How to build your culture like a product — Lessons from Anna Binder, Asana’s Head of People
Episode 79

How to build your culture like a product — Lessons from Anna Binder, Asana’s Head of People

Our guest is Anna Binder, Head of People at Asana.We go back to the earliest days when Anna first took on the role, starting with how she prioritized the initial things to tackle as a new People exec and combing through a slew of opinions that bubbled up from other folks at the company.

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Our guest is Anna Binder, Head of People at Asana.

We go back to the earliest days when Anna first took on the role, starting with how she prioritized the initial things to tackle as a new People exec and combing through a slew of opinions that bubbled up from other folks at the company. 

Next, she shares her tactical playbook for creating a culture of feedback for not just low-performers, but high-performers, too. Anna also unpacks her methodology of conscious leadership, and how the best leaders always interrogate how the opposite might be true. She shares her insights from working on Asana’s executive team for nearly 7 years, and how to build habits to make sure this group is a healthy nucleus at the center of the company. 

We end with a rapid-fire round, with some quick hits tackling onboarding, all-hands meetings, and mentors. 

You can follow Anna on Twitter @annaebinder.

You can email us questions directly at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @ and 

Brett Berson:  Well, Anna, thank you so much for joining us.

Anna Binder: Great to be here.

Brett Berson: So wanted to kind of kick off by talking about, what Asana was like when you got there over six years ago. I think it was about a hundred people. And maybe you could kind of start by setting context from a people lens, kind of what was going on, and we'll use that to jump off and talk about the last six plus years.

Anna Binder: Sure. Sounds good. Six plus years, my goodness. Um, so as you mentioned, when I joined Asana, we were about a hundred people.

Before I can really talk about, um, framing where we were from a people perspective, I think it's valuable to take a look at where we were from a business perspective. Um, on the product side, things were working and customers wanted it, which was great and was creating problems because. More and more cust as our customers were growing, they were deploying Asana into larger and larger organizations, which revealed pretty significant performance issues we had in the product.

And it was, you know, there was, there's nothing short of slow. So the, the engineering team was on a year plus long journey to essentially, um, re architecture the product to make us ready for bigger and larger enterprises. And what that meant was for a year we had no new features cuz everyone was working on that re-architecture. And on the go to market side, we were just starting the process of like top-down selling, right? The, the, our product led growth had really driven most of our revenues and it was a major shift from a business perspective, from a marketing perspective, from a cultural perspective.

Then, so that's the backdrop for coming in, um, to this organization that had about a hundred people. I was really the first HR executive. The first HR person there was, there was recruiting in place. Um, but it was the typical and appropriate type of recruiting that startups do, which is kind of like hire as many great engineers as quickly as possible.

And then the rest of the sort of HR responsibilities were distributed across the organization with different people looking after different parts of it.

 with that context, did you. Work to prioritize and figure out what to do. I would think there's a zillion different things that you could do coming into that first kind of people role. Um, and so maybe what did those first few months look like and how did you figure out what to do in what order?

Anna Binder: Yeah. Well first I'll, I'll just explain. I, I was coming from organizations that were much larger and one of the things that was beautiful to me about, there were so many things that were perfect, like a perfect fit for me, for Asana at the time, and one of 'em was that the, the founders, Justin and Justin, We're deeply committed to this concept that the investment that you make in culture is a driver of business outcomes.

And that culture drives business, and business exists to achieve your mission and to partner with Dustin, uh, the c e o on that was really, really attractive to me. The other thing, uh, that was attractive to me was the opportunity to take everything that I've learned and all the mistakes that I had made over the many, many years of doing this type of work, and just do it right and do it better, and, You going back to a small organization like that gives you that opportunity.

So I always try to encourage, um, HR leaders to, to not be, um, married to this concept of size. And like that you need to go bigger each, each step in your career. And so we are a hundred people. And one of the beautiful things about that is that I got to go, I think I, in the first three months I met with, I don't know, 75 or 80 of the a hundred people.

And I just asked them, you know, what they were working on, what problems they were solving, what felt important for me to focus on. And so I, it was, it, you know, not only was it a data driven approach, it was an actual like live interview type of approach. And from there, combined with my own assessment of the organization, I was able to to, um, build a roadmap.

And this is a, this I think is really important for early stage HR leaders, is. You know, build your culture and build your work like the product, which means make a roadmap by quarter for 18 months and talk to the people, understand the pain points, and then say, these are the first four things I'm gonna work on, then this, then this, then this.

And obviously I didn't, I didn't just create that myself and decide on it, right? Like I got buy-in and support and alignment with Justin and the rest of the leadership team. But once I decided, I, I codified it, I published it and I marketed it. So even if people didn't agree with my order of priority in terms of what I was tackling, they understood my methodology, they understood the roadmap and um, then they understood where their particular pony was.

Do you, do you know what I mean? Like, um, they knew that it was coming.

 so there's a bunch of things to kind of dig in there. When you talk about establishing the roadmap, like if I were to look at the document, what was the, what was the structure of it? What did it actually look like or what was in it?

Anna Binder: Um, so two of the main things, you know, um, two of the main things that bubbled up really loudly early was that in order to scale, we needed to shift are the way that we recruited, um, from this sort of startup all hands on deck, let's recruit as many engineers as possible to a more, um, like a professionalized and operationalized recruiting model.

Right? Like, how many roles, what kinds of roles? What does your pipeline look like? How many interviews can, like, can you do in a week? What, um, what kind of sourcing do you need? How many interviews are you scheduling? What, how does that translate into how many coordinators you need?

Really, like just organizing it. What kind of, um, uh, candidate marketing do you need where you know, what's driving your, uh, close rates, your offer, close rates, right? And so that was one thing to, to shift away, like build an operation around it. A second thing that was very loud from the en the engagement survey that the company had done, that Asana had done before I got there, was people didn't trust, understand, or, um, believe in compensation at the company.

and it's not the, no, no one had done anything to reduce trust, but there was no philosophy, there was no cadence, there was no understanding of why decisions were made. There was no, there's no machine around it. And, um, compensation is a very one-way street, right? Like the company has a lot of information and the employees have very little information.

