Xero: People are at the heart of everything we do

The accounting software provider's Chief People Officer and CEO work hand-in-hand to meet workforce needs.
By: | September 11, 2019

Rachael Powell is in a unique position at Xero, a cloud-based accounting software platform that employs almost 3,000 people and has seen more than US$2 trillion of transactions already this year. Her official title is chief customer, people and marketing officer. This means she is responsible for Xero’s customer success, people experience, marketing and communications functions globally. That’s a wide brief, and one she relishes.

‘’It’s quite an unconventional title and a broad remit,” she says. “It goes to the heart of our philosophy of being mindful of all humans and running a successful business from the inside out. The heart of every successful business puts people first.’’

Powell is in an ideal position to wear multiple hats. Her background is spread across accountancy, marketing, business development, and management consulting. More recently, she worked in executive search before she was recruited by Xero founder Rod Drury. “He told me: ‘I need a marketer who can win the hearts and minds of our people’,” she adds.

Powell came on board just over three years ago when Xero had just 1,200 staff. One of her first tasks was getting the strategy out of the head of the founder before he stepped down to take on a non-executive director position. ‘’It was a company that was a start-up that had quickly turned into a corporate. As we grew, we wanted to make sure our people were really clear on what we were trying to achieve’’. A crucial challenge for Powell was changing the mindset of her team from customer support to customer success. “It’s about being proactive and helping our customers succeed in their businesses,’’ she said.

Partnering with the CEO
In her dual capacity, she brings together her two passions; delighting Xero’s customers and nurturing its people. Powell believes that customer experience must resonate from the inside-out, starting with her staff. And she is fully supported in this philosophy by new CEO Steve Vamos who took over from Drury last year. ‘’He’s very much a believer in people being at the heart of everything. It made my job so much easier to have a partner in a CEO who really believed in that. In fact, my first call this morning with him was about the 10 most critical roles to bring into the company in the next 12 months’’.

While some heads of HR struggle to get a seat with the CEO, Powell enjoys a regular dialogue with hers. ‘’You are the only two people who have oversight across the whole organisation. You need to be a partner with the CEO to understand the strategy and what the risks in the strategy are without having the right people in place. You also need to understand the commercial trade-offs across the business’’. In Asia, Xero runs offices in Hong Kong and Singapore which are ‘’go to market’’ offices. They are responsible for identifying and selling to small businesses. ‘’Only about 20% of small businesses here are in the cloud. The opportunity is huge here and that will continue’’.

Powell has a Master’s Degree in applied positive psychology which she puts to good use in the workplace. ‘’At the very core is our purpose to have a positive impact on the world. If you are hiring people who believe in that purpose then you are winning. We have got nearly 3,000 people over five continents and the magnifying effect that that can have is huge’’. Powell sees leaders at Xero acting like conductors of an orchestra. ‘’They get people playing to their strengths so that they are energised and can operate at their peak performance. We want to get people to do the best work of their lives and to turn up at work because they enjoy it’’.

Growth mindset
Xero is an innovative company and therefore looks for people with a growth mindset, who are not afraid to take chances and fail. ‘’We live in a world where we are constantly being disrupted so if you’re not okay with people trying things differently and failing then you are not running an innovative culture’’. Part of Xero’s growth mindset culture involves having learning goals, which encourage its people to try something different, something that scares them. They are constantly reminded that there is no consequence if they fail.

Some employers run innovation weeks or short-term programmes that encourage staff to come up with new ideas which can be implemented internally or externally. But Xero likes to have an always-on approach to creativity. ‘’You can’t run a programme for one week and tick that box. Innovation has to be systemic. It has to be encouraged and celebrated regularly’’.

During our interview, Powell talked a lot about building out her workforce’s ‘’ambidextrous’’ skills, moving them into different roles which should help de-risk the organisation. She is also passionate about finding people who have empathy and connect with the company’s purpose. ‘’We need people who can pivot and are not waiting to be told the next thing to do. We need people that are change resilient, especially as we are growing so fast.’’ At Xero, it looks for candidates who are happy to lean in, give things a go and be able to collaborate with others.

On the subject of collaboration and inclusion, Powell is a huge advocate of diversity within Xero. And the stats speak for themselves. The company now has a 50/50 split of male-to-female board members, while its global leadership team is made up of 43% women. Across the total organisation, women make up 42% of the workforce. ‘’Gender diversity is something we have really focused on. We are now looking at age and ethnicity and culture, bringing that different thinking together. But we are not being complacent on inclusion. We are now looking at it from a team level, not just overall’’.

You snooze; you don’t lose
One of the unique features at Xero is its snooze programme for its customer experience advisers. Before they are due to start a shift, they have the opportunity to delay it by an hour or so. As they don’t need to manage phones, as queries are raised online, it’s easier to predict customer activity. ‘’They can stay at home for another couple of hours if they feel like it. It empowers them to make a decision that is best for company and best for them’’. Xero are also advocates for reducing the stigma of mental health in the workplace, and hopefully society too. While most well-being programmes focus on physical health, often mental illness is over-looked. ‘’There are just times when people need a day out. They need a mental health day, and we feel there’s nothing wrong with being public about that. We are all human. We all need that time out and we trust our employees to know that and come back tomorrow in better frame of mind.”