Managing People

Mahesh at Airtasker: "If the employee experience is the product, HR people are the product managers"

November 6, 2018
November 7, 2023
Lattice Team

Mahesh Muralidhar is Head of People Operations at Airtasker, a Sydney-based community-based marketplace for outsourcing tasks to people looking and ready to work. He’d previously worked at Canva and was the CEO and co-founder of Ureferjobs, a job referral marketplace. Before that he worked as a consultant and strategist on projects in both the public and private sectors.

Airtasker was recently recognised as one of the top 5 startups in Australia by LinkedIn. Here, Mahesh shares key points of his human resources and people philosophy, including how to balance data and radical candor, and what HR people and product managers have in common.

1. Frame potential applicants as customers, and your company brand as a form of inbound marketing.

A lot of people divide the HR space into recruitment and HR, without acknowledging the connections between. The two parts are incredibly connected.

For example, “How do you ensure that the recruiters are drawing in the right applicants, applicants who will become highly engaged team mates?”

A way to ensure strong alignment is to consider an applicant as a customer who’s going through a customer journey -- but instead of buying a product, they are buying into the opportunity with your company, and the journey starts when they first hear about the job. The employee experience starts when someone says, “Have you heard about Airtasker? It’s a great place to work.”

In the same way you’ve got to acquire, activate, and retain a customer, you need to make sure you are creating value through the talent journey. The customer should be having such a great experience that they will then refer the product to others. The same thing should happen with employee experience -- your current employees should be set up to be engaged at their jobs such that they’re encouraging their friends to apply.

2. You can apply data and logic to people decisions without losing empathy.

It’s a careful balance to practice radical candor in regards to, “This is what’s going on, this is where we need to get to,” while also being super data-oriented about how you think about skills. People decisions just get so much easier when you’re more data-oriented and customer-oriented. There’s space to be very logical about it.

For example, if you were to take a very data-oriented approach to talent acquisition and engagement, you could look at the following metrics: How many people has recruitment met? Of the people we’ve met and then hired, what proportion left the company in a year? What segmentation of engineers or designers are happy and feel like they are productive? What was the interview process specific to those engineers -- who were the people involved and what was the onboarding process, so that they can be recreated.

We use data and design-thinking in our People Operations team. We also take on a strong experiment-driven approach to things. Whenever we write a set of guidelines we think of it as an experiment or hypothesis that we test with three people and get the data in regards to whether they liked it or not. We talk very openly about the cost of attrition, the cost of recruitment, the value of engagement—even if the numbers are hard to come by, just put a number to it and then at least you’ve got some sort of hypothetical cost and benefit. Don’t just form your own grandiose opinion. Form some hypothesis — and then go look for corroboration.

3. Feedback is essential to understanding and ensuring your employees’ futures.

The same way products and services need to respond to customer feedback - how to give and receive feedback within a company is very important especially in an agile, high growth environment.

While technology has allowed humans to scale in a big way, the behaviours of how we communicate haven’t scaled the same way. Long ago we were in small villages, and when you had five people to a village, you trusted those five people. The same thing happens in a company: with just five people, you trust that everybody knows everything. When you’re at a hundred people, you’re like, “I don’t know what this or that person’s doing.”

The value of something like feedback training is immense. It forges a common landscape to be honest and transparent with each other. It is important to be able to say, “I have something a bit strong to say, can I ask for permission to give you that feedback?” Communicating is important and you have to feel safe doing it. I’m really big on psychological safety. I think for people to perform really well they have to feel safe.

A key aspect of psychological safety is the perception of winning. If you’re not winning, you don’t feel safe. We should call this out more and celebrate more: you’ve got to be winning in the work you’re doing, and growing and feeling positive. This may sound like I’m asking for a team of winners. But really, I mean that employees need to feel like they can be successful in their work. You’ve got to think, how do I get a team into a winning situation? I obtain a lot of insight from looking at sports teams. If you look at the breakout sports teams, the teams that have great culture - a key trait is they’re winning. There’s no mid-table team that likes to say, “Oh, we had a great culture.”

4. Every people conversation has inherent value, if you get mission oriented.

I’ve had the opportunity to build my own startup, and I was very mission-oriented. I learned the hard way, though, that big dreams and a mission are great but you’ve gotta nail the foundational stuff first. You have to get product-market fit before focusing on mission, culture etc.

But because we were so mission-oriented at my startup, I got very good at conversations around these topics, and framing them in a commercial context, like, “We’re going there (our mission), therefore we need to do this.”

It’s about making the best decision for the company (and our customer), not the decision everyone feels comfortable with. It’s also important to give your team members the context of these decisions. The same way you explain product launches, changes, or pivots, you need to make sure people understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. There will of course be friction, change is challenging but we all agreed we are on this mission - so let’s get cracking!

The only point of an organization is to create value. How are we creating value? By making customer driven decisions, having mission-oriented conversations. It makes it a lot easier to set people conversations up for success.

5. When in doubt, write things down and get more data.

I have become a big fan of writing things down. Have an initiative you would like to put forward - write it down. A bit confused or can’t work through a tough spot - write it down. Have a project you are working on, but don’t know where to start - well, just start writing things down. Just start.

A meeting where people exchange views is nice and makes people feel heard short-term, but the issue is human beings lean towards making compromised decisions and not optimum decisions. For an optimum decision, you want someone who’s an expert, who’s very incentivized, to go: “This is my hypothesis, the value I believe it creates, the return on investment, etc.” Then send it to all the stakeholders involved and I say, “This affects you. Can I get your input?” When you’re starting off as a small startup you don’t need to apply as much rigor because you’re hustling, but as you grow, it gets noisier and noisier so you have to set up for clear, clean thinking that helps you prioritise ruthlessly.

We’re not super sophisticated around analytics yet but I do look at my engagement score, and at our Glassdoor rating, because it’s just the market talking. When we do an event or an item, we try to get a gauge or survey on how things went, and we try to make sure that we have a minimum star rating in every single activity we do. We definitely measure the recruitment side. It’s a lot easier to measure value there. On the engagement side, it takes a bit more work and sophistication. It takes time to build strong data and insights around engagement.

An example is we have started doing an NPS on on-boarding: So, how was your onboarding experience, how could it be better?

The gist of all this is - it can seem hard to make people decisions more data oriented. But it’s essential. Write things down, run experiments on hypothesis, capture data, measure, improve and iterate.

6. When it comes to hiring for “culture,” think more foreign policy than product.

I don’t like it when people come out and say, “That person’s not a culture fit.” I don’t know what that means. “Culture” is a very vague, powerful term which can be dramatically misused.

So let’s go with this hypothesis -- we say it’s our responsibility to make sure that we have a strong culture. We want people who are good at their job, and we want people who we get along with to join us. That’s two things. But if someone’s going to join us, we want them to add to our culture rather than fit our culture.

It’s like being an immigrant in a new country. “Culture fit” is if the Irish said, “You’ve got to drink Guinness before you come here.” But having more of the same doesn’t make sense. Instead, it’s the idea that immigrants make the country better by doing work that benefits the country as a whole, whether it’s being a great designer or a great tradie, you’re going to create value for all of us. Culture fit sets a scene where biases are allowed to propagate; a less inclusive environment. The idea with “culture add” is that, by getting someone new, there’s more value to your company -- the pie’s getting bigger, so to speak.