…Outcomes not hours — The “hours equals value” maxim was overturned in 2020 as we proved that flexible ways of working doesn’t mean we are less productive or less motivated. Our teams across Xero reported feeling more productive at work than normal (prior to COVID-19), and yet flexibility was far greater.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Curzon.
Anna leads Xero’s global product team, overseeing the design and build of beautiful products and services that small businesses and their advisors need to thrive. Anna passionately advocates diversity in technology and building inclusive environments, where people feel enabled to do the best work of their lives.
Anna was appointed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) and serves on the board of KEA. In these roles, she provides her extensive expertise in digital technology to contribute to strategies that enable productivity and digital connectivity for small and medium-sized enterprises for the Asia Pacific region. In 2017 the global SaaS Report named Anna one of the Top 25 Women Leaders in SaaS.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always knew technology was important and I gravitated to technology and digital roles. I didn’t have a specific path in mind. But what I did have was a sense that I wanted to contribute and make an impact.
My mother instilled a very strong sense of fairness and equality in me growing up. I’d define my personal purpose as wanting to democratize access to digital education and technology for all people to help them be successful (whether that be in their career or in running their business).
Growing up in New Zealand and thinking back to the amazing people I met and grew up with, I wonder: if they’d had access to the tools our children have today, what paths might they have taken?
Technology is the key to solving so many issues today. We need more people from diverse backgrounds participating in technology so we can continue to solve every day, real-world problems. I’d love to see countries begin to take ownership of technology education and to give themselves a goal and say: “In five years, we want to have the most digitally literate children in the world.” That will afford them opportunities and a huge competitive advantage moving forward.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Every day we have interesting things happening at Xero. One of the things that’s special about Xero is that we have a very open culture that allows people to come forward with ideas at all levels of the business.
I remember when one of our long-serving female product leaders came to me because she was so convinced that we needed to build a cash flow forecasting tool to help our customers. We backed her and once the pandemic hit, cash flow became even more critical for businesses’ survival. Because she foresaw this need, we were able to provide the first iteration of our short-term cash flow tool to all our businesses and partners at no cost during the pandemic.
I love how purpose-driven our team is and the conviction they have in taking their time to create a high-quality tool that will continue to become more advanced in the year ahead.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Making the switch from working in banking to a tech company is a drastic culture and fashion change! I remember coming to the office on my first day at Xero in my corporate clothes and immediately realized that wasn’t necessary anymore. It was refreshing to see people in clothes they could feel relaxed and comfortable in. The next day, I showed up in jeans and sneakers along with a Xero Tee and a few of our people commented, “yay — now you look like one of us!”. I remember smiling about this then and on many occasions over the following weeks. I knew I’d found my tribe.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First, Xero is an organization that encourages people to bring their whole self to work. When I first started 5 years ago as Managing Director, New Zealand, I spent a lot of time getting to know everyone. My first day was on a Monday so a natural conversation starter was, “what did you do over the weekend?” Neil, who was in our product marketing team for Asia at the time, responded “Oh, I opened for AC/DC — I’m in a band”. The next person I asked told me about the role he was performing in a production of “Phantom of the Opera.” I went home that night and reflected how cool it was that we encouraged our people to pursue their passions and didn’t force people to make a choice.
Second, our value of #human company value drives the way we treat each other and how we respond to situations (in simple language, #human means ‘treat people the way you want to be treated’). Being human has never been more important than during COVID-19, when we became more physically isolated from each other. I remember our CEO saying to our teams in our regular global get together, “just do the best you can.” The response I got from Xeros throughout my team every time he said this was overwhelming. Those six words communicated to our people so much more. They said: “We know you have kids at home, you might be in a small apartment and have hardly left your home for weeks, so be kind to yourself and those around you. Put your wellbeing first.” Interestingly, our engagement and productivity are higher than they’ve ever been. When COVID-19 hit, many teams across Xero were able to collaborate virtually to turn around support services to enable our small businesses to be amongst the first to access government funding across all the regions we operate in.
I’m proud that Xero can be an example of an organization where being kind, celebrating diversity and inclusion and treating people with respect doesn’t mean compromising in anyway.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Xero, our purpose is to make the lives of small business owners and the advisors and those that support them better. We are very excited about the global opportunity to do this because there are still many businesses not operating in the cloud. Historically, we’ve been a core accounting software business and that’s still really important to us. But we’re also looking beyond that to how people can run their entire business on the Xero platform. For example, we’re now developing solutions to support lending, so businesses can pay their staff when times are tough. Additionally, we’re focused on helping solve for the pain points of employers and employees, including how to pay and manage correctly, or helping businesses better oversee their projects and track/invoice their time.
