“I’d like to start a movement to persuade every single person in America to participate in our democracy” With Anna Binder of Asana

I’d like to persuade every single person in America to participate in our democracy. Of course this starts with voting — in each and every…

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I’d like to persuade every single person in America to participate in our democracy. Of course this starts with voting — in each and every election. But it goes much further. I think Howard Zinn says it well: “It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.”

I had the pleasure to interview Anna Binder, head of people operations at Asana. Anna has spent most of her career working in people operations human resources at technology start-ups, connecting people programs to business objectives and values. As head of people operations at Asana, she leads the company’s efforts in recruiting, total rewards, diversity and inclusion, learning, development, and employee engagement. Before joining Asana, Anna worked in similar roles at MuleSoft, Readyforce, and IronPort Systems. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Oregon and an MBA from IESE in Spain.

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 don’t think anybody wakes up and says, “I want to be head of people operations for a software company.” (But if there’s someone out there that has had that experience, I’d love to meet them!)

After college, I travelled around the world for two years before landing in the tech hub of San Francisco. I ended up in a catch all role for a small internet start-up, doing hiring, finance, and office management. We grew rapidly and I ended up focusing more and more on the People Operations.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved the work and it was clear how the company leaders and even the board prioritized the work of hiring, motivating and rewarding the employees. I began to see what kind of impact People Operations could have on the business.

At the same time, I had trouble finding mentors in this function. Every time I met someone socially, I enthusiastically talked about my work and they would just roll their eyes. Not a great hit for the ego. My career of choice — one I loved and thought I was pretty good at — was not a well-respected business function and that felt pretty crappy.

I eventually felt topped out in my work and went to business school at IESE in Barcelona. It was a fantastic program that helped me get to a place where I didn’t care what other people thought about the function. I finished the program feeling very motivated to chart my own course as a business person that worked in the People Operations function, connecting culture and values to objectives.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When you’re doing people operations at a really small company, you’re doing everything — running payroll, benefits, onboarding, recruiting, performance management and engagement surveys. And as the company grows faster than you have hours in a day, the list goes on and on.

About a year in to my first role, I screwed up the payroll pretty badly and 75 people had their paycheck delayed for more than five days. It was awful — if I couldn’t get the basics right, what was I even doing there?

I learned a lot from this mistake.

First, prioritization. In general, you will always have more work to do than you can practically do in a day. Figure out what you need to get an A on, what is nice to have and what you will explicitly choose to let drop.

Second, take 100% responsibility. I let everyone know what happened and I didn’t waste people’s time explaining that I was overworked and overwhelmed by all the stuff I had to do. They didn’t care about that — they just expected to be paid on time.

Third, figure out creative solutions. The limitations of our payroll provider meant that a traditional solution was days away. I spoke to each one of those affected and tried to create a solution that was customized to their situation. This included cutting short term loan checks out of accounts payable, covering late fees and even sending letters of apology to annoyed landlords.

Finally, over communicate. I held office hours daily, sent emails twice a day with updates and responded to every request for help within a couple hours.

Needless to say, I’ve made many more big mistakes since then and the formula of prioritization, ownership, problem solving and communication has helped me manage them.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’ve spent most of my career working in venture-backed, founder-led technology companies. Most of my work is about growing the team and scaling the culture.

A common assumption is that you can either choose to have strong business results or a wonderful culture. Others believe that you can balance the two and have both. At Asana we believe that it’s actually investing (and re-investing) in company culture that drives our tremendous business results — 50,000 paying customers in 194 countries and six quarters of accelerating revenue growth rates.

A lot of this is the pyramid of clarity, which we use to help get everyone in the company aligned to the strategy and how their work on KRs connects to the company objectives.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Asana, we want to create a culture where all people can do their best work and thrive. We believe that will help us achieve our goals and realize our mission. I see it as my job to look for ways to support under-represented groups and to create an environment where people feel safe to speak up when it’s not the case.

One thing that has always bothered me is how the sexual harassment prevention training is done. Often, this required training is provided through the lens of compliance, focusing on reducing risk for the company by making sure managers understand their reporting responsibilities. There are consultants, many of them experts in the case law, who go into companies and provide a check-the-box training for managers.

This seems like a wasted opportunity! At Asana, we’re working on building our own version of the training that moves beyond risk prevention and into how managers can proactively create an inclusive environment for everyone.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

My answer is really to any leader. I’ve found success in build thriving teams through a six — point approach.

First, make sure everyone really gets the mission and why the work matters. People will connect to it in different ways and it’s your job as a leader to understand those differences in a nuanced way.

Second, establish clear goals that people understand and feel connected to. In order to build a successful team, your teammates need to be bought into your goals.

Third, establish clear roles and responsibilities of work — everybody should know what they need to accomplish and by when. And of course, how it ladders up to the company’s objectives, strategy and mission.

Fourth, be a champion of constant feedback (the good, the bad and even the ugly!). I try to never miss an opportunity to thoughtfully point out where somebody shines or could further develop. If you’re doing this step right, you’ll be exhausted by all the feedback you’re giving. It takes a lot of energy to encourage good behavior in a meaningful way. And it’s important that this feedback happens continually, not just in quarterly or yearly reviews. I have a standing item in each one-on-one with my directs where we give each other feedback. Making it a daily practice ensures it happens and makes it less scary for both the giver and the receiver.

