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When to start building your HR function? Later than you think

Asana hired its first Head of People at 120 employees. Maybe you should, too.

“ Putting enough energy into investing in your culture will drive your business.”

Anna Binder

Head of Talent at Asana

Expect to learn:

  • When to hire your first Head of People? 
  • KPIs to measure whether your Head of People is doing their job 
  • How to keep your top employees working for you and not for somebody else
  • Why is it so hard for executives to create real feedback culture?

While Asana’s world-leading management software helps teams worldwide break down and manage their workload, it is Anna Binder who returns the favor to their team.

When she was hired to be Asana’s first Head of People, the culture had been well established even without having a leader of the HR function.

Three years and some 450 employees later, Anna continues to be the engine behind the evolution of Asana’s well-established culture, ensuring that they get their hires exactly right while expanding into a new country after another. 

What does a Head of People do? Switches between contexts – wildly. Anna’s role is incredibly broad, ranging from diversity and inclusion, recruitment, compensation, talent management and traditional people operations to being the executive team’s People person. Often, all in the space of just one day.

Want to learn the fundamentals of hiring your first People person? Look no further. 

When to hire your first Head of People? Maybe it’s not the first thing to worry about.

Simply – if your company isn’t a mess, you shouldn’t hurry too much. 

Asana – back then 120-person strong – wasn’t a mess. That’s why it was quite alright for Anna to get on board later in the company’s journey. While HR as a whole was still a no man’s land, Asana had identified the things that simply needed to get done for the company to run: 

  • Compensation? Taken care of by CEO and Asana’s Head of Finance.
  • Feedback? Coordinated by an eager engineering team employee.
  • Learning? A designer who was really passionate about the subject. 

Prior to Anna’s arrival, Asana’s people operations were kept going by a simple thesis: find out which tasks are important, and distribute those amongst people with a knack for the topic. It is also why she could hit the ground running. She didn’t have to start building in a vacuum, but already had a full house of helpful people who knew how to run these things.

At an early stage, it is much more powerful to identify the things that need to be done – no matter the weather – and then have these things owned by different parts of the organization, rather than hiring a People operations professional to twiddle her thumbs in a corner.  

So… are they doing
a good job?

It isn’t always simple to know if you’re doing the right thing, especially when managing people. How do you evaluate success when it is based on something as fickle as, well, people? Anna has a few different mixed-method measures she uses daily, in order to keep her own work in check. 

Firstly, Asana has ten objectives that are the central guide to everything the company does. They include things such as revenue growth, customer acquisition, international expansion, and employee engagement. One of her primary checks for herself is ensuring that the HR team’s work is in support of those objectives.

Secondly, the KPIs you set for a person taking care of your talent should be eclectic. Anna mixes both quantitative and qualitative measures when keeping herself in check. As an example: it is important for her to keep the engagement survey response rates at 90 percent. Even if people are unhappy, they should be engaged enough to let her know what’s wrong. 

However, it’s not all about numbers when keeping track of your employee engagement, as attrition rates don’t tell you the whole story. If the people leaving are your top performers, there’s definitely a problem with how they are being managed. “I’d rather lose ten bad ones than two good ones,” Anna says.

How does Anna ensure employees are engaged?

People need to know that their work matters. Everyone needs to be able to connect the dots from their daily work all the way up to the company mission. “This approach requires above average levels of transparency and communication, but we believe that the people in our team are worth it, because it leads to better outcomes faster. It also enables us to hire better teammates, because talented people want to bring their full capabilities and directly influence outcomes. We practice this through areas of responsibility (or AoRs). We action AoRs by using our own product to create clarity around who’s doing what, by when. With accountability like this, decisions can be made very quickly.”

 

People need to know that they matter. “Whoever I meet, I want the person to feel – whether it’s fifteen minutes or three hours – that being with them is the most critical thing in the world. I also want to model that behavior for the whole company. 

Asana’s culture prioritizes a sense of belonging. “Ultimately, building a great culture is about the people, not the perks. To truly foster innovation, you must first foster a workplace culture that recognizes the unique and diverse contribution each employee brings,” Anna explains.

 

People need to be able to show vulnerability. Expressing vulnerability and admitting to your fiercest embarrassments is not only allowed at Asana – it’s a core leadership trait. “If you’ve sat in a room with our executive team, you see it every single week,” Anna says. “We’ve recently renewed our company values to reflect our belief in the power of vulnerability.” A culture of vulnerability and “real talk” also helps in setting a solid ground for giving and receiving feedback – two distinct skills. “This can be uncomfortable, but is essential for any company to have a growth mindset,” Anna states. Ultimately, the culture of vulnerability also helps the employees who are in the most vulnerable positions, such as underrepresented groups, who may often feel pressured to act self-confident and unfazed.

 

Culture must constantly evolve based on feedback.

Asana treats their culture as a product: both are constantly evolving, built on intentional design, and improved over time through constant feedback and iteration. 

There are a few ways Asana approaches culture in this way: 

  • Pinpoint the end-user experience and the outcomes you’re aiming for.
  • Design thoughtfully. 
  • Build and implement (programs, comms).
  • Monitor, test and get regular feedback.
  • Fix the bugs. This is important – you have to be prepared to acknowledge where things have gone wrong or haven’t worked, learn from it and evolve.

Anna’s advice on creating a feedback culture that sticks

If your leadership doesn’t make time for feedback, no one will. 

On top of that, Asana has dedicated feedback cycles where managers give feedback on impact, opportunities and growth plans. Doing them more than once a year makes the process faster, lightweight and timely.

We advise managers to include bi-directional feedback into every weekly one on one they have with their direct reports. That way, people get into the habit of doing it and it’s less of a big, scary thing. It also ensures that when it’s time to do the more formal “performance review”, nothing is a surprise.

 

What is the most essential piece of feedback you have received?

“Choose the things you want to get an A+ on and act accordingly. Choose and communicate about the things you are intentionally going to let drop.”

 

What is the most important feedback you’ve given to anyone?

“The work you do every day should make you deeply happy. No amount of prestige, fame, or money will ever add up to more than that.”