one of the things that’s coming true right now for me is our managers of managers, right? We call them the moms, the one and two clicks up historically have come into the organization with a lot more experience. But now increasingly we are promoting from within without enabling them, without giving them tools, without supporting them. And it’s an area that is showing to be pained and the combination of lack of experience and enablement is hurting us in some parts of the organization. So, we will likely make a decision to shift some of our resources there.

Ed (23:42): Going to come back to the company. But I want to double click into the role of the strategic CPO and maybe a good place to start in this is in your mind what makes a great CPO? What are the skills required, both hard and soft that you think, the absolute gold standard and that you possess, or you strive for to make sure that you are doing the job to the best of your ability?

Anna (24:09): So, I’m going to give you four things and this question makes me very uncomfortable cause I wish you would ask somebody else that managed CPOs, but we’ll just leave it there. Number one, I think that a great HR leader is a businessperson who happens to have chosen this particular function to have impact. So, I encourage people from all different functions to join become people leaders because I think you can actually learn the craft and I would welcome people from different functions coming in. This is super important and super impactful work.

Ed (24:47): That’s a common thread that many of the best CPOs of which I’m going to put you in that bracket and that may also make you feel uncomfortable. That is actually the one call out that they all make is that this is a leadership position. This isn’t HR as we grew up with many moons ago or some of us grew up with many moons ago. This is in fact a business leader who has maybe had a whole heap of operational experience elsewhere that has chosen this particular function.

Anna (25:13): I definitely hit a ceiling at some point in my career because I didn’t have those business fundamentals and I paused, and I went to business school in order to build that toolkit. I didn’t have it. The second thing is first principles, right? Every decision you make needs to come back to what are we trying to solve for? It is so easy just to revert to the mean of hey, this is best practice, or this is standard practice, or this is what our employees are asking for. Starting with first principles of what we’re trying to achieve and having some religion around that I think is important. The third thing is, I’m going to just call it leading consciously, but a few different things that I want to subset in there. To me it’s like a fearlessness. You know a lot of the decisions that I make are not very popular or even when they’re very popular there’s some people who really don’t like them and that’s part of the hardness, like the difficulty. And I think you have to be okay with that, the second thing is you need to be a champion of tough calls, which means that tools like how can the opposite of my story be true? How am I co-creating this mess A little bit, right? Like just having some of those fundamentals of conscious leadership I think really, really help.

Ed (26:35): For great callouts and they all speak to the leader that you are and what you aspire to be. Having heard the culture of Asana, I’m really keen to understand, maybe just peel back another layer around how this has been operationalized because one thing is to talk about it, but for outsiders looking in we can actually gain some lessons as to what you are doing maybe differently or maybe just better than others that has enabled this gold star approach. I’m very curious around onboarding. I’m very curious around recruitment, but I’m also very curious about how you think about mindfulness because it’s not necessarily how other people would define mindfulness in the workplace.

Anna (27:22): I think we’re really known for this thing called mindfulness. If you think of all of our values, this comes forward and a lot of people are like, oh that must mean that you all meditate together, or everyone’s really calm and really the part of mindfulness that matters at Asana is intention. Behaving and deciding and charting paths intentionally. What does that mean? So, first of all, tying it back to the product, the product is all around matching your attention to your intention, right? And ensuring when you wake up on a Monday morning and you start work, you’re not just responding to the email that’s in your inbox, right? That’s not your intention. It might be taking your attention but that’s somebody else’s intention. They got into your email box, and that’s where you’re spending your first three hours of your time.

Asana is around, hey let’s organize and prioritize your work so that you’re on a Monday morning, you’re working on the most important things. So that’s the product component of it. But the cultural component of it is it really shows up in our prioritization. Every planning exercise, every prioritization exercise. We are very diligent about saying what is important at the expense of something else. What are we actively choosing to not do so that when in six months’ time something goes wrong in one of those areas we decided not to prioritize. We don’t feel bad about it because we went in eyes wide open, right? That’s what we decided. This ties a little bit to the story I was telling you about prioritizing the managers over the managers of managers. I know that it would come to bite us at some point, but you can’t do everything, so you have to choose. So that’s our version of the mindfulness.

The second thing in terms of operationalizing is we really believe in focus and flow. This concept of multitasking is a complete myth. You can only do one thing really well at a given time. So, our product allows you to turn off notifications so that you can focus on the task at hand. And culturally we practice something called no meeting Wednesdays, today is Wednesday and you are my only meeting today. You’re my only meeting.

Ed (29:48): It took six months to organize this. So, I’m glad that you squeezed me in.