So building some muscle around that and a, um, a program around that was critical to people having, um, confidence. So those two things were, you know, the, the compensation piece was really only like one quarter's worth of work. The recruiting was a 4, 5, 6 quarter journey. But I, I was able to show like, these are the two things I'm starting with and here's what you can expect in terms of outcomes by when.

Brett Berson: And how did you approach establishing some sort of framework that then made it clear that those were the two things to focus on? And, and I'm particularly curious about it because I think. in the realm of people, there can be a little bit more judgment and instinct in certain parts, maybe versus like running a go-to-market organization where sometimes inputs and outputs aren't as kind of, um, clearly coupled.

And so I would think, you know, if there hadn't been a formal people function and you have a rapidly growing business, you talk to 70 or 80 people and then you probably have dozens of things and you as somebody who's quite experienced, there's probably dozens of things that are bothering you that you think could be made better.

And, and then you have to align to the point that you made before you came up with the roadmap. With this, within this case, I assume, at least the co-founders, about how we're gonna do this in what order. And so what, what was that like and how did you, like, what was the framework that you used to, to sort of align around the focus on at least these two things to start.

Anna Binder: Yeah, it's a good question and it's, um, it, there, I think your point is fair in the sense that there is art and science. Uh, and it can seem really squishy, but I think that, I don't think it has to be that squishy . Right. I, um, I took those 75 interviews and I, I was like a user experience researcher. I, I cataloged them and organized them and said, 40 people mentioned this.

And, you know, they may have like used different words, but I cataloged them as, you know, comp related. And here's another theme that came up. It was about career and career mobility. Um, another topic that came up was just burnout. I'm tired. I have way too much work, but if you looked at the teams that were really burnt out and tired and overworked, they were the same teams that had the most open recs, right?

So it's very tied to the, the ability to recruit. So, so you, and this is where your judgment comes in, right? Like I can have 70. Conversations, but I need to be able to catalog them. Um, and that was only one input. Another input was, uh, the engagement survey and what are the things that the engagement survey shows.

And, um, you know, you can't just take that data a hundred percent at face value. You have to overlay some judgment on it. Like I knew that from a benchmark perspective that we were paying competitively, yet the employees didn't feel confident. And so that's a shame. Like that's a waste.

And so I quickly moved that up because the Venn diagram of it being a big problem and a relatively easy problem to solve means that, hey, let's move it up on the roadmap because it's a quick win that is hurting a lot of people right now. 

Brett Berson: one of the things that sort of, the last comment gets at, and I think this runs through a lot of people, work is kind of the, the role of narrative, right? And education as opposed to maybe what we're doing or how we're treating someone. And I, and I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that.

Meaning if you have a bunch of conversations and you think that there's a compensation issue,

in compensation there was maybe a hundred different things that could be going on. But if do that work and you find actually, hey, we're, we're paying people in the top 1%, 5%, 30%, whatever, So I actually feel very confident that, that that's not the problem.

But maybe the problem is just we're not explaining and educating and setting a narrative around compensation that's effective. And so do, do you think a lot about, of the role of making a change to some actual piece of the company versus working to change a narrative around one of these people pieces?

Anna Binder: I think it's a great question. I'll, I'll say a few things. The first is, um, perception is reality, right? And you could have a great comp program, but if people either don't know about it or don't understand it or don't trust it, it doesn't matter how that you're paying in the 1%, right? Like, so that, that, uh, you can't ignore that.

Like that. You have to pay attention to that. The second thing is, whether it was my first quarter or, you know, now where we're, uh, almost 2000 people, I often think of my job as a sort of a, a chief communications officer. I, I spend so much of my time listening and talking to employees, and sometimes I'm talking, you know, one-on-one.

But, you know, these days I'm more thinking about how are we communicating to the masses And the thing that I remind myself over and over again, I need to say it so many times, and I need to share the same information so many times until I'm almost annoyed by the sound of my voice or how many times I've done it.

Because that's what employees need and that's what employees deserve. Uh, so I, I very much think about the, the narrative and, you know, going back to your comp, Example, I, I think comp is a perfect sort of case study there because comp is an awkward, uncomfortable topic for everyone to talk about.

And so success for me was like demystifying it and de awkward it. Right? And just like, let's put it out there. Um, I also found relatedly is that different people have very different levels of understanding on how equity works. So one of the things I did was invest in education at two different levels, and I allowed.

People to opt in to the level that they were comfortable with. So I had a pure 1 0 1 version where people got to learn at the very basics of a, uh, how a stock option works and what an exercise price is, and what a cap table is, all of these components and what Radford is and what a range is, and all, you know, everything.

And then there was a different version. There was also, you know, it was just like one or two clicks, people who had more experience. And, and separating those groups meant that the people who really needed the basics had a safe space to ask those basic questions. And, you know, some people were like, oh, well that's too much.

And like, you know, like, that's a lot of work for HR. And, um, wow, that's, so it's like over the top. And honestly, I mean, payroll is such a huge component of your operating expenses. Like, I, I think it's crazy not to do that.

Brett Berson: when you think about the most talented people that you've worked with, do you think they generally want the same thing out of work, or most people want all sorts of different things?

Anna Binder: Hmm. I think that there's probably a, a maslov's hierarchy there. I think most of the people that I've worked with that are outstanding, share a few different things. they want to achieve their goals. They are, whatever the mission is that you've set in front of them or that you've collectively agreed to, they're very motivated to get there.

