<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://dc.ads.linkedin.com/collect/?pid=222996&amp;fmt=gif">

18 min watch with captions and full transcript

In the midst of a rapidly-growing employee and customer base, Xero Australia’s Managing Director Trent Innes sat down with Debra Corey to share his keys for success. Amongst his rebel views? Creating a culture of vulnerability where leaders thrive on freedom, and employees can be authentic

In this interview Trent shares his tips for:

  • Hiring employees that are better than you
  • How to shine your values to connect your customers and partners with your brand
  • Why HR needs to be embedded in the business


 Be a rebel like Trent:

  • Set your people free and let them help you be successful
  • If you have great values, you don’t need many rules
  • Living your values starts at the top–and the bottom
  • Hire for attitude
  • Wash your own coffee cup
Our favourite quotes:
Your people are your most important asset. I think lots of people say that, but you have to truly live it.

You can develop skills and you can acquire knowledge, but you can't build great attitude. You've either got that or you haven't.

The sign of a great leader is someone who takes something inherently complex and makes it simple.

Trent's interview

DEBRA COREY: Hi there, I'm Debra Corey, and I'm the co-author of Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World Class Employee Engagement, and I am here today with Trent Innes, who is the managing director of Xero in Australia. Welcome.

TRENT INNES: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

DEBRA COREY: I'm really excited to have Trent here, because the topic of today's interview is leadership. We talk in the book about the importance of leadership and to be honest with you, as an HR person, I can't have engagement without people like Trent. He's the perfect person to talk to, no setup here, but you've recently just won an award as best HR supporter of a Business Partner in Australia from HR Magazine, which is brilliant.

TRENT INNES: Yeah, it was a very big honor.

DEBRA COREY: It is, and then you just told me that you won an award for best Managing Director…

TRENT INNES: Of the year, in Australia as well. It's been a very big year. It's quite humbling to be honest.

DEBRA COREY: Well what it shows me also is that you can be successful in the business and be successful with people. It's really exciting, two awards, shows that you support both of them in a really good way.

TRENT INNES: Absolutely. Well it's really a no-brainer, isn't it? I mean people are your most important asset, and I think lots of people say that, but you have to truly live it. We are very fortunate to have an amazing people throughout the organization. But I don't think that's by luck either. I think we've got an amazing culture, we've got great values, and that really attracts people to the brand.

DEBRA COREY: You said that it's important, but why do you think it's important? What have you seen the difference in having engaged people in the organization do for you as a business leader?

TRENT INNES: Yeah, I think times have definitely changed as well. I think the days of control, we used to basically control people more than anything else, that's gone and that was really about, almost protecting you from the 5% of people that wanted to do the wrong thing. The reality is, I fundamentally believe, most people want to do the right thing. They want to do a great job. They want to work for a purpose. They actually want to make a difference. Historically you used to try and really lock them down, but if you set them free, and you empower them and you sort of loosen the guardrails, and you have the right people, then they'll flourish and they'll actually go forward and really help you be more successful.

DEBRA COREY: I think you're right. There's this great quote in the book from Patty McCord, who is the former head of HR at Netflix, and it says, "If you stop pissing your employees off so much, they'll stop suing you so much.”

TRENT INNES: That’s actually a really good line-

DEBRA COREY: It's so true.

TRENT INNES: It hasn't gone that far, but that is a very good line.

DEBRA COREY: You'll have to use that one next time.

TRENT INNES: I’ll claim it as my own.

DEBRA COREY: So thank you for that, Patty. Yeah, yeah. Great. Maybe you could talk a little bit about what you've done at your company.

TRENT INNES: Yeah absolutely. We're very much a values-led organization, but I think the key thing is, it goes right back to the beginning, and that's all about attitude. The one thing I really look for is attitude when I'm hiring.

