Ep. 193 – Asana’s Sonja Gittens Ottley on Innovation through Diversity and Inclusion

Ep. 193 – Asana’s Sonja Gittens Ottley on Innovation through Diversity and Inclusion

On this week’s episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Sonja Gittens Ottley.  She’s head of diversity and inclusion at Asana, one of the best work management platforms out there.  Recently, Asana has been highlighted in Fortune as the number one best small and medium-sized company to work for in San Francisco. And Sonja and I talk about diversity inclusion within Asana, how they hire, and some of the trends that she’s seeing in the world of technology. Let’s get started.

Sonja Gittens Ottley, AsanaInside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.io. a provider of research events and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front row seat to the latest thinking tools, tactics, and trends, in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Interview Transcript

[Recorded before the Corona Virus]

Brian Ardinger:  Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today with me is Sonja Gittens Ottley, she is the head of diversity and inclusion at the company Asana.  Welcome to the show Sonja.

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Thank you so much, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: I’m super glad to have you on the show. You’re coming from a company called Asana. If you’re involved in the startup world, and have seen the growth of what you’re doing, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a work management platform that helps teams collaborate. Asana was highlighted in Fortune as the number one best small and medium-sized company to work for in San Francisco. That’s no small feat, so congratulations on that.  Sonja, let’s talk a little bit about Asana and what you do at that company.

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Sure. I’ve been at Asana for four years. And during that time we’ve grown from a company just about 150 when I started, to over 700 people across many different countries. And one of the things that really drew me to Asana and has really made me stay at Asana is we’ve consistently, and from the start, been really intentional about diversity and inclusion. Approaching it in the way that we would any other business strategy. We recognize it as something that not only is the right thing to do, but it’s also something that brings value to our business and to our workplace. Meaning our teams, our employees, everyone. We’re really focused on creating an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive.

If you do that, and if you are approaching diversity and inclusion as an aspect of your culture, you’re not only able to recruit top-quality employees who come from a variety of backgrounds, you’re really ultimately able to retain your employees. That is one of the things that we’ve always been focused on, and it’s something that as we continue to grow, we’ve really scaled in a way that makes sense for us as a company.

Brian Ardinger: It sounds like Asana has had that DNA or that desire from the beginning. How does a company, that it’s leadership is maybe looking at this as a way to improve theirselves? How can they start that process of making diversity and inclusion a more impactful part of the business.

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Part of it is really recognizing that culture and having a culture that is inclusive, ultimately benefits your company. If you think of culture as just something that’s add on or something that just happens. As you build your business, you’re not going to be doing this well. If you think about culture in a different way, which is that it allows you to achieve what you’re trying to do as a business, your missions and your goals, and you recognize I need to have values that support that mission and that goal.

How I want my company and my employees to show up and I think about values in a really intentional way. I don’t think about values as something that, hmm, it might be nice to have this as a value. It’s also being really intentional about what are the things that we absolutely are going to value as a company.

Then you’re able to think about, well, what are the programs and policies that need to be in place to support that? And some of it are really foundational. Thinking about having a policy that creates an inclusive workplace means that you have an anti-harassment  policy. You’re thinking about the fact that you could have people of many different agendas, so you need to think about a parental leave policy. You need to be thinking about policies that support all of the work that you’re doing and the environment that you’re trying to create. And also give signals to your employees, these are things that we stand for as well as these are things that we will not stand for right. So part of it is having that culture built in and having policies that flow from that.

Alongside that is really thinking about how are you training your managers who in addition to trying to figure out how they’re having impact and making their teams grow, how are you training them to build and to empower inclusive teams? How will you give them skills that they probably have not picked up before? Managers do not come…As soon as they get appointed manager, they do not then magically get a set of skills. They have to be trained. So you have to really empower them to do that work well.

And then alongside that is this piece around how are you essentially hiring and building a diverse team? How are you thinking about recruiting and assessing people? How are you interviewing people and what are the policies in place that really look at creating a fair and level playing field? So thinking about it. Alongside the lines of not just recruiting and not just culture and not just policies, but really thinking about it along a really integrated model is ultimately how a company begins to have diversity and inclusion become a core part of their company and their company’s DNA.

