“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them - operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next.
This month, we spoke with Anu Bharadwaj, COO of Atlassian and Board Member of OutSystems. Anu has a phenomenal track record of growing billion dollar businesses, building great teams and shipping blockbuster products across high-growth startups & large companies. Atlassian was 400 people when she joined as the first Head of Product, and built the product org from scratch before becoming COO and overseeing transformative projects across product lines at Atlassian, including the enterprise business, cloud platform teams and operations. Prior to joining Atlassian, Anu was at Microsoft, launching several products for Microsoft Visual Studio for over 10 years.
Tell us a bit about your journey from building the product to running the business, and how your functional expertise enables you as a leader?
My path to becoming COO was unconventional. I spent a decade at Microsoft building Visual Studio products for technical teams. I joined Atlassian as head of product for Jira, led the company’s transformation from on-prem business to Cloud, and built the Enterprise, Cloud Platform, and Marketplace businesses. But no matter which role I’m in, my motivation is the same: I want to make a positive impact on the lives of our customers and teams.
A good COO is like a blank tile in Scrabble – we’re deployed in the most strategic and impactful place, no matter what the play is. Atlassian is a product company, so the maximum impact that the COO can have is via leading company-wide transformations that are driven by the central shared platform across our products. I am positioned at a special intersection of Atlassian’s technology, product, and operations.
At heart, I am a builder - I have the most fun when I am building. Whether it is products, businesses, teams, or companies.
What was the jump from Microsoft to Atlassian like, and what were some of your key learnings? Anything you would do differently in hindsight?
It was a big move - physically and culturally. I moved continents to end up in Australia at a company that was 500 times smaller than Microsoft! So the culture was very different. One of our company values at Atlassian was 'open company no bullshit!’. Almost every piece of work we do is shared openly on the company intranet on Confluence. This culture of openness was very different. At Microsoft, I was taught to pore over my work producing multiple drafts by myself until it was perfect enough to share with the rest of my team. At Atlassian, it was the reverse! Because Confluence is open by default, everyone could see early versions of my work, even the work in progress.
While this initially made me feel vulnerable, this openness fostered collaboration and co-creation to a degree that I had never experienced before. Confluence made collaboration the default behavior, not something you had to plan. Confluence made collaboration safe. This was a fascinating cultural learning that changed the way I work.
During the first six months when everything felt different and new, I constantly battled impostor syndrome and expected that I would get fired anytime soon. In hindsight, I would tell my past self to have more belief and compassion towards myself. And to lean on my teammates and ask for help when I needed it.
What were the most important traits you hired for when you built out the product org at Atlassian?
Customer obsession, the ability to communicate and influence others, a genuine love for technology, intellectual horsepower, and integrity. It’s funny - we were this Aussie startup that no one had heard of back in 2014. I did a couple of round-the-world trips to build my team from scratch, recruiting product people from all over, and convincing them to move continents to work for us.
I believe strongly in looking for values fit, not cultural fit. We don’t need new hires to conform to our culture because we’re looking for people who will help evolve Atlassian’s culture for the better. But we do want people whose personal values are aligned with our company values - because that’s what matters most.
I’ve also experienced the outsized impact of having diverse leaders on my team. I mean diversity not just defined by race and gender, but also diversity in cognitive function and life experiences. On my team, I have founders, CSS engineers, lawyers, and someone who was a refugee and a published novelist. Successful leaders come from all walks of life.
How have you made a mark in your industry? What’s something you’ve done that’s perhaps counterintuitive in your field - broken any rules with interesting results?
The most counterintuitive career decision I made was going on a sabbatical back in 2016 when I was only 2 years into my Atlassian job. I am a wildlife nerd but having grown up and lived in busy cities, I longed to spend time in the wilderness. So, I spent a year doing fieldwork at wildlife conservation projects around the world that I had supported through funding thus far. I rescued lions from canned hunting in South Africa, put GPS collars on cheetahs in Namibia, monitored penguin rookeries in Antarctica, tended to near extinct birds in New Zealand, and more!
The experiences I gained from my adventure not only helped me become a better leader but also filled my cup and made me return to my job more focused and fulfilled than ever before. While it can be daunting to think about taking a year off, wondering if it will somehow damage your career, it is important for leaders to tend to their whole selves - well-rounded people make for better leaders. I acknowledge that I was lucky and privileged to be able to take an entire year off before I had blown all my money and needed a real job 🙂, but having lateral life experiences that are accessible to your circumstance can make you a better leader.
You’re passionate about effective philanthropy, tell us about your role as the Chairperson of the Atlassian Foundation, and how you recommend organizations think about their impact.
I’m proud to serve as the Chairperson of Atlassian Foundation, which is focused on worldwide education projects for the underprivileged. This is a cause especially dear to my heart. I lost my mother when I was young, but before she died, she made me promise that I would finish school. At 15, I didn’t understand why that was important, but since then, I have witnessed firsthand how much of a difference education can make in women’s lives, lifting entire generations out of poverty and breaking cycles of abuse.
All through my life, I have volunteered at and contributed to funding girls' education. The Atlassian foundation helped amplify that. It has been an honor to work with our global education partners and see the impact they’re having on millions of disadvantaged young people.
Atlassian co-founded the global Pledge 1% movement so we’d love to inspire every organization to think about ways to bake social impact into their DNA. While donating 1% of your time or profits might sound small, the impact will compound into a movement as companies grow and more members sign up.
What’s the best advice you’ve given or received about how to manage people?
When I first became a people manager in my early twenties, I remember the very first manager review I got from my team was not great. You see, I am a type A person with 200% drive and ambition and I assumed that my entire team was like me and was pushing them very hard with stretch goals and “career acceleration opportunities”. After reading my manager feedback, it dawned on me that being a manager is not about doing what’s right for me, it’s about doing what’s right for my team.
What motivates your team to come into work every day? Where do they want to go? What are their superpowers? Do they agitate to roll their sleeves up to get the job done or are they pensively sifting through data before making a decision? Do they find joy in building a community, focusing on deep work in a small team or improving their craft meticulously?
I try my best to answer those questions for each of my reports because they’re all unique individuals! It’s my job to help them activate their strengths in a work context. Understanding their core values, natural strengths, and working style helps me do that effectively. There are some great tools out there - StrengthsFinder, Tilt 365, Core Values Sort and Insights Discovery are some of the ones I like to use with my reports.
What was one of your first jobs and what’s one big lesson you learned?
My first job was working at Microsoft as a developer, building a game called Terrarium. As a gamer and a nerd, I couldn’t believe they actually paid me for this job! I thought it was the best thing ever.
At the time, I didn’t have goals like wanting to become a COO or a VP. I let my curiosity and passion for technology lead me into different roles. I switched hats and tried out being a researcher, a tester, a community developer, an engineering lead, and a product manager. Doing this helped me discover my passion - building something that has a positive impact on a customer’s life. This led me to product management.
The lesson I learned: you don’t have to know exactly what your career should look like or even what your passion is. Experiment until you find your niche. Showing that you can consistently produce quality work across a breadth of problems is going to help you build credibility and grow quickly in your career.