Anna (29:55): Leaders all over the globe. Meetings are Monday to Friday morning and night. And I don’t talk smack about meetings. You need meetings for collaboration, for creativity, for decision making, but also need my flow time. I need my head down time to do the work and practicing no meeting Wednesdays allows us to get into that focus and flow. I have to tell you, I’m cheating off of Chris Farinacci, one of my colleagues at Asana. You know, the best things in the world, my children for sure, my family close second, no meeting Wednesday.

Ed (30:35): I’ve been pushing for that, here at TDM for a while. So maybe this is the petrol on the fire I need.

Anna (30:42): Life Changing.

Ed (30:43): I was lucky enough in a former life to spend time around some very high performing sports teams and the thoughtfulness around the planning and particularly the reflection that enables these tough decisions to be made. It sounds exactly like a high performing sports team culture. And I don’t know if there’s been any thought to that internally or it’s just a question of that’s what high performance looks like in the corporate sense and you’ve fallen into this practice.

Anna (31:11): I mean we definitely talk about some of the practices of high performing athletes, right? The visioning work that they do. It’s not just the practice and the exercise and the strength training. It is also the, well, how could I imagine achieving this goal? What does wild success look like? I mean I think all high performers do some version of this. And the flip side of it for us is we also do the visioning of like, what if this goal’s wildly wrong? What if we massively fail and are, are there any of those things that might cause us to fail that we can plan for or mediate for? That’s a very uncomfortable business conversation and it’s one that we actively engage in at Asana.

Ed (31:56): Love this redefinition of mindfulness and I’m going to go away and think about it myself. Can we talk maybe a little bit about recruitment and the candidate experience through that? One thing that I’m really fascinated by that I know is always a topic in fast growing businesses is hiring for cultural fit. And it’s very easy maybe to identify a high performer or someone that has a values alignment, but maybe can we dig into what cultural fit looks like for Asana and how you might test for it when you are recruiting?

Anna (32:29): First of all, I just want to acknowledge that there’s this whole dialogue going on in our space around cultural fit versus cultural ad. I think it’s a little bit silly I just want to erase it. I think it’s wasteful semantics. You do need to see if there is a cultural fit, and you need to very concretely define that. For us it’s a handful of our values, not all of our values, but a handful of our values that we can translate into something that we can assess in an interview. You know, one of the things that’s really important to us is a growth mindset. In order to have a growth mindset, you need to have both a commitment to self-improvement and an openness to being wrong and a comfort with talking about your mistakes. That is something that you can assess for in an interview, right?

But the danger if you just say, hey, I interviewed Ed, he was a cultural fit, of course that just rounds down to what, he kind of looks and smells and feels like me. So, I feel like we could get a beer and that would be lovely, so he is a cultural fit, but getting extremely crisp around how those are defined, all the way to Ed the questions. These are the questions that we ask to determine this component of cultural fit. So, you don’t get to go make up your own.

Ed (33:53): Love that. And you actually beat me to the punchline because the default is cultural fit looks like me and that doesn’t help anyone when we’re trying to create a diverse workplace to foster innovation across all functions. Having that, again, that thoughtful and mindful set of guidelines as to what it looks like and what are the tradeoffs and how do we actually operationalize that. So that was a wonderful call out. While we’re deep in this operationalizing culture Asana, I’m keen to understand the tools you use for not only tracking engagement but maybe performance and then enacting on the trends. And of course, again the product is in many ways self-fulfilling here and can provide great clarity for employees. But I’m sure there’s a whole range of other tools that you use as well.

Anna (34:38): Yeah we are 10 minutes away from transitioning to Workday from Bamboo HR, we are heavy, heavy greenhouse users. Although in the very early days of Asana we used Asana as our ATS, which served us until about a hundred people. The most important tool that we use for employee engagement is Asana. We do all of our work there. It’s our system and record. It allows us all the collaboration, transparency, and clarity that we need. I think that the most important component of it is what I mentioned before, the ability to connect a task but basic unit of work all the way to that higher picture. We do something called the growth and impact cycle, which is other companies might call it a performance evaluation. So, we do that and the important component of that is that we link, and we make sure that we’re assessing against your contributions to those goals.

So, whether it is explicit KRs that you have or really importantly some of the glue work that you do, whether it’s serving on interview panels or leading one of our five ERGs or providing mentorship to the dozens and dozens of college interns that we have every year. A lot of that sort of B work can often fall on members of underrepresented groups. So, we’re pretty explicit about putting it into the manager’s mindset of when you’re assessing somebody’s performance and giving them feedback on how they can grow their impact, make sure you include that. And then obviously we rely really heavily on Culture Amp for our employee engagement but also our hundred-day check-ins for new employees, our exit interviews, right? All that data that helps us constantly be evolving the culture and looking for the bugs.

