Bureaucracy tends to be a dirty word in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, a place where startups and their admirers value the efficiency of a lean team. As a result, Human Resources—a department associated with process and compliance—often ends up on the back burner.
Antipathy toward HR can leave startups woefully unprepared to handle typical workforce challenges, such as rapid growth or harassment (situations recently faced by Twitter and Github, respectively). But aside from poorly handled workforce crises, ignoring HR in early-stage tech companies may even lead to lower rates of success: An eight-year long study, the Stanford Project on Emerging Companies, conducted during the first dot-com boom found that companies that tended to bring in HR expertise first were the fastest to go public and the least likely to fail. Along similar lines, notable venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has included "refusing to take HR seriously" as one of the top 10 ways to damage a tech startup.
So, just when should a startup start taking HR seriously? We sat down with David Norris, partner at venture capital firm Forward Partners, to discuss how startups should develop a talent strategy from day one.
Why is it important for startup and small business founders to think about talent and HR from the start?
It's important to establish early on who on the executive team is responsible for making sure that people are hired well, the culture is thought through and that internal processes are organized. The way you do things needs to be thought about proactively — at first, it's the CEO, but maybe your COO or one of the cofounders has a lot of empathy, the organization skills or the interest to take on HR as a subset of what they're doing.
If you focus on treating people right first and foremost, then everything else falls into place. Oftentimes, people are focused on the commercial, and the people side of things is what they come to last. But it should probably be the other way around. [HR] can be a real competitive advantage, because it helps you hire better. It helps you retain people better. It helps you have a better dynamic within the company.
When do you advise founders to make their first dedicated HR hire?
A huge factor in terms of deciding when you need to have somebody dedicated purely to HR is your rate of growth. If you're at 10 people or 20 people or 50 people or 100 people, that actually doesn't matter too much. What matters is the speed at which the team is growing — is it growing at one person a month, five people a month or 10 people a month?
When I was COO of HouseTrip, we were at 25 people when I decided it'd be a good idea to bring on someone to focus on HR. We were hiring five people a month. The focus was 80 percent on recruitment, but because we had a manager dedicated to the role, we could also start to think about putting some basic building blocks in place for the HR infrastructure we would need for a larger company.
Even then, [the HR manager] should really be working in partnership with one of the members of the senior team. That person's job is going to be made more difficult if the company hasn't even thought about HR until that point.
Beyond talent acquisition, what strategic role should HR play in a startup?
HR has been a loaded term in recent years, because it's associated with times when things go wrong — when somebody doesn't work out as a hire, when somebody's not performing well or when there's a conflict between two people on the team. But the emphasis needs to be on making things go right. How do you proactively create a great working environment and a great team, instead of focusing on the what-ifs?
Large corporations have lots of what-ifs. They have probably 30 or 40 policies and procedures, employee handbooks, all sorts of processes and protocols, none of which actually create any value for the organization. They're really just risk mitigation. I would encourage startup founders to focus on HR as being a force for good instead. How can you improve happiness? How you can improve teamwork? How can you improve the wellbeing of people at work? There's a lot to be done there, and if you do that well, then you don't have so many what-ifs to deal with.
How can technologies like Applicant Tracking Systems and People Analytics complement HR teams at startups?
I see hiring and managing people as very much a human function. You can't actually automate that, but you can build lots of tools that help humans to do it faster and easier.
For example, we use an applicant tracking system, and it's very helpful, because it means we've got all of our candidates in one place, we can search it and we can easily check where we are on each open position. But the system is not much use unless people are putting in good information and making good decisions from it. I really see HR software as a toolkit that in and of itself doesn't solve anything. It's what you do with the tools that matter.