We've got quite big now. I think, when I started four years ago we had about 40 people and we've now got about 360, give or take, in Australia, and up until recently I was pretty much still interviewing every new starter. I've had to sort of delegate a bit of that, unfortunately, now, as much as I love meeting people on the way through. But I think the thing that I was always looking for was a great attitude. Because my view is that you can develop skills and you can acquire knowledge, but you can't build great attitude. You've either got that or you haven't. So that's something we've always looked for, and that's really helped us. And then of course we're always very big about our values. My view is, if you have great values, you don't need many rules.

DEBRA COREY: How do you assess that in an interview? Because those are the types of things that are bit intangible.

TRENT INNES: It is intangible, and it's kind of, I think you have to rely a little bit on gut feel. So there is a bit of gut feel about it as well. But really what you're looking for is enthusiasm, you're looking for someone with a sense of purpose. I mean, you can always find people that want to work for money. And most money's important, and we all need to earn a salary and you will get rewarded, but you want more than that. You actually want people who actually want to be at your organization because they think they can make a difference, or they really want to be part of something that's going on. So that's really what I'm looking for. Someone with a great enthusiasm, people that want to be part of a journey, something exciting that's going on, and someone that really sort of shares our core values as an organization.

DEBRA COREY: It's interesting, because when we were setting up I was chatting to one of the employees and I asked him what were the things that he likes the most, and it was the people…


DEBRA COREY: It was the purpose.


: And it was the place, because you just moved into the office. I said it was the three Ps. He loves the new office, so well done on that.

TRENT INNES: It's so nice to hear that. I mean, you're only as good as your people, and I say that easy. And to me it's the 1% of the stuff they do, and things that really blow me away are quite often those little things. So quite often when people come here for an interview with me, they'll stick with me afterwards and they'll say, as we interview them, and I just want to say  that eight or nine people have asked me at reception if I'm okay, can they help me, can they get me a drink, can they do something for me. And I think that's the little things that make a big difference in an organization. You have to earn that. You can't fake it. You can't do cultural workshops for that. You have to actually really earn it. I'm really pleased with the way that our people have really taken to our values.

DEBRA COREY: So how do you convince leaders to embrace that? Because a lot of times people think it's HR's responsibility. We're the guardians of culture and values, like we have a magic wand that we're going to say, "You're going to live the values." Any tips on what we can do with our leadership team?

TRENT INNES: So I completely disagree with that, to start with.

DEBRA COREY: Good. I do too.

TRENT INNES: It's got to come from leadership. Everything comes from the top, and it also comes from the bottom. So it actually comes from both ends of the spectrum. It can't just be the top doing it as well. It's got to come up from below as well. HR can help you with the principles around it. Of course there's always a compliance aspect to HR; we have to do that piece. But I really see HR much more as a business partner to us, so they actually sit within the business and help people be the best they can be. They're not there to regulate them or make them comply to things. They're actually there to help to make them grow. We really make an investment in helping our people grow. You actually get much better results.

DEBRA COREY: So what do you do with your leadership team to have them be mini-Trents walking around living and breathing that?

TRENT INNES: God, mini-Trents, that's scary. I hope they're not mini Trents. I hope they have their own personalities, because I think one of me's enough. But, there's lot of things that we do.

Four years ago when we had 40 people we had three managers in the organization, and we counted recently, I think we've got 60-odd now, just in the Australian business. So that community’s really grown, and we're taking them on a journey as well. So always investing heavily in them and making sure that they're part of the journey that Xero's on, but more importantly that they actually really live those values as well. But I think probably the key aspect I look for in managers, is vulnerability. So people that are actually willing to say, "I don't know that," or hire people that are better than me. Historically that's actually been really hard to do, but if you can hire better than you, you will do a better job. You've got to instill that I think in your managers and in your people leaders.

I also believe as well that leadership and management are two completely different things. I've met amazing leaders, but terrible managers. And I've met some really good managers who actually weren't great leaders. I think it's being able to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are as well. We don't have to be good at both.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah. No, I think that's a really good point. And what kind of differences have you seen at the organization? You've won lots of awards from an organization perspective. What have you seen it impact them, or how?