Ed (36:40): Next topic I want to dig into, and you alluded to it there, just the importance of DEI. Many people know the importance, they know that it has this huge impact on a business and particularly around having different voices and experiences around the table to foster creativity and innovation. But many don’t really know what best in class diversity, equity, and inclusion looks like. Asana again is a bit of a beacon here and I’m keen to understand and learn from your eyes what does best in class scaling of this look like?

Anna (37:12): Well, and first off I’ll tell a little personal story, I got a call about Asana from Matt Cohler, one of our board members and he called, and he said, Hey Anna, I have a few opportunities in our portfolio that I want to talk to you about. I said Great, perfect timing, let’s check. He said, Well the first one is Asana and besides being a product that moves work forward and helps the universe move work forward, there are a hundred people and they’ve already hired their first head of diversity and inclusion. And I thought, hmm, that’s interesting. That’s unusual. That’s founders putting real money where their mouth is around that. I said, okay great, please do introduce me, that’s interesting. I said, well you mentioned several, what else is there? And he’s like, oh well why don’t you just go talk to Asana If that doesn’t work out, I’ll talk to you about the rest of them.

But it’s true, the fact that that individual was brought on before there was any like strategy or understanding what commitment looked like and Dustin and Justin said, hey, having someone here to help us design that, to help us keep it top of mind and front and center and be here with us on the journey, that’s the most important thing. So, I think best in class means starting it really early. I mean I can talk through some operational things. I can talk through setting goals and being really uncomfortable about how aggressive they are and being transparent about progress and democratizing the work in the sense that the ERGs like Asana women and Team Rainbow and Slack Asana, these are led by passionate people who want to have an impact through the ERG work. We professionalize it. So, it’s not something that you just do on the side, it is a core part of your job, and your manager makes sure that you have the space to do it.

All of those things matter. But I have to tell you, I think the most important component of best-in-class diversity, inclusion and belonging work is infusing some opportunity and joy into the work. I consider it a privilege to be able to be on this journey, my own personal journey of becoming an active anti-racist human being and being in an environment where I’m supported in that work where I can ask uncomfortable questions, where I can make mistakes and people will call me out on it even if it’s in front of 500 people and nobody’s going to hate on me because they know that I’m trying and bringing like a compassion and a like an appreciation of the privilege around the world and that that’s my favorite part of it. But like I don’t know how to create that, but I believe in it so strongly and I’m so grateful that we have it.

Ed (39:59): I can hear the passion in your voice. I absolutely love that. Maybe we can just shift momentarily to another hot topic for many founders and other executives and that’s wellness in the workplace and really relevant in a post pandemic, well maybe we’re not even post pandemic, who knows where we’re at in this journey, but what does that even look like or mean? And when you’re talking about trying to scale it, you obviously need to be able to define it. What does wellness in the workplace, and we’ve talked about mindful work and that has had a bit of a different definition, but maybe in this sense there are other aspects to that as a value that you can talk to.

Anna (40:39): And I just want to acknowledge on this question, I’m speaking very much as an American living in America because I think that this means something really different in different cultures and different countries. You have a global audience and so I just want to preface that if you go back to the culture, the pyramid, the mission values, like the definition of culture. If you’re here to achieve your mission and you believe that supporting employees in their entire health ecosystem will help set them up to do their best work, you have to see mental health as part of human health. So, it’s just part of the thing, right? In the same way that if you’ve got the flu or covid or a broken arm, you’re not going to be doing your best work if your like mental wellbeing is not strong, you’re not going to be doing your best work.

So, I really encourage people to think of this as like a financial business decision, right? Because it’s so clear how it matters there. Then I’ll just give three really practical things for us. The first is teaching your managers on how to do real mental health check-ins and this, it’s a really subtle thing and when I have a one on one with you, instead of saying, Hey Ed, how are you doing? I say, Hey Ed, how are you feeling today? Slight, very tiny little difference in language, huge difference in response and outcomes that one shift gets you to a much deeper level. So that’s something that we ask all of our managers to do and our senior executive team, like a Dustin in direct, we meet every week for an hour and a half or so and the first 15 minutes of it is feels like here’s how I am feeling today.

Which serves two purposes, right? Like one, it allows you to get present in the room and just let go and shed whatever you are coming into the room with so that you can be fully present in whatever strategic conversation we’re going to have. But it also allows you to let each other in just a little bit and build some ties that bind and a little trust building. The second thing, and I think that this is one of the very, very few silver linings of this pandemic is that we’ve been encouraged to de-stigmatize mental health. So, we have a company planning AMA every month. This is just like an ask me anything of our senior leaders. Every single time BMC says, I want to hear how y ‘all’s mental health is doing, tell us how you’re feeling. So, if you’ve got the CEO and the CFO, like all these folks talking about their highs and lows of that month and how they’re feeling like nothing else that normalizes that in that way, right? And the pandemic has like good days and really, really, really bad moments and just getting up and sharing those makes it a little bit more normal. The last thing I’ll say, and again this is super America centric, but we don’t have the most awesome, healthcare system. So, one of the things that we’ve done since the pandemic is really double down on our investments in mental health for employees and just beef those up so that people have access and don’t have any kind of financial barrier to go get that help.

