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An Exclusive Interview with Sonja Gittens Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana

How many times have you encountered a company with a set a values that didn’t match their actions? We see it all the time, don’t we? “Culture” has become synonymous with “Values,” so we tend to think changing values will change the culture.

News flash: it won’t.

In this interview, we spoke with Sonja Gittens Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana. From the beginning, Asana’s leadership has been laser-focused on building a culture that is inclusive. They approach it the same way they approach the building of their products; in a really intentional way. It’s more than just team outings or free lunch at the office… It’s about ensuring that you’re prioritizing the creators of your product: your employees. Because when people feel comfortable in their workplace, they contribute more to your business.

Culture is not a set of cute, clever statements you can easily rattle off or spray paint on your walls. It’s about behavior shift.

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • The importance of converting your organization’s value/culture from phrases into actual actions
  • Why executive buy-in is crucial to the success of a diversity and inclusion initiative
  • The need to create a space for having authentic conversations
  • The real value of diversity and inclusion

Listen in above (cc available), or read below the transcript of our interview with Sonja. You can also listen on SpotifyiTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.


FIONA: Our guest today is Sonja Gittens Ottley, head of diversity and inclusion at Asana. For those of you who might not be familiar, Asana is a web and mobile app designed to help teams organize, track, and manage their work. Actually we use it at Hive Learning, and we love it. And prior to working at Asana, Sonja was the global diversity program manager at Facebook, and previously held roles as global policy counsel at Yahoo, and an attorney at the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago.

SONJA: Thanks so much for having me. I’m Sonja, and as you mentioned I head diversity and inclusion at Asana, where I lead all of our diversity and inclusion policies and strategies to ensure we’re building both a diverse workforce, and an inclusive workplace. I’ve been here for three years, from the time the company was less than 200 people, to now a company of more than 400 people with offices not only in the U.S., but outside of the U.S., including Dublin, and Sidney, Australia.

FIONA: Amazing. I’m so excited to have you on the show, because as I mentioned, we use Asana in our own business, and our company as well oftentimes follows what you guys are doing in the diversity space because I know that you have loads of initiatives going on that are really interesting, so really excited to hear about that today. First though I’d like to ask you the question that we start with for every guest on our show. Can you tell us how you first became woke to inclusion and diversity? So when was the moment you first realized it matters in business, and society more broadly?

SONJA: Sure. So as you mentioned, I started off in the tech space in the U.S. at a company called Yahoo, where I was part of our because and human rights program, where we essentially looked at how to ensure that companies were thinking about human rights issues in the context of the tech products that they were producing. One of the things that we did was hosted an event in Egypt where we really looked at the impact of our platforms on the Arab Spring that was happening at that time, so think back to 2011, 2012. And one of the things that we realized is that we were meeting all of these activists, and all of these great people who were using the platforms in ways that were really different to how we were creating those products.

And it really became apparent to me that it was much easier to build products when you started to think about, not only how we were thinking about them here in our offices in the U.S., but really including the perspectives, and the opinions, and the learnings, of the actual users.

And part of that is by having people on the back end building the product actually reflect the front end, the users. And that got me to thinking, how are we starting to encourage people to join and become a part of that space? How are we encouraging people to really participate in creating these products. Whether as part of existing companies, or establishing companies on their own. And as I started to think about that it really became clear that part of that is creating that access to opportunity, creating a space where everyone understands that they can play a role in creating these products, they have a voice, and creating a real opportunity for others to contribute to that. So that was my pivot from thinking about policy, and purely legal issues, into how do we…

FIONA: Wow, thank you. Yeah that’s an incredible story. And just to fast forward a bit to your time in Asana. Of course I’ve read loads about Asana’s culture, and loads has been written about it as well. Could you share a bit more about your culture, and also what makes it so unique?

SONJA: Sure. One of the great things about Asana is that from the start our founders have really been focused on building a culture that is inclusive. We’ve approached culture and culture building in the way that we’ve approached the building of our product, in a really intentional way. And we realized from the onset that it’s not about having perks, it’s not about having, as many tech companies do, free drinks, or free lunches. That’s something that’s nice to have, certainly, but it’s not the only thing.

The real benefit of building a culture, or thinking about a unique culture, is ensuring that you’re thinking about the people that are participating in your product.

