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Podcast: Business is Boring #5 – new(ish) Xero managing director Anna Curzon

‘Business is Boring’ is a new weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound will speak with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and text. This week: Anna Curzon of Xero.

What’s it like to lead up one of New Zealand’s biggest and most high-profile companies? That’s the challenge facing Anna Curzon, the new(ish) managing director at Xero. She comes to the role from a background working with Spark and 18 years at ASB doing things like running internet banking and innovation, so is well placed to fill the big shoes of Victoria Crone, who recently departed for a tilt at the Auckland Mayoralty.

Xero gets a lot of press. Being a listed company it has to release a lot of information, its share price has become a cypher for those that like to question the growth model of modern software as a service (SaaS) business, but while some question how a company yet to make a profit can be worth the best bit of 3 billion dollars, many of the world’s most sophisticated SaaS investors line up to invest, giving it a huge cash balance and a licence to spend it pursuing growth.

Xero is a standard bearer for the new economy, and is an inspiration for many tech and future focussed businesses, and with new feet under the desk I was keen to chat to Anna to learn about her leadership style, business heroes, the steps along the way to get to her role and her views on how diversity increases the perspectives and so the richness of a country, in all senses.

Have a listen below, or download here on iTunes, or here on Stitcher – or read on for a transcribed excerpt.

What’s your leadership style leading up the New Zealand business?

For me it’s about really making sure people have clarity about what they need to do to succeed. Because within Xero we’ve got a real culture of meritocracy and so we have open communication platforms, we use the Yammer all the time, we’ve got Jostle, we have Google Hangouts. So we can remain connected all the time and we know that the next great idea can come from the 21 year old that’s just joined us. So we need to make sure we’re constantly listening and engaging with our people to harness their ideas and their thoughts. Because if we’re not, we can very quickly become disassociated from our community. For me, my leadership style is very much around the idea of being super clear about where the north star is and allowing people to go forth and get the job done. Very collaborative. Understand that we need lots of lenses into a decision and so for me, diversity is super important. Having different styles sitting around the table. I get a bit worried when we’re all high-fiving each other and saying how fantastic we are. I think, well, where’s the person in the room that’s gonna just add a different perspective because we might trip ourselves up if we’ve got too many people thinking and swimming in the same lane. So for me, clarity is super important. Ensuring we’ve got the right tools to empower people. Getting the very best of people and then setting them free to do the things that we’ve asked them to do.

Do you have a motto or words to live by?

It’s interesting, a really great mentor of mine once said to me when I was clasping my hands and fretting over a situation, “You know, Anna, stuff them if they can’t take a joke.” Actually it was probably a bit more profane than that. Don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t take others too seriously either. Be really focussed on, again, what you’re setting out to achieve. I think one of the other things I often say is, the truth will set you free. Just ask why? Why why why why why? And whatever it is, embrace it, even if it’s not what you wanna hear.

That’s interesting. Linking that and also the idea of bringing the information up from the new 21 year old that started at the company, how do you do that? And make sure that you hear them when they’re telling you that you’re not on the right track?

A great example is through our Yammer platform. So it’s an open platform that we use at Xero. anyone can post anything. Look, we’ve had Barneys (fights) on Xero as a company because we’ve disagreed but I love that. I absolutely love that because it means we’re having the conversation and we can get onto it quickly. It doesn’t fester and we can move on. Sometimes it’s okay to agree to disagree, if you like. I think one of the other things that I’ve done throughout my career, especially in the last ten years where I’ve been sitting in meetings and I’m very proud of the fact that I’m focussed on digital and I’m up to the game with all the new trends etc. So many times I’ve gone into a meeting and gone god, these guys are talking a different language. What’s this algorithm on Google they’re talking about?

For me, leadership has become quite a humbling experience and often I’ll reach out to someone who’s 10-15 years younger and say hey can you just mentor me for a half day on this because you’re talking about it and that’s new to me. Can I shadow, can you just whiteboard that out for me, can we catch up again for a coffee, can you take me through that? Because I know that I’m never going to be able to keep across all the new trends and sites that are happening in our business, let alone the digital world. So I think as a leader in today’s age you really have to be humble about that and go “I didn’t understand a thing you just said, can you teach me please?” And often that will be the 21 year old in your business. I’m starting to think about that reverse servant leadership but also youth as mentors to leaders, which is challenging and hard. I think as leaders you want to have all the answers sometimes. You’ve got to take a sharp intake of breath sometimes when someone says “hey, no you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is the course I think we should be going on.” But again it’s just about keeping that open mind and being really committed to seeking out the truth.

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