Ed (44:05): Amazing, just fantastic call outs and wonderful to hear how you’re thinking about it. Just to wrap up one last theme here and try and sneak it in. You’ve talked about culture and growing and fostering this culture as a team sport and there are other stakeholders, not just employees in the Asana business that I’m sure play a role in this. I want to very quickly dig into the role of the board and the support that they have given you, I’m sure in ensuring that your function is front and center. I’m interested in what kind of reporting they ask for and how you interact with the board more generally.

Anna (44:43): You’re absolutely right. I talk about this as a full team sport and one of the reasons that I’m able to do my job is because I feel like the whole board is behind me and supporting me and asking how they can help and also asking tough questions about results. So, I feel like we’re in this together. So, on a practical level, we review a full organizational health dashboard and I provide color commentary overlay every quarter. It includes headcount and hiring, employee engagement results, attrition numbers, broken out by a ton of factors, regrettable, non-regrettable, tenure. And then we have a whole section on our diversity, inclusion and belonging. So, our progress to goals and our programmatic work, for me, the visibility is critical for accountability. So, one of the magic of a board member is that they’re if an executive is at 10,000 feet, they’re at a hundred thousand feet.

So sometimes they’re able to pattern match and see things in your reporting and ask questions that allow you to pick your head up in a really, really uncomfortable, and productive way, right? So, it’s important because it makes me feel like that lens it’s one more view and one more input into it, but it’s also accountability. And I can say the same thing as a board member, right? I feel like it’s my responsibility as a board member to ask the tough questions around what the data is showing and how different problems are getting addressed and what those trend line looks like. Not just in things like ARR, but engagement and retention.

Ed (46:25): The other stakeholder, and there’s a natural bias in in this question is the investor base. And without preaching to the choir here, I’m interested in if you’ve seen a changing dynamic in investors being more interested in people and culture over time.

Anna (46:43): I wanted to make a joke about how I’m old, so I’ve seen a lot, but it’s not that funny. You know, I’ve been doing this for 25 years and if you look at the organizations, the investors and the organizations, the folks 25 years ago that were really culture first weren’t that loud about it. They might have thought that way, but they weren’t that comfortable about being loud and proud about today. All of our investors, both the ones that ended up investing and the ones that ended up just engaging, have, have asked the questions, have cared deeply and have been curious, right? Anyone who knows everything. So, I think that the most impactful and interesting investors that care about the culture also are interested in what they don’t know, right? And are asking all of their companies or all of their potential companies what their points of view on it are so that they can develop their own.

Ed (47:41): It’s what led us to Asana in the first place to dig a bit deeper was the culture. And obviously it’s the top of any investment thesis that we try and put forward. It still feels as though we’re in a very small band of investors, but as you say, starting to speak a bit more loudly in the market.

Anna (47:58): I think it’s starting to, and I think work like you’re doing with this podcast and others helps make it more front and center for everybody. And as an operator, that’s something I deeply appreciate.

Ed (48:11):One last question because you have been so generous with your time and it’s a general question, but at this point in time, what’s the biggest opportunity for Asana when it comes to scaling the people and culture? Because I’m sure you feel as the co-founders and the executive team feel, you’re only probably in act one of the Asana journeys to fulfill its mission and this is going to be an incredibly durable company for the next 5,000 plus years. To do that effectively, much of this is going to rest on, on you. And not to put the pressure on, but what, what’s the biggest opportunity for you now?

Anna (48:44): Yeah, well I’ll say two things. First of all, in the early days my job and our job was all around recruitment. Being able to hire people was the existential threat we faced. Then over time it really became about scaling systems, programs, processes. Today so much of my job is about communications. How do we ensure that the decisions are getting communicated, that the right decisions at the right altitude, that that people have the right information and then I’m putting some humanity to it, but it’s like you haven’t been able to travel in two years, right? Just bringing a voice and a face and now comfort level to that to in general trust and attraction to the vision. So, it’s a lot about communications, but then the second thing that is just top of mind for me and everyone doing my job is, I call it this crazy year, but we’re going on two years in terms of the pandemic and I think the one thing that we’ve really learned is that nobody knows how this is going to play out in the world of work. There is so much opinion and so much point of view and like thought leadership about the future of work. I’m just trying to stay open and curious and learn from others and not pretend that I know and just so that I can move quickly as things unfold.

Ed (50:12): I feel like you’ve opened up my own thought process and mental models around so much in this hour. Anna, I’m incredibly grateful for your time. I’m sure all the listeners are as well. So, thank you so much.

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