Build Your Culture Like a Product — Lessons from Asana’s Head of People
People & Culture

Build Your Culture Like a Product — Lessons from Asana’s Head of People

Anna Binder, Asana's Head of People and the company's first HR hire, shares her step-by-step approach to intentionally building the company culture.

In the early stages of company building, all-out product focus tends to overshadow functions that become essential when the org starts to scale. Take recruiting strategy, for example. Busy founders — likely preoccupied with establishing strong product-market fit or securing funding — often take a half-baked approach to talent.

When Anna Binder joined Asana as its first HR executive in 2016, the recruiting strategy was bare bones: Hire a lot of great engineers, and do it fast. “The talent strategy was the typical, and, at that stage, appropriate, type of recruiting that startups do,” says Binder. 

At the time, the company was a cozy crew of about 100 and had recently raised its Series C. After a healthy spurt of product-led growth, Asana was beginning to introduce top-down selling. “It was a major shift from a business perspective, from a marketing perspective, from a cultural perspective,” says Binder. 

That’s the backdrop for her introduction into the company. Fast forward seven years, she’s managed to operationalize an org that now boasts nearly 2,000 employees. 

As Asana’s Head of People, Binder tackles culture building like a product manager. In this exclusive interview, she offers insights on how other startup leaders can do the same — whether they’re in the people org, or supporting the cultural building process from across other corners of the business.

Binder starts by looking back on her earliest days at Asana, and what she chose to prioritize when she climbed aboard as the first HR hire. She offers tactical tips on how to use employee data to drive these kinds of decisions (think engagement surveys and qualitative interviews) and how to communicate the plan widely across the org. 

She then zooms out to discuss culture more broadly, defining what makes up a good one, how it can differ from company to company and the role that feedback plays in the process. Finally, she turns to her tips on how to build a strong executive team, stressing how important the C-suite (what she calls the “nucleus” of the org) is for setting a healthy cultural tone. 


When Binder joined Asana, there was no semblance of a people org. HR responsibilities were distributed across the startup, with different pockets of people each tending to different parts. Enter Binder. 

“There were a zillion different things that I could have done coming into that people role,” she recalls. The key challenge for any early-stage people leader? Knowing which to tackle first. Binder breaks it down in simple terms: 

You have to build your culture like the product. 

Here’s what that looks like in practice: 

Step 1: Talk to loads of people — not just the leadership team

The worst mistake new people leaders can make (or, frankly, execs of any function) is assuming they know what’s right for a company without getting to know its people. Binder’s first step — and one of her key takeaways from her first few months at Asana — is straightforward: Take the time to talk with the people who make up the org, and identify pain points from there. What’s critical here is not just sitting down with folks in the leadership seat — you need to climb up and down the rungs on the ladder.

“In the first three months, I got the chance to meet with at least 75 of Asana’s 100 employees. I wanted to hear from them directly about what they felt was most important for me to focus on,” says Binder

For folks going on a similar listening tour, she puts the types of questions to ask in these conversations into two buckets:

Personal development 

Don’t jump into the specifics of culture or HR just yet. “First, I want to know about their work and hear specifics about things like product features and customers.” Binder relies on four go-to questions: 

  • What are you working on?
  • What are your personal goals, this quarter and this month?
  • What have you achieved?
  • How have you been challenged to grow recently?

Org-wide painpoints

After establishing some rapport and understanding of a given person’s place within the org, you can then move on to the broader culture questions. Binder relies on three when trying to identify underlying pain points percolating across the org:

  • What’s making you uncomfortable?
  • What's something that's getting in your way?
  • What do you think is one thing that, as a company, we should get better at? 

Successful interviewers come out of these conversations with a better picture of the organizational puzzle and understand which pieces might need to be shuffled to create a better fit. At Asana, Binder approached it much like a user researcher. “I cataloged the responses and organized them to find patterns like ‘40 people mentioned this.’ They may have used different words, but I cataloged them as, for example, comp-related.”

People and culture can seem really squishy — but it doesn’t have to be.

Step 2: Use an engagement survey to layer on quantitative data

In-person interviews aren’t the only way to collect data and are best paired with an engagement survey to take the pulse of the organizational health. Poring over the results of a company-wide survey can make it easier to identify themes that are bubbling under the surface.

For Binder, this was one of the first tools she used to identify issues at Asana — but here’s where it becomes a combination of art and science. 