TRENT INNES: So probably, look, we have actually won a lot of awards. We won an award last week as well, which you probably don't even know about, but it was by Hired. You know Hired, the platform?

: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep.

TRENT INNES: They actually recognized us as the most desirable employer in Melbourne.

DEBRA COREY: Fantastic.

TRENT INNES: Excuse me. Which is absolutely fantastic. That's a good testament to all the hard work our people have done. That wasn't survey based. It wasn't popularity based. It was actually, we now are an employer of choice. And that's been a long journey, but once again, as I said before, you can't fake that. That's probably the most pleasing thing that's happened to us at least from a recruitment perspective, which means we now get the pick of the great talent, which is what you want, so then it just continues to grow.

DEBRA COREY: Well, and these days everybody's talking about companies from a social perspective, so you need that great image out there in the workplace, especially as a company like yours that's growing and growing.

TRENT INNES: Absolutely. So social's a two-edged sword, isn't it?


TRENT INNES: Yeah, you play to its strengths, but you've got to be prepared for the weaknesses as well. I think social is an amazing opportunity for leaders and businesses to actually communicate. We, here in Australia alone, we've got well over 500,000 small businesses on our platform, and we've got many, many partners out there as well, so it's a great opportunity for me to engage with them as well. And they get to see us as well. They can see the real us, because that's not filtered out, and they get to see how we engage, they get to see our values as well, so that really filters down into our customers and our partners.

DEBRA COREY: Well, we felt the culture of your company as soon as we walked in with, where you had a place to hang your bikes, and then the scooter right by the front door.

TRENT INNES: Ah, fantastic.

DEBRA COREY: I mean, that says something as soon as you walk in the door, what is it about your company and how do you actually operate.

TRENT INNES: Yeah, we want it to be a fun gang there as well. I think, work can be a serious place, but it shouldn't have to be serious all the time. I mean, let people have a bit of fun and you'll see their character and their personality come out.

DEBRA COREY: Now you said, back when you said that you won the award in Melbourne, you said it was a journey. What’s the journey been like? What have you seen in the last four years getting to that point?

TRENT INNES: I think it's an ongoing journey, isn't it? I mean, I think we're always learning. I think if I stopped learning, I'd go and do something else. And I think people will always continue to surprise you as well. I mean that's the thing about people, people are people by their nature, so they can be a little bit unpredictable from time to time, but it's also very rewarding as well, looking after a bit. The journey's been very much one of, as you've gone from 40 people to sort of mid-300s in Australia, the thing is how do you actually maintain what made you special in the early days?

DEBRA COREY: Scale it.

TRENT INNES: And scale it. It's been the same with our customers. I mean, in 2009 we had two customers in Australia. Two.


TRENT INNES: And now we've got over 500,000.


TRENT INNES: So how do you actually make them feel, how do you make the 500,001st customer feel as special as number two did, or number one did back in 2009? And that's all about scale. So the only things that really, truly scale I believe are values and behaviors.

DEBRA COREY: I like what you just said about when you're larger, how do you make those customers at the end feel as important at the beginning, and that's a nice way to think of it, employees, also.

TRENT INNES: Completely agree, the same.

DEBRA COREY: Because when you've got 10, 40 employees, you can touch them, you can take care of them, and how do you get that same feeling when you've got 300 or, I mean you're much bigger globally even.

TRENT INNES: Yeah well, we have about 2,000 people globally. But I think one of the things that's really important as well is that the values shouldn't just be contained within the organization; it has to come out externally as well. I think hopefully if your customers and your partners can see those values as well, they'll feel much more connected to your brand.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah, I think that's important. I mean, we talk in HR about embedding your values in your HR programs, but I think it's just as important in the customer journey.

TRENT INNES: Completely agree. And then that allows our people to be authentic. So when they're actually out and about talking to customers and they’re talking to partners, they can be authentic because actually they're not having to do different personas.

DEBRA COREY: Yeah, makes sense.

TRENT INNES: Absolutely.

