Hi Anne. what do you do and what brought you to Asia?
I am a People Strategy consultant and I support fast-growing startups in building high performing and scalable organisations to help them go through their next stage of growth successfully.
I moved to Singapore with my husband and two kids in 2013 with Google (after a short stay in India). I worked at Google for 10 years before starting my own gig 4 years ago. I joined Google in 2005 from the Paris office as the company was still quite small (5,000 employees globally and 1,500 in EMEA). I was hired to build the employer brand in EMEA (at that time no one knew Google as an employer of choice yet!) and the talent sourcing strategy. In 2013 the company had over 55,000 employees. Most of our processes were not fit for that size anymore and I redesigned and optimised a number of HR processes (running pilots in APAC and rolling out globally).
My decision to leave Google to start my business had to do with the limited scope for significant innovation in Talent Management and the fact that I started to develop a real passion for developing new organisational models and rethinking the way we manage people.
After meeting a number of startups and VCs in Singapore, I saw a real need for bringing another perspective to HR in general and to integrate more strategic thinking into the way we build organisations. What should my organisation look like in the next 12 months to hit our growth targets? What should our org roadmap look like to get there? How to stay true to our original mission and values as we expand? These questions should be answered by founders but owned by HR, and for this HR leads need to shift their focus from operational and transactional efficiency, to business performance.
The reason why I focus on startups is not only because it’s more fun (although it helps!). It is mainly because there is greater opportunity to quickly bring value and innovation. There is obviously loads to do in corporates too, but the impact with startups is greater. I can build everything from scratch, they are usually more agile, open to lean and innovative solutions, and I get direct access to the founders to build the strategy.
What is People Strategy?
People Strategy is similar to Organisation Design with an emphasis on people dynamics. Here is how to think about it. HR activities consist of operations and admin (employment contracts, payroll, work permits, leaves, etc.). HR strategies should aim for building optimised and efficient processes for those activities. HR strategies improve HR KPIs and ROI metrics such as time and cost to hire, attrition, HR/employee ratio, training cost per employee, etc. “People Strategies” aspire to building programs and processes to improve human performance and ultimately impact the organization’s bottom line! A subtle, but important difference 😉 It is not about increasing the employee satisfaction score and decrease the attrition rate. It is about increasing overall company productivity and performance.
Performance happens with people, not on paper. So whatever has been defined in the business plan, you need people to execute it. And the only way that the business objectives are achieved is if all levels of the organisation play their part and deliver as expected. That means that you will have to hold your leaders accountable, and they will have to hold their employees accountable. People Strategies are about building a framework to do that and to ensure the business targets are reached.
Why is it important for startups to invest in People Strategy?
Because startups, like any other companies, are made of people 😉 !!!
Startups spend the majority of their time on business strategy and too little time thinking, let alone doing anything about the organisation and culture.
As mentioned above, there is a direct correlation between engaged teams and business performance. Without an effective people strategy in place, entrepreneurs run the risk of losing their initial competitive advantage when comes the time to scale.
To scale and be successful a company needs 4 things:
- A compelling product
- A proven revenue model
- Sufficient Capital
- And an organisation that can scale
But the reality is that founders spend a disproportionate amount of time on the first 3: At seed stage all attention is put in creating the right product. Later, around the time of their series A, the focus shifts to building a viable revenue model and raising sufficient capital to support the next phase of growth. But too little time, if any at all, is spent on reflecting about the organisation and building an organisation that scales.
Because of the lack of focus on the people strategy and org structure, the organisation increasingly lags behind the needs of the business. This is ok as long as you are growing at reasonable scale. But things change drastically when the startup reaches hyper-growth as most of the capital raised is to be invested on scaling. They suddenly need to add new teams and locations, hire a lot of people very fast, develop hiring and HR capabilities, build a proper reporting structure, build a professional executive team, redefine the role of the founders, etc. So as a result, startups that may have operated quite informally until this point are forced to “grow up” almost overnight!