Cash flow is the number one reason small businesses fail. Even before COVID-19, more than half were in the red every month. Using machine learning, we’ve built a cash prediction tool that looks at a business’ bank feeds and the spend/receive money transactions in real-time. This gives a clear picture of what the bank balance might look like over the next month, and what kind of costs may come up in that time. This makes a real difference to people’s lives, so while the problems are hard, the rewards to our customers are super motivating for our people.
Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No — and how often do we ask men this question? We need to make bringing women into STEM an opportunity that everyone takes ownership of. With most of the decision makers in STEM still largely men, we need to begin to shed more light on this community and stimulate discussion in a way that everyone feels safe participating in. That doesn’t mean stapling a diversity and inclusion policy on the wall. Instead, I would encourage men involved in the STEM community, and especially those in leadership positions, to first learn more about themselves. Learn about your unconscious bias (we all have it), your ego (we all have one), and the privilege afforded to you by being male. You have the power to use your privilege to call out microaggressions and to enable real change in STEM that will benefit your people and also lead to better outcomes for your customers. I encourage everyone to do an ally training course — it will change your life and those around you.
COVID-19 has taught us that we can still achieve our goals, without having to take time off or negotiate a shorter working week (and it’s important to note that for many women, negotiating less paid hours does not necessarily mean they do less work than their colleagues, in either hours or outcomes).
My hope is that other companies realize that remote and flexible working does not equate to lower productivity or reduced outcomes. I encourage women in tech to speak with their manager and become super clear on the outcomes they’re expected to deliver, rather than focus on the hours they work.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
One of the biggest challenges that me and many women in technology face is the unconscious gender bias that comes with being a minority in your field. In my early years, I often struggled to connect with my colleagues. I was a single mother and everyone on the leadership team was male. Relationship building and business was done in the evenings over drinks and it was inaccessible to me — I always had to rush home to pick up my daughter.
It’s irrefutable that having a gender balance leads to better business outcomes, greater profitability and value creation. As I learned more about the importance of diversity and inclusion and the evidence published about the benefits, the more confidence I grew. I realized the lens I was providing was really important.
I believe we need to enable people to think critically and understand their privilege and how they can actively use it to ensure everyone feels included. We need to empower everyone to do the best work of their lives. At Xero, we offer unconscious bias and ally training to help cultivate a work environment where people can feel safe, supported and heard.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
COVID-19 impacted everyone and there’s no doubt it has hurt women the most. McKinsey & Company’s annual Women in the Workplace study speaks to this. It’s also given us a chance to transform in a way that busts long-held myths (formerly truths) that have held women back from taking on roles in the tech sector.
Top two for me now are:
Myth 1: where you live defines what you do
Before 2020, it felt like the tech sector was incredibly exclusive and that you had to live in San Francisco, Singapore or London to network with the right people and access tech roles to build a career. COVID-19 triggered a huge uplift in remote working and learning and it doesn’t look like the trend will reverse anytime soon. This ultimately benefits women who don’t live in cities with tech hubs or can’t physically attend classes at reputable education institutions. As long as you have internet access, you can dial in from anywhere in the world.
Myth 2: managers need to see you to know you’re working
We busted this a long time ago at Xero, but it’s a persistent one in the industry. Many companies still have a manufacturing mindset, where they believe that hours equals value. It’s that old notion that if a manager can see you sitting at your desk for eight hours a day, it must mean you’re producing work that’s valuable. It’s not only untrue, but also forces women — who are often caregivers and need flexible working arrangements — out of the tech industry.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
You can’t pour from an empty cup
As leaders, I think it’s critical that we learn about ourselves so we can influence the system around us and understand the motivations of others. Sometimes, it’s ok to eat first (sorry Simon Sinek!).
Own the power of being different
Early on in my career, I often didn’t see people like me around the table or involved in important decisions. I was reluctant to speak up. I came to realize that being the odd one out in the room meant that you were probably the most valuable because of your unique perspective.
Outcomes not hours
The “hours equals value” maxim was overturned in 2020 as we proved that flexible ways of working doesn’t mean we are less productive or less motivated. Our teams across Xero reported feeling more productive at work than normal (prior to COVID-19), and yet flexibility was far greater.
Diversity and inclusion — not a box-ticking exercise!
I encourage every business leader to understand what’s going on in their organization and to create a plan that allows individuals to be aware of their unconscious bias, their egos and their privilege.
Be curious and coach
Curiosity is one of the most under-rated leadership traits. We spent so much of our lives being told that leadership was about having the answers. I think asking excellent questions of yourself and others not only surfaces issues and opportunities you wouldn’t have recognized otherwise, but also helps your people to grow.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think you’ve got two choices when you lead people. You can create a state of fear where people are in some kind of a threat response, or you can operate in a rewards-based environment where people thrive. Fear may give you a short burst of productivity, but it removes all ability to be innovative. People are just surviving.