Fifth, make yourself available to give advice, provide feedback and do co-working sessions. This can be difficult and exhausting but it’s your job!

Finally, celebrate wins! When something is achieved or a goal is met, take a minute (or a day) to honor that milestone before you jump to the next project. You worked so hard to get here, you just need to stop and appreciate it.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

It is so important to invest heavily in all levels of your team. I have regularly scheduled skip levels with the people on my team that don’t report to me directly. It’s often a walk around the block where I ask a few questions. First: what are they working on and do they feel they are being successful?

What’s getting in the way and how can I be helpful? Then, I ask them how they are growing or being pushed outside their comfort zone.

Finally, I ask them if they’re happy. We all have one wild and precious life. Working takes up a lot of time and if it’s not bringing you joy, it’s time to take a long hard look at why and consider making some changes.

If you feel something isn’t right today, you have a chance to fix it. Sometimes, all it takes is a few tweaks here and there. Other times, you may just be in the wrong company or industry and it’s okay to have that conversation too.

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?

So many people come to mind but we have word count limitations so I’ll start here:

The first is Marten Mickos, the CEO of HackerOne. I’ve consulted with Marten at almost every major career transition and he’s always given me real talk to force me to think about the trade offs I’m making and the questions I need to answer to be true to my heart.

The second is Gabrielle Toledano, one of the most respected human resources leaders in silicon valley. I don’t know how she does it, but I’m convinced every single opportunity she gets, she says nice things about me. Throughout my career, I have had so many people come up to me and share what Gabrielle’s told them about me. Having someone like Gabi looking out for you in your journey is just priceless. And I know she does this for many others. It’s just who she is.

Finally, I’m very grateful to work for Dustin Moskovitz, Asana’s co-founder and CEO. Dustin has a powerful combination of wisdom, kindness and the most solid inner moral compass. He’s a great thought partner, a champion of my work and when I need it, he’s not afraid of tough conversations to help me see how the opposite of my story could be true.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I was first making my way in this career, I asked a lot of people for help or advice on how to figure things out. I will be forever grateful for those that made time for me when they didn’t have to.

Today, those requests are coming to me — career advice, or input on a new product in HR, or CEOs who want to implement good culture-building practices early-on. It’s really easy to

de-prioritize these requests in face of the demands of your “day job,” but to ensure I’m giving in the way I received, I try to create a weekly budget of 1 hour to meet with people who are looking for my perspective. I try to prioritize people that I believe have less access, which means I am going to prioritize a woman of color starting her first company.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, I believe that in using a criteria-based approach in evaluating career opportunities. This starts with some introspection: sit down and write down the 20 things that describe your ideal role. This could include anything you want: industry, type of role, size of company, stage of growth, compensation or characteristics of your managers. Then, organize the list based on priority. Mark the things that are the most important as “A”, the really important as “B” and the nice to have as “C”.

Then, make sure you’re evaluating opportunities against your core “A” criteria first. You don’t want to land in a gig that meets many of your goals but none of your top criteria.

Second, remember your career is a jungle gym, not a ladder. This means being open to things that may come, but that you may not be able to imagine today. One of the things that I believe makes me successful is that I don’t worry too much on what will happen next in my career. I put my head

down and try to do a stellar job on whatever is front of me. I believe that good things, opportunity and growth will follow. I try to waste no energy worrying on what I can’t control.

Third, if everything is important, then nothing is important. Choose what you need to prioritize and be clear on what you are willfully going to let drop. At Asana, we call this aligning our attention to our intention. Our product and our culture encourages employees to focus on things that truly matter, not just what’s on the top of their inboxes. I really believe this is essential in all functions, not just at Asana or in People Operations. There is power in saying “no” and setting proper expectations with your teammates.

Finally, I believe that the combination of showing personal vulnerability and maintaining a sense of humor, will get you through almost any tough situation.

You are a person of great 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.:-)

I’d like to persuade every single person in America to participate in our democracy. Of course this starts with voting — in each and every election. But it goes much further. I think Howard Zinn says it well: “It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.”

12. Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You don’t need to pitch a perfect game, you just need to win the game.”

There’s a fantastic vignette in Lean In about Sheryl Sandberg racing to get out of work to get to her son’s soccer practice. Her meeting runs long, she hits traffic along the way and feels terrible that she will be late. She finally arrives and comes careening into parking lot, where she sees her husband strolling out of his car. She’s feeling disappointed in herself for both abandoning her meeting and being late to field. He looks at her and says, “Hey we made it! So amazing, we still get to see our kid, this is great!”

I really related to this. My husband and I try hard to ensure we prepare a meal for family dinner every night. As you can imagine, things don’t always go as planned and when we find ourselves flat-footed at dinner time without anything in the house, we often have different initial reactions: I feel we’ve missed our “goal” and he sees it as a great opportunity to visit our favorite neighborhood vietnamese restaurant.

I’ve learned so much from his perspective on this. Women put so much unrealistic pressure on themselves to pitch the perfect game. But really, 99% of it is just showing up — give yourself a break and celebrate the small daily wins.

13. Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 🙂

Let’s skip the meal and do a tough workout session with Michelle Obama and the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Can we make that happen?

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