Any start-up to survive needs three main ingredients an idea whose time has come, access to capital to fund the idea, and a team that can execute it
Taking care of people means creating an environment of trust, engagement and collaboration that helps the organization to sail
Let me start with a confession. After working in the Human Resources field for over 15 years, I did not truly understand the role that HR actually can play until I became an entrepreneur. Talent-related decisions are so thickly intertwined with the business that one cannot draw a line between them, surely not in a start-up. No amount of experience in HR (and I had a diverse exposure in recruitment, C&B, HR business partnership) had prepared me for the real test of hiring, retaining and enabling talent.
For any start-up to survive, it needs three main elements – an idea whose time has come, access to capital to fund the idea, and a team that can execute and deliver the idea. The three of them are important and need to happen at the same time. This is the reason why only less than 5% of start-ups make it as million dollar companies. Many leaders, entrepreneurs and investors have suggested that if you take care of the people, product and profit follows. After 6 years of running People Matters, I couldn’t agree more. Taking care of your people means creating an environment of trust, engagement and collaboration that helps the organization to sail in good and not so good times.
I can summarize my travails of building a team under three main areas of learning: attracting talent, enabling teams and building an awesome culture.
From Hiring to Attracting: In start-ups, the demand-supply of talent is such that small organizations should only focus on ‘attracting’ talent and not just ‘hiring’. There are actually three things that matter when attracting talent in a start-up environment. Firstly, the vision of the team is the beginning of the conversation. The vision becomes the compass for the team and the reason why individuals become interested. The opportunity for people to be part of vision creation is also a great attraction for talent, as they get an opportunity to be part of something bigger and noble. Secondly, the leader becomes the talent magnet. The only asset you have as a smaller company, when you compete in the talent marketplace is your own leadership and people will join you because they want to work with you – and that is a great differentiator. Thirdly, referrals become the most successful source of talent. Internal talent being the ambassador of the organization - identifying the fit and owning the success of the new hire is one of the most powerful channels of recruitment by a mile. In our experience, it is only those professionals who were aligned to our vision, who saw the purpose and believed that being part of People Matters was a great opportunity – only such individuals eventually “fitted” in our organization.
On a closing note on the hiring front, and in line of my thoughts on confessions – here are the mistakes I have made (please note this is not an exhaustive list and I have made many more than the ones listed here). Confession #1 - Making a poor job of defining what you are looking for – having clarity about what is expected from a role will help you make sure you identify the necessary qualities candidates need to have. Confession #2 – Hiring people who don’t align to the purpose and vision of the organization. In my experience people who work for the success of the team and the success of the organization will find a way to be successful in a start-up. Confession #3 – The job of integrating new people in the team is the job of the leader. Integration is a lot more about relationships, emotions and alignment of purpose. The role of the leader is to support the new comer in this journey and create opportunities for quick wins so that acceptability happens in the larger team.
The illusion of retention & enabling teams: The second aspect I want to touch upon is “retention” of talent. The first realization about the illusion of ‘retention’ happened when one of our earliest colleagues one day came to me and informed me that he was leaving and gave his 30 days’ notice. Believe me, for a start-up founder, it is extremely difficult to understand why somebody chooses to leave and more so why he/she did not tell me way before! It is an extremely painful process to come to terms with the fact that people are volunteers in the journey of achieving the vision, and will come and go and maybe come back again. The illusion is that you can “retain” talent. You cannot. The only thing in your control is to enable talent, to help them be successful and develop their potential. There is no such a thing called talent retention. The sooner one comes to terms with it, the sooner one changes the paradigm to enabling, developing and supporting people while they work with you. The way we do it in People Matters is with a very simple rhythm (that took us surprisingly long time to find): 1) our Monday meetings are sacrosanct – everybody in the team knows where we are, where we are going and areas we need to focus on, every week. That creates an opportunity to connect with the bigger picture and align work with the teams’ priorities; 2) Alignment meetings with the product and sales teams – we spend 2-3 hours every week communicating on where each team is, what help is needed from each other and what decisions need to be taken. Alignment meetings help us to move the ball forward every week and gives an opportunity to everybody to be on the same page; 3) Check-in huddles - Post the alignment meeting, we may identify one or two areas that need further work – and this is where I step in to help the team members. My role in the organization is really to enable others to be successful, so check-in meetings are hands-on meetings where we work together to close an important item. 4) Finally an integral part of our rhythm are the One2One conversations that happen regularly. One2Ones are an opportunity to share insights about the business, communicate contextually relevant information and have heart-to-heart conversations on career, work and life. My realization as an entrepreneur is that if you ask people questions about their plans, they will tell you – through conversations, you can exchange what their plans and aspirations are, and then plan accordingly together as a team. Trust is build when you share and when you respect people's choices and behaviors and do not penalize someone when he/she shares their plans for the future.
Culture is the glue and it is everywhere: Many founders and CEOs who I have met usually underestimate the power of ‘culture’ behind the success of a team. Culture is everything, and it is build every day. I believe that for building an awesome company, a great culture can be an aim in itself for an entrepreneur because great cultures create winning teams and winning teams build awesome products. Culture is of course intangible and does not fit in an excel sheet. What has worked for People Matters are three things: 1) Create a common language. A common code, common language facilitates understanding between people and also builds efficiency. The things that helped us last year to build a common language were our training efforts – 7 Habits, change management, sales, project management, that provided us not only with functional skills but also with a common language to communicate. ‘Big rocks’, ‘End in mind’, ‘Q1-Q2-Q3-Q4’, ‘listening with the intent to understand, not with the intent to respond’ and many other terms became regular parlance in the organization. 2) Culture is co-curated. We are a 50 people team so we don’t really have HR as a department. The role of HR is played by a cross-functional team called Awesome Place to Work. This team takes care of hygiene grievances and works together to solve them, plans the weekly initiative which we call Together@PeopleMatters, a thirty-minute exercise where we all just spend time together as a team – playing games, having conversations and just being “together”. 3) Finally and very important are appreciations and recognition of behaviors that are aligned to what “greatness” is in People Matters – for us, curiosity, care, determination and the ability to connect the dots is critical for our business.
The journey of building a winning team is the journey of co-creation – a journey that starts from transparency, trust, encouraging people to sharing achievements, feeling protected to speak up and bringing problems in to the open so they can be fixed. It is a humbling journey, that can be overwhelming in so many ways, but worth every minute.