On the other hand, a rewards-based environment that focuses on people’s strengths and supports their needs provides a long-term boost in creativity and performance. You build trust among teams, so they’re in the right headspace to accept feedback and understand how to leverage their strengths. You show them what awesome looks like and get out of their way.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Don’t feel like you need to follow the old rule book. Trust your instincts and do what’s right for the leader you are and want to be. Make sure you communicate openly and frequently through town halls and “ask me anything” sessions. Build a diverse group of exceptional leaders around you who share your values and will care, challenge and connect with your people on another level. Be vulnerable about successes and mistakes and focus on learning. When people know you trust them and have their back, that they can bring their whole selves to work and they are “enough”; they’ll reward you by doing extraordinary things.
We need to create business environments where everyone can thrive. Trust is key and we’ve found that by treating people with kindness, they feel psychologically safe to do the best work of their lives –
regardless of team size. I think it’s particularly important in the tech sector, where women and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have historically been shut out of this world. We need to create an environment where they can truly be themselves.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I honestly can’t point to one person, but rather would have to recognize the leadership community around me at Xero and the culture that our founder Rod Drury created from Day 1. Rod was always a big advocate for the need for diversity and he was active in promoting inclusion. For example, at the end of his acceptance speech of a prestigious award, he asked me to say a few words on the fly, too. Afterwards he told me he’d realized that there hadn’t been one woman speaker all night during the awards ceremony and he didn’t feel that was right.
This culture has endured at Xero with Steve Vamos as our CEO. Today, over 60% of the global leadership team at Xero are women. This changes everything. It is the most effective and highly performing team I have worked with in my career. Questions and challenges are posed with curiosity, kindness and respect, and always with the goal of driving better outcomes for our people, our customers and shareholders. There is an effortless understanding when someone is late to a call because they’re comforting a child or something unexpected has happened at home. We ask each other for advice and feedback and know that every person around the leadership table has each other’s back. The star player in my career has been the star leadership team at Xero that I have the honor and privilege of being part of. They make me want to be a better human every day. I’m doing the best work of my life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I want to continue to be an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workforce — particularly across the tech industry. I will continue to keep abreast of the issues, influence where I can and just be a voice for change. I’m proud that 50% of my product leadership team at Xero are women, and that we have programs in place to foster an inclusive and equitable workplace. It’s why Xero is included in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for the second consecutive year.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Access to the Internet should be a fundamental human right. According to Statista, 59.5% of the world’s population has access to the Internet. For those of us on the right side of that equation, it would be unimaginable to live in a world without it. But let’s remind ourselves that 40.5% of us don’t. That’s 3.17 billion people around the world that are locked out of the same opportunities that the rest of us take for granted on a daily basis.
The digital divide will continue to grow wider if we don’t give everyone on the planet the opportunity to access information, advice, support, inspiration, education, commerce and knowledge that most of the western world benefits from every day.
Access to the internet fundamentally means better outcomes for our children, women and indigenous communities. It’s foundational to democratizing fair outcomes for underprivileged people in our economies. Not providing internet access and a device to use means we are denying people the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families. How many people are there around the world hiding in plain sight that could solve big problems benefiting the rest of the world if only they were given the same privilege?
Access to the internet means a single mother can take part in education, look for work and apply for jobs to create a better life for her family. Access to the internet means the kid from a low socioeconomic background or rural neighborhood can learn online and find others that share their dreams and aspirations and be part of a community that’s not limited to the geographical space they were born into. How many entrepreneurs would be created, starting small businesses and lifting their communities out of poverty along the way? How many women would be able to find the support they need to leave violent relationships? There is nothing to be afraid of but everything to gain.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
More a poem than a quote, Rumi’s “The Guesthouse” has reminded me in the best and worst of times to be grateful, and to be curious and lean into whatever comes my way. I have printed this poem out and stuck it to the inside cover of my notebook for years. It’s especially meaningful when things haven’t gone my way — sitting with the shame and darkness is where the best growth resides.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!
Without a doubt, Malcolm Gladwell. I have read most of his books and listened to every episode of his Revisionist History podcast. If I had to pick a few of my favorites they would be — “The lady vanishes”, “12 Lessons for Living” and in particular “#1 — Pull the Goalie” and “Puzzle Rush” (go Camille!).
The strong sense of fairness my mother instilled in me and the challenge she gave me every day to think for myself resonates deeply in the spaces and places Malcolm chooses to roam. Through an evidence-based approach, he challenges us to think about people, events and beliefs differently and to confront our definition of the truth. He seeks out the dark corners of history and reveals new insights and observations that often exposes the sad truth; that we have so often been conditioned by media and social norms through history. And in that respect, Malcolm gives us the greatest of gifts. To rethink who the villains and heroes of history really are. He provides a new frame to look at the world through. Thank you, Malcolm.