Let me share some recent examples. One client had 70 employees when I started and no HR or recruitment at all. After a few internal interviews and investigations in the first month, I realised that they had over 150 roles in the teams that managers were hiring for directly. The leadership team had no idea the organisation was tripling in the next 3-6 months! After 1 year, they reached the size of 300 employees. The leadership team was so busy with expansion and fund raising that they never managed to take the time to sit down and articulate their company culture, let alone the overall organisation plan! No need to say that with no HR or recruiting capacity, the situation can lead to insane situations for candidates and employees.
- Without an organisation plan, it is impossible to anticipate your needs and be able to hire the right people on time. Everything becomes reactive and teams end up recruiting in panic mode.
- Without hiring capability, there is no way to ensure consistency in the quality of hires and proper candidate experience. I had to deal with situations such as a startup rescinding an offer to a candidate based in the UK who had already accepted their offer for a job in Singapore and had resigned from his job, just because the manager suddenly had a doubt.
- Without HR Operations team, there is no systematic and compliant way to manage employees. I had cases of employees working in Singapore with no employment contract or even no work permit.
- Without a proper org structure, it becomes very confusing to know who reports to who. I had the case of employees who did not know who was their managers and did not even know which team they belong to.
The only way to “survive” this difficult period, founders have to anticipate and start building healthy foundations for the organisation BEFORE hitting hyper-growth.
So what HR teams do?
HR teams (or People teams as some companies now call them) should be looked at as a business function, not just as an operational function. As such, the mission of HR becomes to improve the performance of the organization. HR teams should be able to commit to increase overall business performance by X percent, instead of focusing solely on improving the performance of its internal operations.
HR leaders need to have a seat on the executive team. HR leaders need to facilitate the design of the organisation needed to deliver the goals (org roadmap, org structure, manpower plan). HR leaders need to have stronger business acumen to support the executive team in leading that organisation effectively. They will ensure the company mission and vision are inspiring and clearly communicated to everyone all the time. They will ensure the company values are authentic and widely shared throughout the organisation. They will ensure every business decision, every new policy or process are in sync with the values and serve the company mission and vision. They will ensure the leadership team delegates authority effectively to the next levels of the organisation (vs. micromanaging). HR leaders need to challenge the leadership team and drive those conversations.
Is it the reason why we see roles such as “Happiness Manager” flourish now?
Yes, indeed. Several studies have shown that “happy” teams perform better and it is now widely known that there is a direct correlation between people engagement and a company’s competitive advantage. Fortune magazine reported that the “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” returned twice as much on their stock per year, compared to the overall market. Yes, twice as much. So yes, companies do see a significant and lasting payoff in making their employees happy!
“Happiness Manager” definitely contribute to better employee satisfaction and better workplaces. They usually run “cool and fun” initiatives like healthier food options at the cafeteria, free yoga classes, flexible work schedule, perks that boost mental and physical wellbeing, company-wide involvement in charity fun runs, buddy programmes, coaching and mentoring on-demand, monthly motivational speakers, learning clubs, “day in the life of…”, team mascots, etc.
There is however a misconception around what makes employees happy and companies like Google and Facebook have contributed to that confusion. Happiness is not the same for everyone. Having a good work environment is not just about free food and recreation time. And these only have a minimal and short-term impact on employee performance, and actual employee satisfaction.
The truth is that satisfaction at work comes when you feel that you have an impact, when you can do what you do best everyday, when you feel that your voice is heard, etc. These are the true drivers to employee satisfaction. Hence the importance of having the right performance management framework in place and helping managers lead their teams properly.
What is the role of managers in all this?
It is critical. You are right, it is not all about HR. Performance happens at the team level (where the real work gets done!). And the only people able to drive that performance are managers (not HR, and not leadership). The responsibility of HR and founders is to ensure we have capable managers at the head of every team and to give them the right information, the right tools and the right authority to do their role as managers well. We all know the adage “people leave managers, not companies.” So no matter how much benefits and engagement initiatives your company provides to employees, if their manager sucks they will be demotivated, they will perform poorly and ultimately they will leave the company.
Most startups have very junior and inexperienced managers (usually the first employees who get promoted to managers as the company grows). Managers are responsible for hiring the right people, for communicating company and team objectives clearly, for monitoring performance on a constant basis, for providing adequate support for the team to overcome issues, etc. If they are not trained and equipped properly to do a fair job as manager, the impact on performance is immediate…
So what does good manager do?