Brian Ardinger: How can a company get started? Is it first taking a level stock of the diversity that they have within the organization already? Does it start with hiring? Does it start at upper management defining those values in that? What are some of the starting places that companies can look at to start building this?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: It’s really a combination of all of those things. To me, it’s a Yes and. First off, what does our company even look like? Who’s here? Who are the people that exist in our neighborhood, essentially? So it’s really taking a stock of what are our numbers. What’s our demographics? Some companies have done this through a survey of employees at Asana we did it through our HRIS where people could self-report how they identified, and we gave them a lot of different ways that they can identify in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, citizenship, a number of different ways, and they self report to that information.

That’s one aspect of it. So you get a sense of who exists. But the other, and just as important part is really understanding, well how do you feel. Do you feel as though you belong? Do you feel as though you have a voice? Have a sense of psychological safety. That gets into what’s our baseline at our company around that sense of belonging and inclusion?

Those two bits of data really allow you to understand both qualitatively as well as quantitatively, where you are as a company and then decide, well, what are the next steps. The layer on top of that that helps to inform those next steps and helps to solidify those data points is having that buy-in. When companies are not thinking about diversity and inclusion in a really holistic way, meaning that it’s either driven because employees want it or it’s driven because leadership thinks that’s the right thing. They’re going to be blockers. They’re going to be gaps because people are not understanding that this is something that’s really important across the company.

At Asana, one of the things that I tend to say a lot is diversity and inclusion is a team of everyone. And by that I mean it’s really about ensuring that everyone knows that they have a role to play. Everyone is bought into supporting this. Leadership is giving direction, meaning that knowing that leadership supports this, people know that this is something that’s a company priority. And it also empowers the employees at all different levels to understand that this needs to be a priority. So it takes work off, particularly amongst those groups that tend to be underrepresented in tech. It takes work or the load of doing this work off of my minority groups, my black employees, or my Hispanic employees, for example, because everyone understands that this is something that they have a role to play.

And by doing that, having that leadership buy in, it gives the authority or the empowerment around crafting those policies that support the fact that we want to have an inclusive workplace. Where companies sometimes get tripped up is that they’re trying to do all the things. They’re trying to solve all of the problems. And you really have to be intentional about it. That’s why that data piece allows you to really understand where are the critical gaps and what you should be focused on. And it informs the goals that you set and then having leadership and support throughout the organization allows you to understand where are the levers that I need to focus on. Most importantly.

Brian Ardinger: And it sounds like it really does need to be an ongoing process where I think a lot of corporations and that understand the core importance of it, but they circle back to it once a year with the annual employee survey and realize, Oh yeah, we probably should think about that or focus on that. It seems to be that a core competency of having a diverse and inclusive company is to make it an ongoing part of the business and an ongoing training, ongoing metrics, ongoing analysis of where you’re at and where you’re moving forward. Is that correct?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Absolutely, and part of it is if you start to think of this work as you would any other business objective that you have as a company, you will approach it in that way. Meaning that you will stop and assess. Iterate as needed. You will check and you will be accountable to other stakeholders. You have to approach it in a way that is really intentional. Otherwise you’re just going to be doing a number of different things without seeing the value or the impact or being able to measure that work. So it really cannot be a jump in and jump out kind of situation. It has to be continuous and it has to be continually assessing what works and what doesn’t.

Brian Ardinger: So what are some of the biggest or most common pitfalls or challenges that you’ve seen companies fall into when trying to build out their diversity inclusion programs?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: I think the biggest thing is really that point of doing it without a real strategy, not really being clear on what are you trying to solve and how are you measuring progress? Ultimately recognizing that a lot of this work needs to happen in parallel, but at the same time, companies often don’t recognize that some of this requires change management. You are requiring people to change behaviors. You’re requiring them to look at things that they have done for a number of years or things that they have learned as the right way to do things. For example, one of the things that you need to encourage people to do is, as a hiring manager, how are you assessing employees, new candidates?