They want to get to the top of that mountain. Um, So that's number one. A second characteristic or need I think is meaning, right? Like, does my work matter and am I working on something that matters? Can I connect my calendar and my tasks, you know, all the way up to like our purpose and our mission. And I think that feeds a very deep-seated need. Uh, and then I've really come to believe in, this combination of curiosity and humility, right? It's, it's, I think it's very easy to work with people who have deep expertise and experience and, um, have really seen a lot of movies. But the ones that I think are. the most successful, are the ones that are humble enough to be curious that, hey, I'm awesome and I have great experience and I've been successful, and there might be a different way to achieve this goal, or there may be a different way of doing this.

And it is that the combination of that humility and curiosity that leads to even more learning and more improvement. So those are the three things that I have, I have come to believe about the, the pattern matching.

Brett Berson: So how do those three things ladder into what you started the whole conversation talking about, which is culture and what is a great culture and how do you articulate even what culture is?

Anna Binder: Um, well, I articulate what culture is. If you can imagine the whiteboard behind me at the top of the triangle, is the mission like why are you here? Like, what is, your purpose of your organization? And the second. Part of the triangle is your values. How do you commit to showing up with each other?

And I, I choose those words deliberately because we don't always get it right every day. And sometimes I say I, like, I make more mistakes on our values before nine o'clock than anybody, right? But at, I'm committed and I'm committing to fixing things when I mess them up and, and, um, continuing to try.

And then the third part of the triangle is the 10,000 decisions. These are the 10,000 decisions that all of your employees make all over the world every day to move the business forward. And, um, this can be like, hey, um, an obvious decision. Like we're gonna use certain language and our job descriptions to make sure that we're attracting people from all different backgrounds so that we can build a representative workplace.

But it also, you know, what features are gonna go into your free product versus your paid product. Those are critical business decisions and those decisions that you make to help achieve your mission while being in line with your values inside that triangle. To me, that's where culture lives.

And I, you know, I think that the other important framing of your culture, and I, um, I can't emphasize this enough because I think people tend to forget this, is that your culture exists to move your business forward. It doesn't just exist on its own. Your culture exists to move your business forward, and your business exists to achieve your mission.

So when people talk about like a good culture or a bad culture, my lens of judging a culture is, is it serving to move your business forward?

Brett Berson: And how do you know that? What are the questions you ask or what is the data that you're looking at that. Makes you confident that the culture is serving the mission?

so the example that I'm gonna give you is specific to Asana. And, and by the way, you know, our mission is different than your mission and another company's mission. So our culture is different and the culture that we have here might not serve to accomplish or achieve another company's mission.

Anna Binder: But one of the things that is really true at Asana is we try to make sure that the culture mirrors the product attributes. So, uh, one of the things about the Asana product is that you have clarity on who's doing what by when, and you're reducing confusion and work about work through that, by using the product to move work forward, to collaborate on different tasks, projects, or initiatives you provide.

You have that clarity. . And I actually think that when I, when I think about the culture and the work that we do inside of the company with the employees, I think one of the things that really matters to people is, I, I, you know, am I doing duplicative work? Does this task that's keeping me up at eight or nine or 10 o'clock at night does it actually matter?

And, and ensuring that people have clarity on their role and their objectives is something that I spend a lot of time on and is very, very connected to how we think about the product in so much so that, . I think that our salespeople are better at selling Asana the product to our customers because they are using, you know, we're obviously an end-to-end customer and ha they're experiencing it in their day-to-day work.

And so if, if our salespeople can naturally, you know, frankly, without too much enablement, sell that story or sell that dream to our customers, or are doing it effectively, they will close more deals. We will achieve our AR numbers, like, which will put the product in more the hands of more customers. like connecting and threading that through, I, I think about a lot and I see it in our engagement survey.

 you know, one of the, I think the most important questions in an engagement survey is do you 

Brett Berson: That's what I was gonna ask you. 

Anna Binder: yeah. Do you understand how your work connects to the mission of the company? And it is fascinating to me that, um, and it, it goes and puts and takes, right?

Like in, sometimes different groups have different, um, high scores on that, but it's, it's one of the first questions that I look at the results on and I dig into,

Brett Berson: Are there other questions on the engagement survey that you, you tend to find, have outsized signal for you?

Anna Binder: yes. Um, does my manager give me constructive feedback that helps me grow? and I, I'm actually on the board of Culture Amp, so I get to see this through the lens of being a customer, uh, that uses an engagement survey.

And then I obviously at the board level. But I think it is fascinating that the data shows that high performers are twice as motivated by constructive. And by constructive we mean negative, constructive feedback, uh, than the average employee. And. Because in the land of startups and fast growing companies, a lot of people, managers are 10 minute managers, meaning they just, they're, they're brand new to the craft of management and they don't know how to give good, constructive feedback.

And that, that, like, it's such a virtuous cycle, right? Like if I invest in my managers, in teaching them how to give constructive feedback, that will then in turn they will do that for their highest performers, which will then in turn motivate those people and grow them even more. Right? It's, it's, um, it, when I think about as an HR leader, R roi, , that is a place that's like a high leveraged place that I can spend my time on.

Brett Berson: we could spend hours talking about, um, how do you create a feedback rich environment? Or let's say you run an engagement survey and, and you score low, low in that specific question is, is there any shortcuts or things that if a founder or, or head of people wants to move that number up, that they can do, around getting more high quality critical feedback to employees?

Anna Binder: I'll, I'll say a couple different things. I do think, um, starting at the top here really matters. So I think that the highest leverage thing that a c can do is ensure that he or she is doing that real time with his or her directs and, you know, Giving constructive feedback is uncomfortable.

It's uncomfortable for everyone. So you know, sometimes I quit. Like if you're not uncomfortable giving feedback every single week, you're not doing your job. because if you have a bunch of high performers, which you should have and like high-impact people, then it's your job to be giving them feedback regularly, which means you are uncomfortable every single week.