The employees that you have. And a great culture really allows people to really feel comfortable, and contributes to the growth of your business. So we really thought about it in a way that’s thoughtful, that’s intentional, that takes into consideration what our employees want, but also what makes sense for us as a company given where we are in our growth, in our timeline. One of the other things that I’d point out, is that companies often tend to think of culture as having some values, and these values tend to be really nice, short, cute, phrases that we can easily rattle off. But, when you’re doing this in a really intentional way, you have to live those values, and they have to be things that make sense for you as a company. So as an example, one of the things that we did at Asana is we have a value around the concept of mindfulness. It’s apparent in the way that we approach how we build our products for example, in a really thoughtful and intentional way. But it’s also something that shows up in terms of how we think about our culture. So, one of the things that we do is, on Wednesday’s we have no meeting Wednesday’s. The idea behind that, it’s a time that we can, as employees, take time to really sit and think about the work that we’re doing. We have set aside time for analysis, for really deep thinking, and it’s something that we all try to honor as far as possible. We know that it cannot happen all the time, but it’s something that we really strive to. Because it’s something that ties back to that concept of mindfulness. So the point I’m trying to make here is that…

And that’s something that we’ve really tried to subscribe to as a company, and that we continue to kind of live through as a company.

FIONA: I love that Sonja. You know we oftentimes at Hive Learning talk about how if you wanna change your culture, ultimately when you boil it down culture is a combination of shared values, and shared behaviors. And so I think a lot of businesses stumble a bit on this because they think, well let’s just reframe our values. And we have these values and this will change the culture. And actually, if you don’t help people understand what behaviors they need to change, to actually do things differently in the day to day, then you won’t see that shift in the culture as well.

SONJA: Exactly. Exactly. And part of that is having some of that buy-in as well, right. Even if you don’t end up in a place where everyone … You’re going to have times when people are like,

“Why are we making this shift? Why are we doing this change?” But once you’re able to say, “This is the thinking behind it. This is why we’re doing it in this way,” you’re able to create that sense of buy-in, so people understand the process, and how you ended up at point B, and people are able to come onboard for the journey.

FIONA: Yeah. And I think buy-in is a great point. And actually I’d love to ask you a little bit about executive buy-in too, ’cause that’s so important for diversity and inclusion initiatives to be successful. So could you tell me a little bit about how you structure initiatives so that they map back to broader business goals, to make sure that you do get that buy-in and support?

SONJA: Sure. So as I mentioned, one of the things that we’ve really tried to do is,

And as part of that diversity and inclusion we’ve approached in a way that we would approach any business strategy, in a really intentional way, with goals, with metrics, with a sense of accountability, but also with executive buy-in. Meaning that our executives are one of our key stakeholders in this entire process. So they have to be really onboard with whatever we’re trying to do.

We don’t approach diversity and inclusion as a nice to have, this is something that we think is absolutely critical to business success.

So we really think about it in a way that makes sense for us as a company, and it’s tied back to what we’re trying to achieve as a business. So, at Asana, our mission is to help humanity thrive. We ensure that our business objectives ladder back up to that mission. And our diversity and inclusion strategy is in support of those objectives. So we could, with diversity and inclusion, approach it in a way that says, “We want to do all the things in the next six months,” but would that be right for us as a company, would that be right for us given our bandwidth, our time, and our resources? We have to stop and we have to think about it in a way that’s really holistic. What makes the most sense for us given where we are as a company. And how can we have the greatest impact over a certain period of time, both in terms of short, medium, and long term. So again, like any other business strategy. And then in terms of executive buy-in, I have a conversation with our CEO where I say, “What would you like to see us achieve?” And that helps to inform the actions that I set out to take in the next year. And that is really crucial to us getting this right, because after we get that support from all of our execs, we have to report on how we’re doing. We have to share our metrics. And we share our metrics, not just with our executives, but also with our entire company. We’re really transparent on how we’re doing, both in terms of our successes, but also in terms of our challenges. Because that’s how we think we’ll really be able to see improvements. We’re also going to be able to look at where we need to make changes, where we need to shift. And having executive buy-in really allows, again, as it would with any strategy, allows you to really iterate, and really course correct, and really do the things that have the biggest impact.

FIONA:  You know it really resonated with me when you were taking about kind of the focus, try to focus on the things that have the most value. And obviously when you think about strategy, it’s really all about trade offs and what you’re gonna focus on, and not focus on. So thinking about the 80/20 rule, I’m curious to know what’s the 20% of stuff you’ve done at Asana that’s yielded 80% of the value?