DEBRA COREY: So let me ask you a question. As an HR person, we don't have business leaders like you. Let's pretend we don't. Do you have any advice on what we can do to, I won't call them mini-Trents anymore. How do we create people-

TRENT INNES: I think that's good for everyone-

DEBRA COREY: …who are as engaged as you? Because it's absolutely important to have this partnership to get on that journey.

TRENT INNES: I don't think there's a silver bullet. And I think it's really quite basic.

DEBRA COREY: It usually is.

TRENT INNES: I think people over complicate things. I think the sign of a great leader is someone who takes something inherently complex and makes it simple. So, just get back to these, so what is your purpose? Number one, what's the purpose of the organization? Why does everyone get up on a Monday morning and go, "You know, I want to go to work today, because I'm actually making a difference." Think about what your purpose is, and that can be hard at some organizations, but I think number one you have to have a really strong purpose.

I think number two, and I mentioned this earlier, is, hire for attitude. I think all the stats are telling us these days people are going to have many different careers over their journey now, so they're going to have mini careers and we're going to be doing lifelong learning now. It's not just about doing a degree and then going and doing that for your entire journey. You need to be able to manage change and be open. So the thing that'll stay consistent is great attitude. So I think hiring for attitude's really, really important.

Then I think the last one is just making sure you actually understand and define your values. But as a leader you have to live them. I quite often say to people, if I was ever to push into the coffee queue in the morning, which I wouldn't do, they should tell me to go and bugger off.

DEBRA COREY: No matter who you are.

TRENT INNES: No matter who you are. We talked about this a little bit previously when we had a chat, but my view is, we talk a lot about the what in organizations, about what we do. The reality is what I do on day-to-day basis is very different than a lot of other people, but we all play a very important role. But how we go about it should be the same, so there should be no hierarchy in the how. I'm a big believer in that.

DEBRA COREY: And that is a big shift as you said at the very beginning about leadership. Leadership used to be command and control …


: And thank goodness we've moved away from something like that.

TRENT INNES: What's interesting though, as we bring people in here, as we've got bigger we're getting some amazing talent coming through so we're very fortunate, but we are attracting some great talent out of some larger corporates, and I get a little bit disappointed that's actually not happening out and about. I think we are a little bit of an edge case, but I'd love to see that come through. I mean I've got teenage children and I’d love to, I hope they're working in environments where they can actually be set free to a degree and be the best they possibly can.

DEBRA COREY: And as a business leader, is there any language that we should or shouldn't use in HR to help and to work with you better? Because sometimes I feel like in HR we use these words, which just puts a divide between us, just the way that we speak.

TRENT INNES: I told you earlier about business partner, so I think you have to be embedded in the business. So you have to actually, we&#39;re there to support and help grow the people, which is the most important asset, so that means you need to have an understanding of the business. Gone are the day where it's an isolated, dark corner of the office. In fact, you shouldn't be doing that anymore. You actually want to be part of the overall business. So I firmly believe you should be embedded into the business.

I've got my senior leadership team. My view is that anyone in my leadership team should be able to do each other's job. So when they're together, their primary team is that team, that we work together. So, just as important as the person who heads up people and experience, as is the person who heads up sales. They should be able to swap. They should know enough about each other's business to be able to swap across.

DEBRA COREY: I think it's really interesting because a previous company when I was on the leadership team I would jump into business conversations and they'd look at me as an HR person and thinking, "Go back into your corner." But it's like, "No, I've got a different perspective on it." So, it's nice to hear you say that.

TRENT INNES: And quite often a unique perspective because actually you're in it every day, so sometimes, what is very obvious could be right here in front of us but we can't see it because we're too ingrained in it, whereas having someone else who's smart and get them involved in the conversation makes perfect sense.

: And where I am right now, that's exactly what we do. I actually look forward to the perspective from the business on my HR programs because again, you've got a different perspective than I do.

TRENT INNES: Completely agree, and people throughout the organization, so it absolutely makes sense.