So one of the things your CEOs can do is as they're reflecting at the end, like on Friday afternoons and they're finishing the week, like just, you know, was I uncomfortable this week? Giving feedback And if they were, they're helping to support that culture. Um, I think next order and, you know, if you've built an organization that has high levels of psychological safety and then the c e O could be doing that one or two clicks down from their directs, and that, I mean, that's a gold standard. Uh, one of the things an HR person can do is go, you know, do a little bit of auditing. You know, , I'm a believer that once or twice a year, depending on what works for your organization, you need to have written performance reviews of some sort. Like I just, I'm gonna put that there. I strongly believe that, and I think as an HR person, you can, you know, go to the executive team and read what they're writing about their directs. Um, and by the way, I'm making a simplifying assumption that everyone is awesome, that you've moved out anyone who's not high impact and that everyone there is really outstanding. And so since, so, since I'm assuming that, and I know that those high performing, high impact people really want constructive feedback, it's really easy for me to do an audit and I can sit down with the head of marketing and say, Hey, let's take a look at what you wrote about each one of your six direct reports.

And is there constructive feedback in there? Is there feedback that was uncomfortable to write and is gonna be uncomfortable to read? If not, Hey, you're probably not doing your job and I'd like you to take another, another draft at this before you deliver it.

Brett Berson: So I wanted to loop back on something that we actually started the conversation with, which is, you talked about, uh, when you joined us on a, you did a bunch of one-on-one conversations, and I assume, you know, you were talking about a couple of the, the sort of ways in which you get a pulse for what's going on.

One is engagement survey. I assume still to this day you have specific one-on-one conversations. Um, give you data to make decisions as to what needs to be fixed. I'm curious, any thoughts on what you should be asking in those conversations to get the most kind of nutritious insights out of them?

Anna Binder: Yeah. Um, so first of all, we have a very intentional framework around this. We call it the voice of the employee. It is, um, modeled after what many organizations do around the voice of the customer to make sure that you're bringing the outside in, in terms of the product that you're building.

And there are qualitative. Quantitative, um, bottoms up and top down elements of the voice of the employee. There are obvious things like, um, the engagement survey, the exit interviews that we do for people that are leaving, but there's also, um, bottoms up qualitative inputs like the HR business partners or the people partners that are out in the organization talking to folks.

We have six ERG employee resource groups, and that leadership group helps provide and bring a, a different lens to the table. Um, I also, you know, I'm constantly making sure that the programs that we're building and the insights that I'm in considering are through the lens of what the company's goals are.

So I re like, I, I actually think our 10 annual objectives, I think of them as an independent component of the voice of the employee. And I, I need to, everything that we're building, Throughout the year, I think about how is this supporting one of the objectives and is this making it easier for our employees to achieve their goals?

But going back to your question around like, what kinds of questions am I asking? Um, so first of all, what are you working on? Like what are your personal goals? This, this quarter or this month? And, um, what have you achieved? Like, what was a win recently? And, um, like I'm, I'm not interested in what they think about culture or HR or a program.

Like I wanna know about their work. Like what, what feature are they working on? What customer are they working with? What, marketing program are they launching? And then another question I, I ask is, how have you personally grown recently? , right? Like what, what's, um, what's stretching you?

What is making you uncomfortable? And there's a few different ways to ask that, but it, it allows me to understand on an individual level where the stretch or the stress points. And then the third question is, is like, what's something that's getting in your way? And like, what, what do you think is one thing that we should, like, get faster at or get better at, or build or improve?

And when I say we, I mean the company, not the HR team. Um, and, and that, uh, you know, there's sometimes there's themes there, but a lot of time I get surprised. I, I will also say for, um, you know, for companies that have a global footprint, it is uh, it is invaluable to get out there in the field and meet employees in your field offices to get the perspective of your company through that lens.

Cuz it's often like a completely different view.

Brett Berson: What about, uh, you mentioned this a second ago. As, as a part of the voice of the employee, how do you run exit interviews?

Anna Binder: Well, once upon a time, everyone who left the company, I had lunch with them and I, you know, tried to create a space, uh, to, for them to give me real talk. And that's when I did that. At the beginning, I like, or in the early days, you know, up to several hundred people, I did that every single time. Somebody left one I you.

I, I was genuinely interested, but also, you know, when somebody leaves the organization, they're your alumni, they're part of your community. They refer you employees. They, um, they might become customers, and I want them to know how I feel about how positively I feel about them leaving. Um, so it used to be in interviews and I'm, I'm very aware of my own bias and or anyone's bias going into an interview like that.

So I would ask the same set of six questions, um, over time. We moved that really into a form that people would fill out and, um, you know, and we would ask them questions about their experience, about their growth, about what advice they had for their manager's manager, uh, in, in terms of leading the group.

Um, and then I, uh, there was a period of time where every time one of those came in, I would take a look at it and figure out whether I wanted to have a follow up conversation. Now we're a couple thousand people, so, um, this is done through the people partner team.

Brett Berson: what do you think are some in, in sort of this sphere of people stuff,

do you think are some things that a lot of people think are, are important problems or significant problems, but actually given your incredible amount of experience you found They're actually not a big problem. Like, and, and for me, the, the sort of the place that I go is like if you are a really good primary care physician and someone comes in.

Anna Binder: Mm-hmm.

Brett Berson: a lot of people who come in and they have a little bit of a cold, and they're worried at something very serious, and you're, and you're like, no, I, you think this is a big deal, but it's not. And then there's other people that come in and, and they're like, and you're like, no, no, no. This is a big deal.

And a lot of that comes from training, comes from experience. And I think, again, in, in some parts of the in people work or the people function, there's so many problems all of the time. There's always someone that's unhappy about something, right? There's always an angry customer. And so are there things or themes that come to mind that like when you talk to other people, leaders and they're bringing you a problem and you're like, listen, I've worked at a lot of companies at all sorts of scale, don't even spend time on it.

It's, you know, like those type of things.