What you may have seen in the past is that companies that, well, this person worked at company X, therefore they’re just the right person that I’d need from my team, right? That actually works against diversity and inclusion. Whereas if you’re doing things and seeing, okay, this is the role that I have, what is the skill set that I need for that rule? Just that’s simple change management in terms of really sitting down and thinking about what are the actual skills and competencies and how am I assessing for that opens up the pipeline, requires you to think differently, requires you to understand that you need to be thinking differently to do this work well and really working with, in this case, highing managers or employees or team members on recognizing how bias show up, recognizing that change starts with them as well.

That’s some of the work that needs to be happening. So I think that is one of the biggest challenges that I see companies having because they are trying to do all of these things without that strategy and then not spending that time on doing that shift in culture and really having employees recognize that this work is important.

Brian Ardinger: So are there particular processes or training programs that seem to have really resonated within Asana or other places that you’ve worked that seem to be well received and helpful in moving the organization forward?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: One of the things that we’ve seen really have impact is really doing training that’s focused on inclusive leadership. And by that I mean company is, particularly over the last three or four years, had started to do bias training, right. Which was we all have biases and these biases are unconscious biases, but really having people recognize the impact that they have. Things that are really working now is that training is good and it’s useful, but it’s just the foundation. It’s the start or starting point.

Now we are asking you to recognize those biases, but also shift into how can I proactively ensure that my team is inclusive. What am I doing to ensure that I’m building an inclusive team with my direct reports? So really for us focusing on training that is really team specific and really focused on managers and how they are empowering their teams and creating that sense of belonging for everyone on their teams so that everyone can do their best work. That I think is where we’ve seen some of the greatest impact.

Brian Ardinger:  You mentioned hiring. I know that a lot of companies out there have talked to me about how they’re struggling to find the right talent, or they don’t have the right network to tap into a diverse employment base. Are there particular tips or suggestions for companies trying to expand their reach into different markets and people that they may not have normally work with?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: One of the things that I’ve mentioned before is really being clear on what you’re looking for. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, highering managers say I’m looking for somebody who came from this company or that company and automatically assuming for them, they might be releasing that having worked at company X, you have this set of skills, but a hiring partner cares, usually, I am looking for somebody from company X and just having two things happen.

Having hiring managers work with their talent acquisition or recruiting teams to really be clear on what skills they’re looking for opens up the pipeline, opens up the pipeline in terms of somebody who came from a completely different company or a completely different sector, might have also developed those skills. So just being really clear on the skillset that you’re looking for helps to make a big difference.

One of the other things is really being able to clearly assess how somebody is performing, meaning assessed during the interview process. Whether through competency interviews or behavioral interviews and having clear rubric and greeting that assures that that assessment is fair and unbiased makes a huge shift. I think third and most important thing that I think any company can do and can do this week is really build relationships and partnerships with organizations that support talent that comes from underrepresented groups.

These organizations tend to have direct connections. They have par threes. They literally are trusted names within communities, and by partnering with them, first of all, you’re going directly to the communities you’re working with organizations, that can educate you can help you to create a narrative that is attractive to the communities that you’re trying to reach, and really get your roles in front of really great talent. There are so many great organizations that are doing this work and I’m doing this work well, and companies should not feed as though they need to figure this out on their own.

Brian Ardinger: I think that’s a great tip too, because a lot of times we think we have to do it ourselves. We use the same methodologies we use to attract a certain group of folks that may not communicate well with or might not resonate with it. That’s a very important point, I think, to understand that there is additional help out there and that. Do you have particular organizations that you use at Asana or particular groups that you would recommend people look to?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Sure. Some of the organizations that we’ve worked with here at Asana, Techqueria, which is an organization that’s focused on Latin X tech professionals. We’ve worked with Jobwell, which is focused on talent for minorities specifically black, Hispanic, and woman. Those are the two that come to mind. /dev/color as well is a really great organization that’s focused on supporting black software engineers in tech.

There are so many organizations that I feel as though we’re just calling those three, I’ve forgotten about 10 others, but what I would say is one of the things that companies often say to me is, but we have a great company. We have a great culture. Why don’t people want to come over here? To your point. How are you reaching out to people? Why is your message, or why should your message be attractive to someone who does not know about your company and really doing that work to build a brand that is attractive to everyone?Recognizing that what might be attractive to one group might not be attractive to another group.