SONJA: That’s a great question. One of the things that I felt was really easy left, not much work needed, but which I felt really had the biggest impact, was,

We have started a series, an internal series here that I call real talk, where I just get three or four people to come and share their perspectives. So the first one we did was back in 2016, about three months after I started, talking about being black in America. And that conversation was four people sharing their perspectives, they weren’t speaking for the entire black population in America, they were sharing their perspectives as black people, some of whom were in tech, and some were not. And just being really authentic about what it’s like. And that conversation was really honest, it created a space … We set parameters for the conversation. The main parameters being that this is a conversation where people are sharing their experiences, they are not speaking for the entire black population in the U.S., they are sharing their perspectives as black people, some of whom are in tech. There are no questions that will be considered ridiculous, it’s a space where you can learn. And you may feel uncomfortable from some of the conversations.

It created a space where people asked really authentic and honest questions. People shared their views, and it also allowed us to use that as a jump off point in terms of having really hard conversations.

We’ve continued that series over the last three years on a number of topics, from being Muslim in America, to being multi-racial in America, all of which have really allowed employees at Asana to understand more about other employees at Asana, and created a space where people feel seen, and feel heard, and really understand where others are coming from. And I think it’s something that is really low lift in terms of organizing, in terms of encouraging. But the benefits of having those conversations continue to reverberate three years on.

FIONA: That’s brilliant. Yeah I can imagine, just starting the conversation is so powerful. Thank you for sharing that. I think as well, it’s interesting to hear about the parameters you’ve set, and I think it’s important in these circumstances to sort of set the sandbox. I’m curious as well, are the contents of those sessions, are they kind of private to the people within that room? Is that one of your rules as well, that you can’t speak about what someone said outside of the room?

SONJA: So we don’t put any blocks on talking about it outside of the room. We don’t record the conversations, but we don’t ask people to keep it private. Because, and I think part of that is because we’ve evolved into creating a really safe space for these conversations, from the first conversation straight through to the one we’ve had in the last six months or so, where we’ve really felt that people understand other employees. And it’s safe for other employees to talk about it. Now we also do a real talk series that’s external facing, where we invite people from outside of Asana to participate in those conversations. And for those conversations we do ask people if they’re going to talk about it, not to attribute it to any particular person, or any particular company.

FIONA: Can I get an invite?

SONJA: Certainly, of course.

FIONA: Next time I’m in town I’ll hit you up.

SONJA: Okay.

FIONA: So just to change gears a little bit, so what does it mean for an employee to bring their whole selves to work, and how does that help them do better work?

SONJA: Well one of the things we really try to embrace at Asana is, recognizing that everyone has something that makes them unique.

I don’t want people to say, “You know what, I don’t see race,” or, “I don’t see color.” And I’m just using those two as examples, because I think that when you say things like that, you’re kind of erasing someones identity.

And something that they may feel valued. So one of the things we really try to do, is encouraging people to see that people have differences, and all of those differences contribute to making them unique, so that’s the first part of it. But, one of the things that we really want to make sure, is that when you’re creating a culture that’s inclusive, you want to make sure that you’re creating a place where every employee feels, “You know what I’m valued and recognized.” And when I feel valued and recognized, I can be exactly who I am inside of the office, as I am outside of the office. And when I can come in here and have a bad day because of what’s happening in society, people understand why I might feel that way, I feel seen, and you know what I can perform better because I know that my colleagues understand what’s happening to me.

Ultimately when I allow someone to bring their whole selves to work, I can ultimately do my best work, because I know I don’t have to be someone else, I don’t have to pretend to be someone else. I can just come here and do my work. And that’s the real value of allowing people to bring their whole selves to work.

FIONA: That really reminds me of a podcast I listened to recently with Bernay Brown where she spoke about some of her research about this. And that when a person has that higher, stronger, fence of belonging, that they’re able to bring their whole selves to work, yes, and be themselves, but even a step further than that too, that they are able to speak truth to power, and to really be contrary. And oftentimes that leads to the best decision making, right, the most creativity, to benefit the business too.

SONJA: Exactly. One of the benefits of having diversity and inclusion is that when you fell as though you can absolutely be your full self, you can speak something, as you’ve mentioned, that is perhaps a different view. And it really allows a team to work together to figure out what’s the best solution, because you’ve been able to voice it.