Anna Binder: I'll, I'll give you two extremes and then I'll, I'll talk to you about how I think about it. Um, if there's people on your accounting team who's, who are scoring low, for example, on your engagement survey, on risk taking and innovation, that's good. I don't, I don't want those people taking

risk, if your enterprise salespeople don't have confidence in the roadmap, that's a major problem. So those are like, those two examples on the edge. The, the thing that I, that I want to point to in answering your question is, um, not all feedback is created equal.

And I think that's, um, that's part of what you're getting at. And I want to parse, Hey, here, there, there, there are people in your organization who are highly engaged and have high impact. There are people in your organization that are low engagement, low impact, they're probably leaving, right? Like if you look at the, the, the, actually the Culture Amp, they, it's the people in the green versus the people in the red.

 the data shows don't listen to the people in the red because you've already lost them, right? You're not gonna impact them. And so I really try to think like we're the voices of the people who are high engaged and high impact, and how can I take their input and, um, and allow it to shape my roadmap or my prioritization.

Another way of saying this is if my low impact people don't feel like they have career growth opportunities at the company, that's okay. So let's not, like, let's not react to that.

Brett Berson: It's actually, it's an interesting jumping off point to maybe talk a little about the role of conscious leadership and how that's influenced the way that you think about your people work. And, and maybe for those that aren't familiar with it, you could kind of give the cliff notes version of, what it is.

and then maybe are there ways it expresses its yourself specifically in your sphere of work?

so I think about leading consciously a as a few different sort of fundamental commitments to myself and to the people that I work with in terms of how I show up. The first is, uh, being intentional. Kind of checking my body temperature, I call it like, how am I going into this conversation? am I feeling defensive?

Anna Binder: Am I feeling motivated to prove that I'm right? Am I feeling deficient or, um, defensive or, um, I don't know. It can even be, uh, tired or hungry or hangry, right? Like, wait, check, just checking in with myself. Like, am I, am I below the line or am I. , am I open? Am I curious? Am I ready to co-create a great solution, even if it means that the, the best solution is not my favorite solution?

So that's, there's a few different sort of principles. That's one. Another one is, uh, that I probably employ in my work and home life. Every single day when I get annoyed with something or impatient or misunderstand something, I say, how can the opposite of my story be true? How can perhaps the there, uh, be a different version of what I am, uh, experiencing?

So a few different like tools, shared communication principles, shared commitments, um, so that, that's sort of the like a little bit of the 1 0 Um, you know, I I feel like for the first year that I was at Asana and I was learning some of these principles and I was trying to employ them and I was, um, awkwardly stumbling through them. But slowly and, and surely getting better at them. I used to joke, like, I feel like I'm still getting more outta the company than I'm putting into it because it was, it was a journey, uh, the way that I, uh, I've spent most of my career in.

Enterprise software companies, right? Very high ASPs, very, um, uh, traditionally competitive with other companies to get, you know, at the same set of customers. And I think that that, that, that led to an, in an internal environment where people were very, um, committed, committed to their version, committed to their solution.

And, um, a lot of conversations were, were a little bit like , uh, were more arguments than conversations and like the, the made the strongest or loudest voice win. And when I came to Asana, it's a very different culture around, um, let's start with the goals. Let's get clear and aligned on our assumptions, and then let's explore the solution set so that we can choose the best solution, like collectively choose the right solution for the problem given, given the assumptions and the options.

And let's be clear on who the decision maker is. And, but let's make a, like, let's make, um, agreement that other stakeholders will be heard and like genuinely heard, not just, yeah, I'm waiting for you to be heard and then I'm gonna, I'm gonna talk. Um, and that, that setting it up in that way and that framework and that expectation of each other, the idea was that once a decision got made, You could trust or believe that it was, it is the right decision and you can get behind it even if it wasn't your favorite outcome or your, the way that you've done it before.

And that's a very different way of going about problem solving. 

Brett Berson: So, switching gears just a little bit, and you touched on this as we've been going, but I'm curious if anything else comes to mind. Um, are there different meetings or rituals on a weekly, monthly, annual basis that you've implemented? Um, as a people leader that you find maybe are a little bit unconventional or different than other companies that have had a, an outsized impact on, on your work?

Anna Binder: I'll, um, I'll highlight three and obviously this has evolved over time, but I think that three have endured. The first is no meeting Wednesdays. There's no meetings on Wednesdays. Maybe there's not like zero meetings, but there are very few meetings on Wednesdays and that matters because great work happens in meetings.

You know, it's not, this is not a statement of like, meetings are bad, great, like, and important decisions are taken there and great co-creation happens there, brainstorming all of the things. But I think it's pretty powerful to have a day when you are allowed to have the stretches of hours of time to get into your flow and into your, your special zone where you can crank work, whether you are an individual contributor or a senior executive.

That really matters. And this is something that it's existed at Asana since the beginning of time and something that, uh, I didn't really realize the value of until I got here. And I, I sometimes joke that the thing that drives engagement like consistently high at Asana is in part, people understand why their work matters.

And in part because they have all day on Wednesdays to actually get it. So that's one. Uh, the second one is we have, we call our executive team company planning. And in part because I don't love the word executive because it creates this like, um, Uh, I don't know, division between me, I'm an executive and you're not.

So I know more or my voice is louder when really I'm trying to create an environment where, um, the best ideas get surfaced and when not the, the highest ranked person. And, you know, I don't mean to be cute, right? Everybody knows who the quote unquote executives are, but I think language plays an important role in reminding people of what our values are and what, what, what our culture is.

And calling the executive team, company planning helps to do that. Um, so company planning is CP for short, and so we do a monthly, um, event called Cup of Tea with cp and it really is an opportunity for any employee to ask any question, uh, across any like a host of topics and sometimes, um, Sometimes the theme of those cup of teas are really around mental health.

Like I remember the ones that were at the beginning of 2020 and where we were. We were all struggling. And, um, employees needed to hear from their leaders that their, the weeks are okay, but the days and some of the moments are really dark. And I think part of coming together as a community, as an Asana community required that, and that's where, what the, the shape that those cup of teas took.