Brian Ardinger: How have you seen Asana’s focus on diversity inclusion affect innovation and creativity and the performance of the organization itself? What are some of the big wins that you’ve had?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: The quickest example that I could think of was when we introduced the pronouns into our product. Our product is, you know, as a work management platform, and our mission is really allowing teams to work effortlessly together. In Asana, you sign up, you identify yourself. My name is Sonja. I can identify the team I’m on, how I want to be contacted, but I can also identify my pronoun. She, her, hers. You have to work with team members and some team members use binary pronouns and some use non-binary pronouns. A simple shift, allowing people to include their pronouns sounds really easy. But the impact that something like this has is huge. Because when you’re addressing people, whether in writing or in person, and you’re not acknowledging their pronouns, so you mis-gender someone, that changes how people work with you.

But just being visible about your pronouns and also normalizing it and an organization allows people to feel recognized, allows people to feel seen, ultimately allows them to feel, you know what? I am included here. I can now do my best work. It sounds really easy, but the feedback that we got from external organizations, from other companies about seeing it, about knowing that it existed within our product was huge. And it was just another way to allow teams to just work really effortlessly together because I’m seen.

Brian Ardinger: Absolutely. It’s a great segue too, because the last topic I want to talk about, you’re a tech company out there, and what are some of the new trends or tactics that you’re seeing from companies that are changing the way people are working together or building diverse and inclusive companies?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: The biggest shift I’ve seen in the last four years is recognizing that this has to be data driven. Particularly in tech. We really spent a lot of time digging into both our engagement surveys and digging into that inclusion and belonging sense. And companies have shifted from looking at it in terms of how are women in our organization feeling, but really looking at it in really intersectional ways. So how are woman who identify as black who are in engineering feeling, versus how are woman who identify as white in our engineering department feeling. And you’re able to see nuances, trends, and you’re really able to action this and spending time looking at those intersectionalities makes a huge difference because people are not just one thing.

They’re made up of a multiple of things. The other big shift is something that we touched on, which is around training. Recognizing the training needs to be continuous. Training needs to ultimately serve that sense of inclusion and belonging. And it’s an ongoing process. It cannot be something that just is done and dusted. You have to keep it iterating on this.

The third biggest thing is something that we’ve been doing at Asana for quite some time, which is creating space for employees to talk about the issues that matter to them. We don’t just live in our workplaces. We also live in the real world and creating a space to talk about the issues that are happening outside of the workplace, inside the office, allows people to really feel seen. It allows them to really feel as though they belong, and they don’t have to be someone else inside versus outside. At Asana, for example, we do a series called real talk, where we have those conversations. We talk about what it’s like being black in America or being black in tech or what it’s like to be Muslim.

And we have those conversations because these are issues and challenges that are happening outside of the workplace, but it’s also an opportunity for other employees to understand what others might be facing. The other big thing, or the big shift that we’re seeing is really having people understand that diversity and inclusion is not just about groups that have typically been underrepresented in tech. This work impacts everyone. And if we do this right, and if we do this well, everyone has a role to play. Having that shift come from, well this work just smartest to that particular group, so I don’t need to be involved because I’m part of the majority. That’s not how we make a change.

Work that is focused on ally-ship and advocacy is really one of the big trends that we’re seeing, particularly coming from leadership and leadership and understanding the rules that they have to play where that is concerned. I think that’s where we are really having some of our biggest wins. Creating a culture where we can show up. Both in a way that’s vulnerable, but also in a way that is curious and really willing to learn, and grow is really where we do our best work because that allows us to collaborate better. It allows us all to grow, and I feel as though that’s where the value of having diversity in two separate places really shows up.

Brian Ardinger: Sandra, I really do appreciate you coming on Inside Outside Innovation to share these insights with us. If people want to find out more about yourself or about Asana, what’s the best way to do that?

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Best way is through asana.com diversity and inclusion. That’s our website where we share a lot of the work that we’re doing. We also have a regular Asana blog. Just search for any tags marked culture where we talk a lot about our diversity and inclusion work or talk to me on LinkedIn.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Thank you again for being on Inside Outside Innovation. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Sonja Gittens Ottley: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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