It’s not just having people who come from different backgrounds, who have different perspectives working together, you have to be able to feel comfortable to voice those perspectives. That’s the real value of diversity and inclusion.

FIONA: Exactly. And this is why I think inclusion has become so … You know there’s so much more interest and focus around inclusiveness at the moment. And I’m curious to know from your perspective, what benefit does a focus on inclusion rather than just diversity bring to a company, and how can companies reframe their approach to account for both diversity and inclusion?

SONJA: Diversity is really about getting the right people in, and getting people in to your company, or into your workplace, or onto your teams, that come from all of these different backgrounds. But inclusion is a value.

Inclusion is where everyone is now here, and they want to stay here.

They want to perform, and they’re allowed to perform at their best. That’s the real value, and that’s the benefit that we see from all the research that we’ve seen in terms of having diverse teams. It’s not just having diverse teams, it’s having diverse teams that are inclusive, that bring real value to companies, and to teams, and to product building. And as companies really start to think about inclusion and belonging, that’s where I feel we all need to be pivoting to. We have to be really crating a space, beyond thinking of someone as other, but really recognizing that because we have all of these different people participating in a team, that we can all benefit. Part of it is ensuring that we think about inclusively dish up, so it’s both in terms of how managers are managing, and creating a space for inclusion, and that is as simple as creating a space for an introvert to speak up and to share their views in a meeting. Because an extrovert might have all the power in the room, how are we thinking about introverts on a team. That’s a simple thing that we can be thinking about that creates an inclusive team. To how are we thinking about managing people that we may not have met before in our personal lives. How are we thinking, and really creating a space where they are seen and heard, where they can bring their full selves to work. That’s where a lot of my colleagues and peers are thinking. That’s where I’m thinking for 2019 as well, in terms of how are we thinking about this in a real sense of belonging. And, the other part of this is not just thinking about this for groups that are typically underrepresented in tech.

We really have to think about inclusion and belonging in terms of everyone, creating a space where majority groups have a sense of understanding and allyship, for groups that are typically underrepresented as well.

FIONA: I love those practical tips. And I’m curious, so what’s one simple thing that you could share that anyone could do in their work environment this week to build inclusion?

SONJA: One simple thing, I think the easiest thing to do right now, for anyone, is to ask someone on your team how they’re really doing.

It’s something that sounds pithy, but it’s something that creates a real, real connection. When people feel seen, when people feel valued, they are going to connect with you in a different way, and they’re going to have a conversation with you. You’re gonna learn something about them, and you’re also gonna learn the levers that allow them to move. I’ll give an example. About two years ago there was a summer when there were a number of killings of young black men in the United State. And I spoke to my then manager about the fact that he had not asked me how I was doing with all of this going on. And he said, “I just didn’t know how to do it.” And I said, “All you have to do is say how are you doing? That would have been the easiest open.” And he said, “I just didn’t feel comfortable.”

And I realized at that point that it’s not for me to make someone feel comfortable, it’s something that might feel uncomfortable, but just hearing the question takes such a burden off of the employee, creates a space just to feel recognized, and just makes a huge difference.

FIONA: And it’s so simple isn’t it? It really doesn’t take any thought, or any effort just to start that conversation.

SONJA: Yeah. Now the 2.0 of that version is, to really ask a pointed question, which is, I have seen that X has happened, and it might impact your community, how are you feeling about that? That’s the advanced learning portion of this course. But it’s something that I would encourage, particularly managers, to go deeper. Because that’s where you see the really benefits of building an inclusive team. The other part of it is what I’d call the 2.1 version, so not a 3.0, a 2.1, which is really cultivating a sense of empathy. By that I mean, learning more about the issues that might be important to team members, and creating a space where they know that you’re learning. And you have to do a lot of this learning on your own, remember that search engines are typically your friend. And really create a space where people know that you want to talk about these issues, and that you know that they are important.

FIONA: Just get curious right?

SONJA: Correct.

FIONA: That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing those lessons with us Sonja. I’m sure there’s a lot for listeners to take away from this session. If anyone listening wants to stay connected with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

SONJA: Sure. I’m on Twitter, and LinkedIn, just search for me and you’ll find me. And you can also follow Asana on Twitter.

FIONA: Thank you so much Sonja, it was wonderful chatting with you.

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Be sure to follow Sonja as @SonjaOttley.

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An Exclusive Interview with Sonja Gittens Ottley, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Asana

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