And then, you know, we have a cup of tea after each one of our earnings called to a, like, have real talk about the results and, and, um, you know, where we were successful and where we need to improve and how that influences the next quarter. So that's a second one. And then a third one is, um, I'm gonna actually go to our, our weekly company planning meeting or our executive team meeting where we spend.

The, the format is one or two topics that we go deep on, so we don't do like an around the room of like, Hey, here's what I'm focused on. We use Asana for that. Like, you can get an update async, there's no need to spend time on that. We really try to go deep on one or two topics and we'll invite people in 

But the first 15 minutes, are always the same. The first 15 minutes is feels like, how are you feeling? Let's check in what's going on? And, and th that has two components to it. Um, the first is if there's something that's distracting you, like put it on the table and let's just get it out. Cuz that allows you to be more present in the room.

The second reason that it's powerful is cuz um, leading a company can sometimes be lonely work, right? It's particularly true for the c e o, but it also can be true for the rest of the executives. And so that 15 minutes of ch checking in on our feelings allows us to deepen the bond in the relationships with each other.

Um, just for a moment, on the point about, uh, opening exec team with fields and maybe some of the conscious leadership stuff. 


Brett Berson: are probably people that, that think that that type of stuff is incompatible with high performance. And I think that, that, I guess experience probably having worked at companies that would laugh at the idea of conscious leadership, particularly maybe 20 or, you know, 20 years ago.

W w can you explain why they're wrong and, or maybe what they misunderstand and actually why it's such an important input to performance at Asana?

Anna Binder: Sure. Um, I'm gonna focus my answer on the, the senior leadership team because I think it's easiest to rock there. And it might be, um, where at some companies it would get rejected the most. , you know, I, I, I really believe your first team is, if you're an executive, your first team. That team, right?

Like that is team number one. And high performance. And high impact is not just a functional sport and it's not just an individual sport. You need that in order for the company to be successful. You need that team to be successful. And that team will, um, the company that you, that team leads, is gonna have highs and lows.

It's gonna have, you know, um, we're amazing moments and we're gonna have like the, oh no, it's over, we're crashing moments. Um, I think that that resonates with earlier stage companies, pretty, pretty fundamentally. And in order to weather those, those storms, those highs, those lows, those in betweens, you need to have high, high levels of trust amongst the executives that sit on that team.

and there's a lot of different ways to build that trust, right? You build that trust somehow sometimes with, um, you know, with accountability and with, um, uh, reliability and by performing, but you also build that trust by letting people in a little bit to say, I'm scared about this thing. Or, um, I don't know, the site went down again, or my, my head of, um, performance marketing resigned, or, you know, whatever It is just like a moment of vulnerability to help build trust in a way that will serve you so well down the road when things are hard.

And I actually would argue that it is the most important for the executive team, but it's really important for the board as well. There's such power in that vulnerability and it, it. The second thing that it does is it, it supports real talk, right? Like it, one of my, if one of my colleagues on the on company planning sees me making a bad choice or going off the rails on something, or maybe having a blind spot on something, those are the people that I want to speak up to me to point it out to me.

And, um, it's a lot easier to hear constructive criticism from somebody else that you deeply trust, that you feel like really has your back, that has let you in to their dark moments and their vulnerable spots. Uh, so I can't, um, I can't pitch this enough. I, I can't imagine, um, going through it for the long haul without having, uh, that that connection.

Brett Berson: On this theme about functional exec teams? In my experience spending lots of time with CEOs, it seems like a vast majority of time there is some form of dysfunction

in their executive teams, and it's one of those things that intellectually seems relatively easy and pragmatically, I think is very hard. W w why do you think that is?

Or, or what are the types of dysfunction that you think are most common? You talked about trust, and maybe you could kind of expand on why that goes off the rail so many times, or just what are the other things that you tend to. in working with other CEOs in working at a lot of different companies like the, the, the patterns of dysfunction specifically of executive teams.

And do you think it's different than the dysfunctions of other types of teams?

Anna Binder: Hmm. That is interesting. Um, patterns of dis So I'll start by saying the executive team is unique for, uh, I think what our. A couple obvious reasons, right? Like that's where the buck stops, that's where the, uh, ultimate accountability is. Um, the second is that it's, it's some of the only teams where each person runs a very different function versus, like on the, the, the head of marketing has a, bunch of people on her team that r run different functions of marketing, but none of them are running hr, finance, or legal or product.

Right? Like it's, it's much more homogeneous in that way. The third thing I'll say is it is ultimately at that level that when we come into company planning with that meeting, we take our functional hat off and we talk with each other, like company leaders. It's not my job to think, to be the one that talks about culture and the head of revenue's job to talk about customers.

We're all talking about all of the things, and I, I, I never want somebody to show up in that meeting just thinking about their function.

Brett Berson: you think that's one of the biggest gaps between, call it a VP and a chief this, or a director of that and it, it's the ability to sit outside of your function.

Anna Binder: yes. When I think about, um, interviewing senior leaders, uh, I think about art, you know, I, by the, by the time I interview them, I assume that they're, uh, that they've been vetted for their functional expertise. And I really am looking are, can you be a company Can you talk about things? Uh, can you, can you really sit with that different hat on?

And not everybody can do it. Not everybody wants to do it. Not everybody's walked the, the, the miles or kilometers to be able to do that, but I think it's critical.

Brett Berson: So one question about that, and then I wanna go back to, to the different dysfunctions of executive teams. Wh when you're interviewing, you're on the loop, let's say for a C F O or pick any exec role and you're trying to evaluate, um, can they be a company leader versus a functional leader. Are there specific things you're, you're asking.

Anna Binder: Um, you know, it's, uh, again, by the time they get to me, they've been really vetted. Um, and sometimes it's, it's illuminating and frankly, fun to not ask them questions and just see what questions they ask, right? Like a, um, a company leader in whatever function has a tremendous amount of questions about the company, about the business.