Photo: Creative Commons
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The ReWork Bookshelf: 8 Must-Reads from Author Carol Anderson
Editor's Note: What are our writers and experts reading? In this series, ReWork contributors share their"must-read" recommendations for HR professionals and business leaders. I read lots of business books, but anyone who has followed my writing knows I'm not terribly fond of popular business books; they simplify things too much. When organizations try to follow these books' recipes, they fail because they don't understand the underlying human concepts of organizational behavior. So, my reading list contains books that discuss original research into organizational behavior, specifically dealing with concepts most important to HR leaders: consulting, leadership and teams. Check out the first half of the list to find books that are easy to read and digest, and provide good information that is immediately useful and a little outside the norm for HR practitioners. Skip down to number five if you are looking for the most powerful—but more complex—books I have ever read. 1) Flawless Consulting by Peter Block Everyone is a consultant at some point, HR even more so. Block's chapter on dealing with resistance is powerful both in recognizing what resistance looks like, and then offering a simple method to diffuse it. 2) Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy by Amy Edmundson I started following Dr. Edmundson, a professor at Harvard Business School, when I was studying the concept of psychological safety and why smart people don't speak up even in a crisis. This single concept—psychological safety—gives HR practitioners a practical background in team behavior, and in turning problems into learning opportunities. 3) The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers by Gillian Tett Gillian Tett is an anthropologist turned business journalist who uses her study of culture to help organizations bust silos and improve performance. HR can and should be a connector. This book provides research-based arguments for why silos are counter-productive. 4) Repurposing HR: From a Cost Center to a Business Accelerator by Carol Anderson Full disclosure, this is my own book. I got tired of books about HR competencies that didn't provide practical "how to" advice for becoming strategic, so I wrote one. This book is helpful to HR teams that want to break down barriers, think collectively and add significant value to their organizations. As I mentioned earlier, the second half of this list contains the most powerful books I have read. They aren't necessarily easy to read and digest, but they are so worth the time. These books help put into perspective the challenges and hopes of human resource development. 5) Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein MIT professor Schein is the father of organizational culture. Culture is a hot topic today, and this provides outstanding insight, grounded in research. 6) Organization Change by Warner Burke One of the most comprehensive and common sense models of organizational change. As an HR practitioner, I was frustrated by the number of external vendors that sell "change processes"—from Six Sigma to technology implementation to quality improvement. Their processes were good, but often not aligned with existing HR processes such as performance management. If you want to compete with the various "change agents" that tell organizations how to "change" (and you should) you have to understand change at its deepest level. 7) Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley Wheatley describes how complex systems like organizations must be allowed to develop, rather than be controlled. The book offers solid ideas about how effective leaders can and should let go. I hope you find these helpful. I would love to hear stories about what you read and how it helped you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Header photo: Twenty20
Good Managers Manage. Great Managers Coach
We're several decades into the evolution of the knowledge worker now, where skills are softer, job descriptions grayer, and thanks to technology, everyone in the workplace has a multitude of new platforms to communicate, collaborate and get stuff done. What's gotten a little lost in that shuffle? Leadership has changed -- especially for middle management. Effective line managers these days don't just clock in and out their employees -- they need to know how to optimize softer skills and individual performance. They need to manage -- and coach -- people a lot more than they manage the work. "I’m a big proponent of losing the word ’manager,’ and replacing it with the word ’coach,’" says Jay Forte, a former financial executive who traded his day job to launch Humanetrics LLC, a company that consults organizations on how to capitalize on the strengths of their employees. "’Manager’ is an Industrial Age word, and now that we’re in the Intellectual Age, most managers don’t know how to get the most out of their employees." From coaching "managers" and inspiring employees to helping companies hire and retain the best talent, Forte's main goal is to advance personal performance in the workplace and beyond. Often times it starts with good leadership skills. So how does a manager become a great coach? Forte had three pointers: 1. Stop Telling and Start Asking The first step to becoming a coach is reassessing how you treat and interact with your employees. Establishing an open, respectful relationship is key -- and will bring long-term benefits. An example that stood out in Forte’s experience came when a customer service manager at a large company overheard one of his employees having an argument with a customer over the phone. Instead of flying off the handle and intervening, the manager stepped up as a coach, observing his employee’s behavior and then inviting the employee into his office after he hung up the phone. By speaking with the employee behind closed doors and asking powerful, pointed questions about the situation at hand, the manager determined that what he observed was, in fact, a problem and discussed alternate solutions. This allowed the two to address and solve the problem as a team, rather than having it blow up as an employee/manager dynamic. And it established more trust, communication and engagement between the two. "That’s a coach in action," Forte said. "A manager might have had a meltdown and taken control of the call. He was truly conflicted about whether he should have interrupted, but it was a wise and hard decision for him not to get involved. It was a wonderfully powerful teaching moment." 2. Match Talent With Challenges Today’s job descriptions aren’t as cut-and-dry as they were even a decade ago. These days, employees are often hired for their talent and ability to get the job done, rather than their actual experience with said job. By getting to know about employees’ talents, interests and lives beyond the workplace, coaches can tap into strengths that run much deeper than any job description. Whether it’s planning the office holiday parties or running the company newsletter, employees often get satisfaction and fulfillment out of duties that have nothing to do with their day-to-day activities. Utilizing these talents makes the most of each employee’s potential and, in turn, adds value to the employees’ work experience. "Look deep into your people, their talents, their capacity, and match what they have to offer with your company’s needs," Forte said. "A coach takes a good look at what you’re extraordinary at and matches it to a particular need, so you soar." 3. Tap Into Your Softer Side The best coaches possess qualities that are easier said than done. This includes being a good observer and listener, really getting to know employees and trusting employees to get the job done. It all comes down to giving your workforce the tools and resources to do their job, so you can do your job. "You have to trust in your employees," Forte said. "Give them the ability to step up and own the situation. The mindset of a manager is often ’I’m responsible to do the job’ when it should be ’I’m responsible that the job gets done.’" Ultimately, the coach takes on a role of parent, to some extent, Forte said. Like parenting, the relationship between coach and employee is often one that vacillates between guide, mentor and boss. Holding employees accountable while guiding them toward success is no simple task – it’s easy to take the reins when something’s not going right or chastise an employee for his mistakes. But handling the situation from the perspective of a guide or coach will benefit your business, your relationship with your employees and, ultimately, your bottom line. Photo credit: (c) Can Stock Photos