These are the key elements of a manager’s job:
- They explicit what the company mission, vision and objectives are
- They clarify what is expected of their team member, what good looks like and how their performance is measured
- They provide the right information, tools and autonomy to their team to do their job well
- They make sure their team members have the opportunity to do what they do best every day
- They regularly recognise and praise good job in their team
- They genuinely care for their people members as people
- They encourage their team members’ development
- They make sure their team members’ opinion is heard
- They give regular feedback on their team members’ job
If you are interested in the subject, I highly recommend you Dr. Axel Zein video: The Perfect Boss and to read the book “First Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently” from Marcus Buckingham.
So how should a startup get started?
They need to start by building an AUTHENTIC company culture. This is the DNA of the company and provides meaning and consistency to all decisions, policies and processes. Most of startups know the importance of creating a strong company culture for the sustainability of their business. However, they struggle in defining what their company culture really IS (they usually define what it SHOULD be, using aspirational values instead of authentic ones), and how to develop it effectively. The objective of a Company Culture is NOT to look nice and please everyone. It is not about a colorful workplace, a foosball table and free lunches. It is fine if it is not cool, not everyone wants cool. A good Company Culture states a DIFFERENCE and should in some ways discourage those not fitting in while attracting those in sync. The reason why Google was so successful is not just because it was cool, it is because at that time it was significantly different… and true to the actual values of the founders. Both of them had a genuine appetite to do good and had a people-centric approach to management. They owned it from day one and built a culture around “Don’t be evil”. On the other side, Netflix based its culture on the concept of good “judgement”. If you are hired, it means that you are good and therefore we trust you to use good judgement and make the right decisions. That’s how they initiated the “no leave policy” (you can take as many leaves as you need, we trust you to know what is best for you, for your team and for the company). So as a founder, if you are competitive, there are high chances that your organisation will be somehow aggressive in hitting goals and eager to win. Own it and choose values such as “Fierce” or “Ambitious”. If you are highly data-driven, chances are that all decisions in your companies will have to be backed by data before going ahead. Own it and choose values such as “Reliable”, and probably not “Bold” or “Fast”.
How “Dare you” to be a woman in the Tech startup ecosystem?
Where my male colleagues have less issues to access the leadership teams to discuss the strategic challenge of building an organisation, my main challenge at first was to build credibility and get founders into those strategic organisational discussions. HR is still very much seen as an admin and operations function and it is clearly very female dominated. Coming as a female and HR professional, founders usually limited what I could help them with to “fixing HR and recruiting”. Over time, this has not really been a challenge anymore. I guess I have gained confidence in imposing those conversations 😉
How do you bring more diversity?
I think it is now widely known why diversity in organisation is important, and the impact it has on the business. The challenge is to actually see it when there is an issue. Most startups I worked with have a clear lack of gender diversity at the board or C-level of the organisation. But this is not the only diversity issue. There is frequently a lack of ethnicity/nationality/age diversity too.
There is a lack of female entrepreneurs (only 14% percent of founders are female in Tech Startups) to start with, so most startups are male founded. The other thing is that at early stage, startups grow organically: they hire from their close network and therefore mostly from the same demographics (nationality, age group, gender, etc). It is true everywhere, and it is what we see in the Singapore startup landscape too: Sleek founders (all French in their late 30’s), Zilingo (all Indian in their 25’s), Carousell (all Singaporean male new graduates), etc. Of course, not all startups are like that but a significant proportion is.
So how do I try to bring more diversity? First, I help founders see the lack of diversity. Usually there are so deeply involved in the operations that they do not even see it, nor see the negative impact it has on the business (lack of perspective and innovation) and on the culture (feeling of discrimination). Speaking about it usually is enough. If not, I share reading material such as research studies on diversity and unconscious biases to help them understand the organisational risks and missed business opportunities related to diversity issues. Second, I help them design a recruitment process that is more inclusive. It starts from diversifying the sources of talents (tapping into different networks, proactively sourcing senior females professionals, or any other misrepresented group, etc.). Then it is about training interviewers to ensure they become conscious of their biases and can make objective hiring decisions.