Uncommon Conversations: An Interview with Joshua Zerkel at Asana

  • Rebecca Marshburn

    June 24th, 2021

Calm, collected, and an expert at building communities, Joshua Zerkel has led community programs at well-known global tech leaders Evernote and Asana, where he’s currently the Head of Global Engagement Marketing (Community + Lifecycle). Joshua talked with Uncommon about the importance of leading community initiatives internally, how he sets community strategy, and what he looks for when hiring community-focused roles.

TL;DR—Internal roadshows to evangelize community within your company are as important as external events; reporting on two types of metrics—program health metrics and business impact metrics—is table stakes; building a community program incrementally can be done well but you’ve got to build with your end goals in mind; and candidates looking for community-based roles must love the fun work and the logistical work behind it.

Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Looking to dive deeper? Watch our Uncommon Conversation on YouTube or just hit play on the audio—Joshua’s melodic communication style is, as I told him during our interview, like listening to the ocean.


Uncommon: Can you tell us a bit about the Asana community?

Joshua: At Asana, we're very customer centric. We really believe in the mission of our company, which is to help teams around the world thrive by working together better and enabling them to work together effortlessly. And so in that, when we look underneath the hood within teams, there are people, individuals, real life humans that are trying to achieve all the goals that they've set out. The goal of the community team is really to build and foster those connections so that they can achieve their own goals. So when we're looking at the biggest iteration of our mission, our longest term goals, it's really about deepening the engagement and connection between Asana and our customers, but really between our customers, with each other. They're looking for other people who are in similar roles so that they can understand: How are you solving these challenges? What problems are you facing that I can learn from?



When you were first embracing a community-based role, did you have any recurring questions that you had to answer first in order to set your strategy?

This has really varied depending on the organization that I'm building for. The way that I determined what the metrics are that we look at at Asana goes back to the question, What is the purpose of the community program here? That usually is the piece I think that most community leaders miss—they build community for the sake of building community, because it's just intuitive that it's a good thing to have. But typically if a company is hiring you and spending money on your salary and dollars towards the function of your program, some stakeholder has decided that the community is there for a reason. And it's our job as community leaders to find out what that reason is. Why am I here? is probably the number one question that I think most community leaders are afraid to ask, but really need to. What’s the purpose of this program? At the beginning, my biggest questions were usually focused on meeting with stakeholders to get clarity from them as to what they were trying to drive via the community program…[You need to] go on a listening tour of the people who will have input and will care about the work that you're doing so that you have a good sense of what the expectations are.

Because from there, you can actually build out a plan that says, "I hear that the community program is being asked to do an array of things, but here's what we're going to focus on. These other benefits may come later as ancillary add-ons to the program, but the core things that we're driving towards are this and this, and here's how we will measure them." So it's really important, I think, for all community leaders to understand and figure out who's paying the bill for this thing and what it is that they're looking for. You need to develop your program to make sure that you're meeting those needs. [And then] you’ll probably meet many others as well.

As far as metrics go, a program that I would lead would include two sets of metrics: There’s the program level metrics, which show the health of the program. For instance, how many members we have and how engaged they are. And then there's the business impact metrics that other people would care about. How is the community program affecting retention or engagement with the product or ARR or brand amplification? So it's very important as a community leader to understand that you need to hold both of these things in your mind at the same time, because the things that you and your team will care about are probably the program level metrics. But outside of the world of the community, the business cares about other things—you need to be able to understand and talk about both.

Something you’ve framed so well in our past conversations is this idea that there are both sexy and unsexy parts to community work. Can you tell us more about that?

Yeah, this is the part they don't tell you when you're going to do community work. And so folks get ready because I'm going to break it down for you. Community work is amazing. It can be really fun….[And] there is a ton of grunt work to make that happen. Grunt work, including doing all of the internal PR and the roadshows and the stakeholder buy-in, which is basically internal sales. A lot of the other work is just the day-to-day [and what it means to have] a program that involves people from the outside world. If we do a good job on the community side, we send something out to the community and they talk back to us—the conversation continues and that can be really fun and amazing and it can be really challenging. And then there's all of the logistics.