“You can't just take that data 100% at face value — you have to overlay some judgment on it. For example, I knew from a benchmark perspective that we were paying competitively, but our surveys were telling me that employees didn’t feel confident about that,” she says. Digging deeper, Binder identified this as a comms issue, not a comp one. “So I quickly moved solving that problem up on my list of priorities, because it was both a big one and relatively easy to solve by giving some clarity to the compensation philosophy.”

Anna Binder, Head of People at Asana

Step 3: Create a roadmap that makes tough choices. 

Once interviews have been conducted and surveys reviewed, it’s time for an action plan. An initial people management roadmap should serve as a guide for the first 18 months of the process — not only for people leaders themselves but also for those around them. 

“Of course, I didn't just create and decide on that roadmap myself. I got buy-in and support and alignment with the founders, Dustin and Justin, and the rest of the leadership team. But once we decided on the direction I codified it, published it and marketed it,” says Binder.

Getting this down in writing is essential, she notes. “By creating some sort of written plan, you have a framework to turn to when people start asking you questions,” says Binder. “So even if they don’t agree with your order of priority in terms of what to tackle, they’ll understand your methodology and where their particular pony is.”

Here’s an example of an initiative that got prime placement on the roadmap: “Something that bubbled up loudly early was that, in order to scale, we needed to shift the way that we recruited from this startup ‘all hands on deck, let's recruit as many engineers as possible’ to a more professionalized and operationalized recruiting model,” she says. “How many roles, what kinds of roles? What does your pipeline look like? How many interviews can you do in a week? What kind of sourcing do you need?” So operationalizing the recruiting engine got pole position on Binder’s 18-month plan — and took over a year to achieve in full. 

Step 4: Over-communicate until you start to annoy yourself

Binder jokes that, at times, her Head of People role can start to feel more like a Chief Communications Officer position — and that’s just as true now as it was when Asana was much smaller. With the roadmap set — sharing this broadly is key. As is repetition.

To pull off successful communication, sometimes you need to share the same information so many times that you get annoyed by the sound of your own voice.

Take the above example about demystifying Asana’s approach to comp. “We had this issue where, even though we had this great comp program in place, people either didn’t know about it or just didn’t understand it. That was a real shame, and it created a lot of chaos, so we implemented an educational program to solve that,” says Binder. 

“As one example, people have very different levels of understanding about how equity works. So one of the things I did was invest in education at two different levels — a 101 version where people got to learn at the very basic level how stock options work, what an exercise price is and what a cap table is. And then there was a 201 version for people who had more experience. Separating those groups meant that the beginners had a safe space to ask those basic questions.”

Whether you’re demystifying comp or introducing a new performance review system, default to communicating more than you think is necessary. Sending a one-off email or an offhand mention in an All Hands meeting isn’t going to cut it. 

Perception is reality. You could have a great comp program, for example, but if people either don't know about it, don't understand it, or don't trust it, it doesn't matter.

Step 5: Invest in onboarding — even if it means pressing pause on output

To keep the cultural engine humming, it’s key to ensure newcomers are brought on with care. And while startup CEOs probably spend an outsized portion of their time obsessing over hiring top talent, this same rigor doesn’t tend to creep into getting them up to speed.

“It’s confusing to me that people don't invest as much time, energy, and sweat into onboarding people as they do hiring them,” says Binder. “If you think about the decision you made to hire somebody, you want them there for multiple years. Don’t worry about them being impactful in month one or two and forgo a proper onramp. You’ll delay their impact by a week, a month, or maybe even a quarter, but because you've invested in their onboarding, their impact will be much more durable for a longer period of time.”

Giving new hires the time to learn the technicals of the job is only one piece of the puzzle. Getting them to understand the vision and roadmap is just as important. One tactical example from Asana: “We ask our new hires to go to the all hands or the town halls of several different departments that are adjacent to them. So if you're in product marketing, go to the brand marketing town hall. If you're in engineering, go over to the design one. Start to get a flavor of the things that are close to your work, but not in your day-to-day role.”


Binder describes culture using the shape of a pyramid. At the very top is the mission — or the thing that answers, “Why are we here?” Every employee should be able to connect their work to the broader purpose of the organization (which happens to be one of Binder’s favorite questions to ask on an employee engagement survey). 

The second point is company values. Binder describes this as how people commit to showing up for one another. “I choose those words deliberately because we don't always get it right every day. I like to say that I make more mistakes on our values before 9 am than anybody. But I'm committed to fixing things when I mess them up and continuing to try,” says Binder.

The impact makes up Binder’s third point of the cultural pyramid. “These are the 10,000 decisions that all of your employees make all over the world every day to move the business forward,” she says. These can be obvious, like choosing the right language to use on job descriptions to attract a diverse pool of candidates. They can also be more complex, like choosing which features go into a paid product versus a free one. 