Um, you're, you know, an amazing C F O could fill an hour of interview with questions about the culture. Uh, you know, an, an, a amazing revenue person could spend, uh, an hour asking questions about the product. Like, that's the way they're wired. That's the way that they think, that's they're, you know, and they're assessing, um, one of. A really, really big decision for themselves. And you can tell by what they're asking about what you know, what they're, what, how they're wired, and what they're thinking about.

Brett Berson: So let's move back and just close out the thought around, um, kinda what gets in the way of executive teams or what tends to lead to dysfunction and, and what you've observed.

Anna Binder: So allowing the trust factor to fester, right? Like there are signs of lack of trust and um, I think of it as a primary job of mine, the health and wellbeing of that executive team. So if I see things that are like, feel like cracks in the trust of that team, I make it like my highest priority to think about, to talk about, to, um, partner with the c e o on.

So that's like that trust piece. I will also say that sometimes, especially in earlier stage companies, the executive team is, um, Collection of people that are there in part because of path dependency, right? It's, they're there because, well, they have always been there and like the CEO is not willing to have the tough conversation that it doesn't really make sense for them to be there anymore.

Or, um, they negotiated something on the way in and that it's still like that. I think that if you can't answer questions about the composition of the executive team with integrity in front at an all hands, like there's funky reasons then. , um, something's probably wrong. I'll also say like, I don't know if this is a dysfunction or just a plain bad use of time.

I've been on executive teams where, you know, we spent hours, like hours and hours and hours, um, in a mature company talking about detailed product development decisions at the executive team level. And I think that's a bad use of time. There's like, I shouldn't be in that conversation and the CFO f shouldn't be in that conversation.

The right people should be in the room for that. And I, it's a strange hierarchical decision to say, oh, the most important product decision should be made at the executive team, 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.

Brett Berson: So as we get into our, uh, last little bit of time we have together, I thought we could kind of do a rapid fire round where I'll kind of throw out a topic and, and hopefully you can kind of teach on it or explain in a few minutes and then we'll, we'll go to the next one. uh, so the first one is, um, what are the most meaningful career programs you've built out, or what are a few of the ideas?

 if head of people or a C E O gets feedback that we're not providing career growth, what are some of the things that they should consider doing?

Anna Binder: Yeah, it's interesting, right? Like, um, uh, can I grow my career here and do I have a feeling that I'm gonna grow? Here is one of the most important drivers of engagement. And if I think of, um, high growth companies, The things that the people are missing is that your career growth is coming every single day in the learning and stretching that you're doing by doing your work.

And so I, I personally think that one of the most powerful things that I can do is make sure that managers know how to talk to employees about how, Hey, this program that you're working on, this project, this launch, this is your career growth. This is what is, is making you great. It's, um, people way too often associate career growth with a promotion or a raise, but often it's like the thing that you're working on, that you're getting better on, that you're gaining expertise on.

But employees don't always connect those two things.

Brett Berson: Uh, what are the most important parts of the onboarding process that you've developed at a.

 we spend so much time as an industry on recruiting? Like it is, it is probably the topic that, um, startup CEOs are spending like an outsized proportion of time on and how hard it is to hi, to hire, no matter what kind of market you're in. And it is, um, it is confounding, confusing, and like amazing to me that people don't invest as much time, energy, and, and like sweat and tears into onboarding people, right?

Anna Binder: Like. If you think about this decision you made to hire somebody, you want them there for 3, 4, 5 years. you know, don't worry about them being impactful in month one or two. like, invest the time to onboard them, get them out early. Stage with customers, have them understand the product vision and roadmap.

Get them deeply inculcated to the culture and the values. Allow, give them room to make relationships. you will delay their impact by a week, a month, or maybe even a quarter, but because you've invested in their onboarding, their uh, impact will be much more durable for a longer period of time.

Brett Berson: And so what are, a few of the parts that are a part of your onboarding program that you think maybe are a little bit unique or, or, or particularly impactful?

Anna Binder: So one of the things that we ask our new hire to do is 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 over to the brand marketing town hall. If you're in engineering, go over to the design one just to get a flavor of, of things that might not be, that are close to your work, but not in your day-to-day work.

Another thing that we do is, uh, we do an, um, kind of a, a monthly evening with the, the founders and the executive team that is really kind of a, a smaller sacred space for, uh, for the new hires without all of the people that are, um, Have been here for a long time and in the early days we, uh, this was, I mean, it took the form of a really small, intimate dinner.

Over time it became much more of a, um, a larger scale kind of, I don't know, happy hour type thing. But what our goal there was to demystify leaders and to remind people that, um, you know, corporations can be cold, kind of cog in the machine type of places where you can become complacent, and that we don't want Asana to be that way, and that our leaders were accessible and we will give them real answers to tough questions.

Brett Berson: Um, in what ways do you use Asana at Asana that others might not know about and find value in implementing at their startup?

Anna Binder: If you, there's a couple things. Um, I have, I have a project, a one-on-one project with every one of my direct reports, and inside of that, at the top of it is what their top priorities are for the quarter or for the half. And then, um, beyond that are the topics, like sort of the operational topics that we're dealing with on a regular basis.

but more often than not at Asana and at other companies, those topics are um, those, those topics are tasks that are, have other people on them. And so I try to be, you know, there's some stuff that I work on that is very confidential and people shouldn't see, but most of the stuff that I work on can have visibility.

And I, I invite many more people to, into those tasks for visibility than, um, than you would imagine. Cuz I think that that visibility allows them to have the context to do their jobs and gives them that it like, allows us to move fast because I don't need to debrief everyone and every topic, there's a lot of visibility through Asana and.

Projects and tasks. What is a great all hands look like or, or what are the most important parts of an outstanding all hands?

a great all hands looks like, uh, it's not something you've required people to go to, but it's something that everyone shows up to. So meaning you've created compelling content and real talk in that all hands that motivate people to go. A second sign of a great all hands is that there are so many questions at the all hands that it is you've run over and you need to like, figure out a way to handle those spillover questions.