DEBRA COREY: Great. Well, I think this has been really helpful, and I know why you won the award. You can tell that you are passionate about people and passionate about engagement.

TRENT INNES: Yeah absolutely. As I said a little bit earlier, that's if you've got great values you don't need rules. We still have some boundaries and things; everyone has some boundaries. But you know, we do have two rules.

DEBRA COREY: Oh you do, okay.

TRENT INNES: We only have two rules inside the organization. Number one, you can't eat lunch at your desk.

DEBRA COREY: Okay, and what's the reason for that?

: It actually gets people to mingle in common areas and you actually get cross- collaboration. I'm a big believer in that, so that's why we have great open spaces like you can see in the background here. Because we actually want people to collaborate.

DEBRA COREY: And it gives people a break.

TRENT INNES: Absolutely. And number two is you have to wash your own coffee cup. Sorry, that’s ...

DEBRA COREY: So those are the secrets to success: wash your own coffee cup and don't eat at your desk.

Trent Innes: That's my only two real rules.

DEBRA COREY: There you go.

TRENT INNES: And the coffee cup's all about ownership. That's really what it's about, is that, if it becomes somebody else's problem, then you don't own it and that's like, it's a 1%-er, so you start there and then it escalates. We want people to actually own things. That's how actually we would drive that.

DEBRA COREY: But there are sort of subtle cues as to your culture and your values, just those little rules. It says something about who you are as a business.

TRENT INNES: I'd actually love not to have rules at all. We should call it something else, but that’s …

DEBRA COREY: Those are more fun. We'll come up with a new name and set of rules, but yes.

TRENT INNES: Yes, but you understand where I'm going.


TRENT INNES: Fantastic.

DEBRA COREY: No, that's great. Well thank you very much for that.

TRENT INNES: It's a pleasure.

DEBRA COREY: You're definitely a rebel leader, which is good. We're looking for people who are trying to do things a bit differently, and get the results. And that's what you're showing, is that you can be a rebel, you can be successful. What should these people do to be more of a rebel?

TRENT INNES: I've never been called a rebel…

DEBRA COREY: You are. You're a rebel, yeah. I'll give you a trophy for that to go with all the other trophies, there you go.

TRENT INNES: I think the number one thing is being prepared to be a bit vulnerable. I think most people actually have that internally within them, but they're almost a bit scared to bring it out because they're scared of the consequences. As soon as you become scared of the consequences, you don't bring your full self. You want to bring your full self to whatever you might be doing, and I think the key thing is to allow yourself to be a bit vulnerable. You'll connect better with your people, and it'll actually allow you to really grow.

DEBRA COREY: So, create a culture of vulnerability, whatever you can do to do that, and if you don't have that culture right now, role model it yourself, and show people.

TRENT INNES: Absolutely.

DEBRA COREY: I think you're right, because being a rebel is making mistakes.

TRENT INNES: Exactly right.

DEBRA COREY: Oh it's not mistakes, it's learning.

TRENT INNES: It's opportunities to do better.

DEBRA COREY: Exactly. I have to stop saying the word mistakes. So yes, I think it's about growing and learning and that definitely will help you be more successful.

TRENT INNES: Yeah, because if you look historically, I think if people were scared to make mistakes in organizations, because if you made a mistake you were basically out; you were done. How does that create a culture of innovation?

DEBRA COREY: It's fear.

TRENT INNES: That's how you get disrupted, because you're actually not innovating fast enough, and your innovation comes from your people.


TRENT INNES: That's where it comes from. It doesn't come from technology. There's this view that it comes from technology. It comes from your people.

DEBRA COREY: Oh it does.

TRENT INNES: And you need an environment that actually allows that to happen.

DEBRA COREY: Great. So go out there and be a rebel. Your turn. Go out there.

TRENT INNES: Go out there and be a rebel. Fantastic.

DEBRA COREY: Thank you.

Trent Innes: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

DEBRA COREY: Thank you.

Trent Innes: Thank you.