“Those are critical business decisions that you make to help achieve your mission while being in line with your values. To me, that's where culture lives,” she says. 

Binder underscores that culture is part and parcel with the business — not a separate entity. Strong cultures take shape when purpose, values and decision-making all align. When evaluating a ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ culture, Binder knows that there isn’t a specific mold that a company has to fit in order to score high. She simply asks if it’s serving to move the business forward.

Our mission is different from your mission and another company's mission. So our culture is different — because what we have here might not serve to accomplish another company's mission.

With that caveat in mind, Binder still has her set of tips for creating a solid foundation — no matter the mission you’ve set to achieve. 

Put culture in alignment with the product 

“One of the things that we do at Asana is try to make sure that the culture mirrors the product attributes,” says Binder. “With our product, you have clarity on who's doing what by when, and you're reducing confusion by using Asana to move work forward and collaborate on different tasks. It’s the same story with our culture: We deeply value staying away from duplicative work.”

For Asana, that means ensuring people have clarity on their roles and objectives. This can take any number of forms at different companies. No matter the offering, syncing up product and culture creates a natural alignment where one reinforces the other. 

Invest in your “ten-minute managers”

Despite the misconceptions, culture isn’t about holding hands around a campfire. To build a strong system, there has to be a place for constructive feedback. Filling your org with people who thrive on learning how to do better creates space for meaningful adaptation — which is exactly how a strong culture takes shape. 

Studies show that high performers are twice as motivated by constructive feedback than the average employee,” says Binder. “And when I say constructive, I don’t sugarcoat it, I’m talking negative feedback.”

But creating a culture of feedback is made trickier by the fact that startups are often full of what she calls “ten-minute managers” — they’re brand new to the craft of management, which means they’re new to dishing out tough feedback. Investing in new manager development is step one to feeding the rest of the chain.

“It’s a virtuous cycle: You invest in your managers and teach them how to give constructive feedback, then they’ll do that for their highest performers, which will motivate those people and grow them even more,” says Binder. “When you’re thinking about return on investment as an HR leader, that’s the best place you can spend your time.”

Ditch the kumbaya

Giving constructive feedback is no easy task — but for startup leaders, it’s part of the job description. “If you're not uncomfortable giving feedback every single week, you're not doing your job,” says Binder.

One thing folks can do to self-evaluate in this department is to hold a weekly self-reflection. 

Every Friday afternoon when they’re finishing the week, managers should be asking themselves, “Was I uncomfortable this week? Was I giving hard feedback?” If the answer’s yes, then they’re helping support culture.

HR leaders can also audit the process. “I’m a strong believer that HR leaders should go to the executive team and read everything they're writing about their direct reports in performance reviews,” says Binder. “Make sure there’s constructive feedback in there — something that was both a little uncomfortable to write and is going to be a little uncomfortable to read. If it’s not, ask them for another draft before they deliver it.”


Exec teams are the heart that pumps culture through the veins of a company. For orgs to be successful, the team in charge needs a clear set of principles that helps them continue to lead through both highs and lows (of which startups have their fair share).

Binder shares the core tenets that all C-suite leaders — not just the folks in the HR org — should adhere to as they form a culture. 

Check your ego — and embrace your vulnerabilities 

“I think about conscious leadership as a few fundamental commitments to myself and to the people I work with in terms of how I show up. Am I ready to co-create a great solution, even if it means that the best solution is not my favorite solution?” says Binder. The first step of this process — which Binder originally learned from Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz — is what she thinks of as a temperature check. Ask yourself:

  • How am I going into this conversation?
  • Am I feeling defensive?
  • Am I feeling motivated to prove that I'm right?

It can even be something as simple as noticing you’re feeling a little cranky because you’re tired or hungry. But something that seems trivial (like forgetting to eat lunch) can throw your entire mood off course. If you’re feeling open to new ideas and solutions, you can move forward with confidence. 

This is also how Binder likes to start exec meetings. “At Asana, our first 15 minutes are always the same — we start with a check-in. If there's something that's distracting you, let’s put it on the table and get it out. Because that allows you to be more present in the room,” she says.

Perhaps it looks like sharing a specific business concern you have with the rest of the exec team, or simply letting your functional team know when you’re coming in carrying some extra personal stress. “Leading a company or a function can sometimes be lonely work, so it can be really powerful to get vulnerable with other execs to create that kind of cross-functional bond,” says Binder. 