5 skills all leaders need in times of transition
Leadership teams have dealt with a huge amount of change over the last year. But this constant change is par for the course. Employees regularly face new directives and priorities from management. Leadership teams are then tasked with ensuring operations continue smoothly — which often means retaining mission-critical employees despite all the change. According to Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Undersecretary of Defense For Policy from 2009 to 2012 under President Obama and co-led President Obama's transition team at the Defense Department, the best leaders set themselves apart with a people-first approach. “There are too many people who come in and want to do just the policy part of the job, and don't understand that their ability to do that well depends on how they lead and manage the people in the organization,” she said, speaking at a recent webinar as part of the Leadership in Transition series from the Partnership for Public Service. “You're not going to get to peak performance unless you invest in your people.” When Flournoy took over the Defense Department transition, she was inheriting about 1,000 employees across three agencies, without the support of other team members who still needed to undergo political confirmation. She quickly realized that she needed to engage with all kinds of people and functions across the organization. “I wanted to understand what the experience was really like for them,” she said. Here are five strategies Flourney found that leaders can use to manage effective transitions while keeping their employees at the center. 1) Be sure to listen It's been said that listening is the highest form of respect. While managing her transition, Flournoy established listening tours with employees at all levels. “I really tried to understand where the organization was. Where was it strong? Where was it weak? What was morale like?" she said. When you’re willing to listen, people become more candid about the things that they're hoping will change. Flournoy started hearing feedback like: "We're exhausted," "No one's gotten any training or professional development for as long as we can remember," "We spend a lot of our time reformatting the same material for different people." Listening offers people a space that feels safe to provide constructive criticism. 2) Act on feedback In addition to simply listening, people need to know they’ve been heard. While Flournoy believes leadership doesn’t need to respond to every comment, they need to be seen as being responsive to the organization. If they don't, employees won’t make their voices heard. Flournoy wasn’t afraid to have some fun, either, to make sure her teams knew she was following through. "We announced a contest for the top 10 things that were wasting our time that we should stop doing right away. We got hundreds of nominations,” she said. “Just by going through them at a very high level of scrutiny, I was able to take several dozen and say, we're not going to do this anymore, we're going to be smarter with our time. And that was a big morale boost in the organization.” It showed that she asked for feedback, heard her employees and put a plan into action. 3) Invest in people From her listening tour, Flournoy found issues with low morale and performance that she knew needed to be addressed before any big-picture policy goals had a chance of successful implementation. One change she made was to institute predictable time off. For employees often working 12 or 14 hour days, it was important to have dedicated, consistent periods of time off to be able to be with family or have time to exercise, for example. “It was a huge morale boost, and it made the team closer because people are sharing what’s important to them,” Flournoy said. “It actually improved cohesion and performance.” There’s risk in avoiding investment in human capital beyond just getting subpar work from employees: “You'll probably have people vote with their feet,” Flournoy said. “Usually the best people leave the fastest because they have other options.” 4) There’s no such thing as overcommunication Effective government leaders are strong, flexible and concise communicators. And while some people may prefer to hear a message in a town hall, others may prefer a small group setting where they can ask questions. “A lot of times, you might feel like you’ve said the same thing 10,000 times,” Flournoy said. “But the 10,001st time that you say something, it can click for someone. Someone will say, ‘I've never heard that before.’” And ultimately, communication bleeds into action. “I think at the end of the day, everybody knew we were doing a human capital strategy and what it was about because even if they didn't hear about it, they started to feel it. They started to actually experience things differently at work,” Flournoy said. 5) Champion change with soft skills One of the best ways organizations can lead through change is to position managers with the training they need to improve their soft skills. Mangers with great soft skills motivate and engage their people more effectively — like how they can intuit the right incentives to motivate employees. Flournoy points to one department manager that selected a “best memo of the week” to share as a way for employees to gain recognition. “A lot of it was just encouraging people to be creative and do what's going to work in your office,” she said. Managers can also take the pulse of teams to surface any issues that might come up. “I did a lot of management by walking around,” Flournoy explained. “I did what I call core sampling, which is to talk to a bunch of admin people or office directors just to find out how things were going from day to day.” Maintaining leadership momentum beyond transition Building a truly resilient culture needs everyone’s buy-in. Through active listening, acting on feedback and investing in people, leaders should have the goal of creating a space for all people to participate fully. This can help create an environment where employees at all levels can contribute not just to the work itself, but to the entire team’s wellbeing. “I could have gone into a room by myself and written, here are my top five priorities for my time in office, and here's how I'm going to achieve them, and here's my strategy, and then handed in this paper,” Flournoy says. “But I knew that I was going to get a much better product, all kinds of new ideas and challenges, better substance, but also, much more ownership by the organization and the team if I brought other people into the process.” Flournoy has seen the impact of this approach over the course of her career and shared one example from her time in the Obama administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reviewing a memo her team had provided on important topics to be shared with the President. “He put the memo down and said, ‘Did you fire everyone in this office and hire a new group of people?’ And I said no and asked him why he thought that,” Flournoy recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t believe this memo, which is superb, came from the same office where I was unhappy with the quality of work four months ago. What happened?’ I told him, ‘We put some good leaders in there and we started investing in the people.’ It’s like watering flowers in the desert: They just bloom.”