Um, a third component is that the questions are hard, but they're, they're not mean.

Brett Berson: if you, at your all hands, you don't have a lot of people asking questions, what should you do?

Anna Binder: Um, great question. Uh, the first thing that I would do is sometimes people need to get warmed up. So sometimes I plant a few questions that I know are on people's minds, but maybe people are afraid to ask. So I'll, um, I'll either ask somebody to ask them or I'll ask them myself, like of, of ourselves.

The second thing that I've gone to recently and kind of retic and um, is using, I think it's Slido. It might be Slido, which is an opportunity for people to ask questions anonymously and up, vote them. I, I was really against it for a while because I was so committed to encouraging people to speak up. But then two things happened.

One, we just grew so quickly that a lot of people don't know each other, and it created like a sense of like, hmm, a little bit of fear. I don't know if this is the right question, you know, that kind of thing. And then the second thing is, uh, you know, the pandemic happened and so many thing, the pandemic impacted so many things, but it was harder to get to know people in the pandemic.

So when you're like, we were hiring 20 people every week for a long, long time, and it meant a lot of people were strangers. And I just, um, so now I'm, I've embraced anonymous questions.

Brett Berson: Uh, okay. Last couple ones. Um, how do you help managers get better at parting ways with employees who aren't performing?

Anna Binder: Hmm. Um, I , well first of all, I remind them, you are amazing. You're an amazing leader. You're an awesome manager. You're amazing, and your team is amazing. Which means you deserve amazing. And you've got this person right now that is not having high impact. It doesn't mean that they're a bad person, it doesn't mean that they can't have high impact somewhere else, but you are depriving yourself and your other teammates of amazing.

So you have to, you have to take responsibility here and do something about it. The second thing that I like to say is, um, and this is me really more on the inspirational piece of when you close your eyes and you think about everyone that reports to you. Like, are they amazing? Do you close your eyes and say, hell yes, that person is amazing.

I would like, I would go to the moon to prevent them from leaving. I want them here. I need them here. They are everything. If the answer to that question is anything but hell yes, then it's probably a no and you need to do something about it. Now what does do something about it mean? First of all, it means providing clarity.

Providing clarity on expectations, and giving feedback when those expectations aren't being met. And then taking it to the next step of saying, you are currently not meeting expectations and you and I have got to fix this and we gotta fix it on a reasonable timeline, depending on who you are, what the problem is and what the level is.

That might be a few weeks, and it might be a couple months, but it's not a year. Um, so going in there, clear expectations that we're gonna fix this together. And then over the course of that period, you know, some people like to use performance improvement plans, some people don't. I don't think it matters.

What really matters is that the manager is, um, having those direct conversations and then writing them down because people. People have different ways of hearing and you need to have re respect for people who maybe aren't hearing you and need to see it in writing. And then, you know, sometimes it turns around and sometimes it doesn't.

But it's the manager's responsibility. Say, you know what, as I told you two months ago, you're not meeting expectations. We've been in this together. We've done the coaching, we've done the side-by-side working. We've, we've done the feedback. We're at a point now where you haven't turned it around and we gotta, we gotta wrap this up and this is gonna be the end of your employment at this company.

Brett Berson: And lastly, who do you think you've learned the most from in your professional career? Or who pops to mind that's kind of had a huge outsized impact on who you are, how you approach work, um, and kind of how you've achieved the career that you've achieved?

Anna Binder: There are so many people who've been on Team Anna over the course of many, many years. It would be hard to, uh, it would be hard to boil it down to just one. I, uh, one of the reasons that I I met Asana for so many years and planned to stay here for many more years is Dustin Moskovitz. And the, the things that he's taught me, the things that he's pushed me on, uh, things that I've learned from him, even when he wasn't teaching.

Um, the, you know, I, I talked about the learning that the opposite of my story might. Might be true, uh, came from him. Uh, another person is Kelly Battles, who is a C F O I worked with many, many years ago, and who became a friend, a mentor, a uh, a coach, a pusher, um, and, always there to remind me of being true to myself.

I've worked for other CEOs who really served as like, I almost feel like my personal marketing person, right? the, my personal chief marketing officers. Like, um, the people that you call when you're in the car and you're driving to an interview and you're like, can you just remind me why you think I'm great?

Brett Berson: Cuz I need to hear it as I'm going towards this. I. Just on the point of Dustin, given I think that Asana's now, the, the company you've been at the longest is, is there anything he's taught you that you think he might be surprised to, uh, to know? 

Anna Binder: I've been in it with Dustin for a long time, so, uh, you know, even when he's teaching me things that are making me very mad at him, I, uh, I generally come around and I learn, and then I'm, I'm able to acknowledge it and it's, um, one of the great things about working for the same person for a long, long time.

Right. You, you develop a level of trust and, um, and maybe some humor in, in, in the tough moments.

Brett Berson: Yeah, I am, I'm a, you know, and I'm hugely biased in that I've been, been at the same company for, I don't know, 14 plus years now. And I think that long tenures with a small group of people is very underrated. And building on top of that level of trust and understanding is underrated. Um, and really unique things happen when you, when a small group of people has the chance to work together for a long time, and it, it rarely happens.

Certainly over the last decade it feels like it happens less. So I can I get that.

Anna Binder: I, you know, at Asana I feel like I, I hit the jackpot, right? Like to, to work for somebody and with a group of people, a small group of people over the course of many, many years, uh, you know, with a shared commitment to a mission and an opportunity to like, use the products that you're building and selling every day.

It's just the combination of those things are, it feels like one in a million to me. And, and it, yeah, it, it makes me very confident in continuing to commit to the long term here.

Brett Berson: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us for the conversation. It was wonderful.

Anna Binder: Great to be here.