Sure, it might sound a bit fluffy. But it also clears the deck for real, frank conversations. “If one of my colleagues sees me making a bad choice, or going off the rails on something, or having a blind spot, those are the people that I want to speak up and point it out to me,” she says. 

“And it's a lot easier to hear constructive criticism from somebody who you deeply trust, who you feel has your back, and who has let you into their own vulnerable spots.” 

An initial check-in also helps clarify where the focus should be for the rest of the meeting — which Binder recommends limiting to one or two big issues. 

As for Step #2, Binder says it comes in handy both at work and at home.

Every time I get annoyed with something or I misunderstand it, I say, “How can the opposite of my story be true? How can there perhaps be a different version of what I’m experiencing?”

“At Asana, we approach decisions in a way where we say, ‘Ok, let's get clear and aligned on our assumptions, and then let's explore the solution set so that we can choose the best one together.’ That also means having an agreement that stakeholders will be genuinely heard, not just waiting for people to finish talking so I can get my point across.”

Using the conscious leadership framework creates a culture where the best idea is easy to find — even if it doesn't come from the loudest voice in the room. 

Be a company leader — not just a functional leader

In Binder’s view, the difference between a highly impactful and lower-performing exec doesn’t come down to hitting their KPIs. It comes down to one trait above all: the ability to step outside the functional box.

What makes the exec team unique is that it’s the only team where folks run very different functions — versus, for example, a Head of Marketing hosting a meeting with all the folks on her team who run various marketing functions. 

Successful exec leaders take off their functional team hat to look at the big picture. “I never want to show up to a meeting and listen to another exec only talk about their function,” says Binder. “I’ve been on teams where that happens, and it’s a huge waste of time. I remember once spending hours talking about detailed product development decisions at the exec level and thinking, ‘What a huge waste of time for me as a Chief People Officer and for the CFO.’ It's a strange hierarchical decision to say that the most important product decision should be made at the executive team level, when really the most important product decisions should be made in a group of people that are best suited for it, regardless of their level.”

When exec meetings become a dedicated space for deeper cross-functional thinking — and functional meetings are reserved for the nitty gritty — culture never gets swept under the rug.

It starts with finding folks who are willing and able to step outside of their own box. Binder probes for this skill during the interview process. “When I’m interviewing senior leaders, by the time I interview them, I assume that they've been vetted for their functional expertise. And I’m looking to see if they can put a different hat on.”

An amazing CFO could fill an hour-long interview with questions about the culture. An amazing revenue leader could spend an hour asking questions about the product. That's the way they're wired. 

Don’t keep your execs on the tippy-top floor

Exec teams shouldn’t be ivory towers. Although some decision-making needs to happen behind closed doors, Binder views demystifying the leadership team as an essential tenet of culture building.

Sometimes it’s as simple as referring to exec meetings as “company planning,” as her team at Asana does. “I don’t mean to be cute when I say that,” says Binder. “Everybody knows who the executives are, but I think language plays an important role in reminding people of what our values are and what our culture is. I don't love the word ‘executive’ because it creates this division. ‘I’m an executive and you’re not — so my voice is louder.’ I'm trying to create an environment where the best ideas get surfaced — not just the highest-ranked person’s idea.”

Asana also hosts monthly ‘Cup of Tea’ meetings — where employees have a dedicated space to ask questions to the leadership team. “Corporations can be cold, cog-in-the-machine type of places where you can become complacent. We don’t want Asana to be that way, so we make sure our leaders are accessible and will give real answers to tough questions.” For example, after each earnings call Asana’s leaders will host a Cup of Tea for candid talk about the results. 


From successful leadership comes a strong culture, and from a strong culture comes a high-functioning org. While the specific steps to get there won’t look the exact same from company to company, the importance of trust-building holds true no matter what product you’re building — and is essential to stay afloat between the highs and lows of scaling startups. 

“I’ve really come to believe that the folks who are the most successful are those who have this combination of curiosity and humility. Folks can have deep expertise, but the true game changers are the ones who are humble enough to admit that there might be a different way to achieve the goal,” says Binder.

Startups will have “we’re amazing” moments and they will also have “we’re crashing” moments. In order to weather those storms, you need high levels of trust.

Sure, Binder says, building some level trust can come from being accountable to high performance on your KPIs. “But you unlock an even deeper level of trust by letting people in to say, ‘I’m scared about this thing. The site went down again. My head of performance marketing resigned.’ A moment of vulnerability will serve you well down the road when things get hard.”

This article is a lightly edited summary of Binder’s interview on our podcast In Depth.