What systems do we put in place? How do we connect them together? How do we distribute the work amongst the team so that people are working on things in tandem? And of course, in our program, we have events. We do about 200 of them a year. That is a Herculean lift when it comes to logistics. There's a lot of pieces that you have to make go in order for the show to happen. And by the show, I don't just mean events. I mean, the show of the entire community program, because all of our work is externally facing and we're representatives of the brand.

In the spirit of representing the brand, can you describe some of the qualities that you look for in potential new team members?

I look for people that of course are excited about building community. I think that's table stakes, but I have to go underneath that to understand if they are really motivated by what's involved in a business community. And so I look for people who understand that community is both fun and a lift. And that they're excited about both parts of it. I [also look for] people who understand how community fits into the business context—the impact that it can have. How it matters and why, and that they get that community is not just a nice to have for businesses. It's becoming an integral part of how smarter businesses work—the people who can [show that they get that], that’s a real differentiator for me.

I [also] look for people people, and then most of all, I look for people who are problem solvers. I look for people that are interested in being able to see a challenge, dig into it, and then help solve it. And then, for me, this is a selfish one—I’m big on public speaking and the ability to do so. Every single person on my team is expected to lead events at some point, no matter their role. And so people who are not afraid of public speaking or are willing to learn with a growth mindset is a skill that I look for.


Let's talk about Asana’s global community program—Asana Together—and its knowledge resource, the universe scale Asanaverse, that you built from the ground up.

When I got to Asana, I was lucky in that there was already buy-in that a community program was needed, [but] no one could say exactly what they needed. The plus is that I didn't have to do a ton of selling internally on the value of community. Once I had buy-in on the general look, size, scale, scope, things that would be in the program, I socialized that amongst the stakeholders. [Then], I had to build all the [program elements] from scratch…and I didn't do it alone. We built out the framework for Asana Together, which is our community program.

It has three pillars: [A membership program, a global event series, and a community forum]. First there's the membership program, which includes things like ambassadors, which are people who are at companies that use Asana that raise their hand and say, "I want to do more with Asana." So they get resources and tools from us that live in Asanaverse to help them be more effective. Then there's Certified Pros, who are third party consultants, who want to offer Asana to their own clients. So those are part of our membership program. Then there's our community event series called the Asana Together World Tour, [which focuses on] thought leadership and how to use Asana. Finally, there's the community forum, which is probably the most traditional aspect of our community program. But we use it in a slightly different way than just solving customer problems. We really leverage it as a marketing channel as a way to get community members connected to us and to each other. And we have lots of community members that answer questions for people who are learning how to use Asana. So it's still a very community-oriented resource. Assets and tools for all these programs live inside of Asanaverse, so members have easy access to everything they need.

Could you talk more about how you built Asana Together and how you started it?

I want to stress that I think it's okay to start with one pillar…But I think in that, I would stress how important it is to start building with the end in mind. The way that I designed the program was specifically for growth in scale. So when I laid out the program, I looked for the pillars that would let us scale dramatically without having to scale the team to match it in the same size.

So for instance, we run our events, which we take full responsibility for and are staffed by Asanas. We had a lot of feedback from members asking how they could host their own Asana-themed events [so we wanted to] figure out how to best support [them] in doing that. So we developed an event lead program where people get training from us—they get templates, tools, and resources including a guide that we wrote [that covers things like] hosting your first event and different topics to use. And then we help [people] promote [their] event and build their registration pages. So it’s really [about] taking what we've built and understanding what members want and how they can grow it themselves…because our team will never be in all the languages and all of the places.

One of my favorite moments of these interviews is continuing Uncommon Support, which helps us embody our belief that a community is strongest when it uplifts one another. Will you tell us about the organization that you chose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to where we’ll donate on behalf of you and Asana?

First, we really appreciate that. Asana is a very socially oriented company and this is actually a really meaningful opportunity for me to contribute to that. So our social focus impact area is really about closing the opportunity gap, especially in tech. We're dedicating this Uncommon Support to Hack the Hood, which is a local organization based in Oakland, California, just across the bay. Hack the Hood is dedicated to connecting young people of color and local small businesses through technology, [and] they offer tech training and create opportunities for people who live in the Bay Area and beyond.


Josh, if people want to get in touch with you, where would you like to be found online?

I’m easy to find - there aren’t many “Joshua Zerkels” around! Find me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Shape the Future with Community Builders Everywhere