Leading the Right Way

We are excited to share this week’s blog, guest-written by Thomas Forstner. Thomas is Head of People & Talent at Juro, a fast growing contract automation platform. In this blog, he shares his experience on the do’s and don’ts of working as a People and Talent lead.

thomas forstner from juro

We are honored to have today’s blog written by Thomas Forstner. Thomas is Head of People & Talent at Juro – a 40-people contract automation platform on a mission to make contracts more human – where he is building a human-centric, scalable People & Talent function from the ground up. In this week’s blog, Thomas shares his valuable insights on what makes a good People and Talent lead.

10 do's and don'ts as a people & talent leader in a startup

The notion that People ("HR") is a strategic rather than support function has steadily gained traction in founders' minds recently, and this makes all the difference in what your seat at the leadership table looks like. I've been extremely fortunate to have that strategic say at Juro.

If you're on a similar path, here are 10 things I learned in my first year of our journey that will hopefully help you, too.

Do: Know your worth, know your sh*t

1. Think of people as users, and of People as a product

Why did people join your company over another company? What keeps people in the company today? In building a People function, it helps to think of your people as your users and the employee journey as the product you provide. Why did the user choose you over a competing product and why haven't they churned? What is the main value they get out of your product today?

Creating a basic hypothesis of what your value is as an employer/product is the first step to thinking like a Product team in everything else — identifying user pains, making People roadmaps, running sprints to solve them, measuring before/after, and so on.

2. Know what role you're playing

Answer me this: Does your company see People & Talent as (a) a cost centre, (b) the ones who do the payroll/snacks/socials, (c) the ones who execute the hiring plan/org design, (d) key advisers on how to grow the company right? If it's not (d), you will have a hard time making a dent in the strategic growth of your business.

As Head of People & Talent, my ultimate vision for Juro is to consistently attract and grow the top 5% of talent. To do that, we need a world-class team that's fully enabled to deliver top performance for as long as possible. My CEO and I have always been on the same page about my mission and outcomes as People leader, and it helped avoid many a miscommunication about what I should deliver, what numbers I am responsible for etc.

3. Have a hiring playbook down early

Are you hiring in bulk? Just a few key contributors? Seniors? Juniors? Whatever your plan, have a strategy in place for how you want to bring those people in. Will premium job boards get you the talent you need? Will you rely on agencies? Who is responsible for reviewing CVs? Who decides the interview process? You want answers to all of these in order to avoid running into the same problems over and over.

The danger of not having this is (1) poor hires galore and (2) unsuccessful hiring managers.

4. Make a career framework (just do it)

Most people leave companies for two reasons: (1) they hit a ceiling or (2) the culture is bad. By offering both, you can go head to head with most name brands out there. That's why not only our handbook is public but also our career framework.

5. Create feedback loops

When people say the culture is 'bad', that doesn't tell you much. Just like when NPS is low, you need to figure out where it hurts. Having feedback loops in place to continuously gather quantitative and qualitative feedback, distilling that feedback into pain points, making action plans to tackle those pain points and measuring again — all while consulting with your team — will give you a reputation of being a "you said, we did" company.

That doesn't mean doing everything your people want — it means showing that their voice is heard and, when requests are reasonable, you act fast and without red tape. In the long run, it will create a company that you're much more in tune with.

Don't: Be a follower

1. Don't do whatever you're told

Half of my role is leading the Talent function. I say no to every other role that comes my way. The truth is: most businesses, large or small, don't know why they're hiring. They see a problem and they jump to the conclusion that hiring their way out of that problem is the right way to solve it.

My position as a strategic leader and advisor lets me not only dig into the function that wants a new hire and what is going wrong but also gives me the remit to send people back to fix the process before they work out if hiring is what they need to do. Otherwise, you will waste a lot of energy placing people into roles that they can't succeed in.

2. Don't underestimate the handholding you have to do for hiring managers

Most managers aren't trained. They learned from the manager before them, and all the bad habits that come with it. Can't blame them. Managing and leading is a unique skillset that we don't actually teach for the most part. If your managers don't feel equipped to have difficult conversations about mental wellbeing with their reports, then be prepared to upskill them. Don't just assume that because they're managers, they know their stuff – most don't.

3. Don't waste your time on fluff

Don't get me wrong: socials, activities, nice offices – these are all important for a healthy culture. But they're all expressions of a different goal you want to achieve, which is the longevity of top performers in the business. And the best predictors of longevity are success first, happiness second. Don't waste your time putting on Zoom drinks and summer parties if there's more important things to the company — like people underperforming, or grumbling about career progression. Engagement is important, sure, but if your folks aren't growing they will leave no matter how many eco-friendly bottles you put in their starter packs.

4. Don't forget the metrics

Sales works to numbers. So does marketing. So does People. If you're a product and your people are your users, what are the toplines that tell you whether you're doing a good job? For me, it's rolling retention, ø engagement, % promotions and % churn risks. I track these and other data every month in a scrappy spreadsheet and my CEO uses them for board discussions. I take care to make them impactful – e.g. if we double down on investing in people by offering continuous progression, does that pay off in our revenue curve? Do we see this in a basic Person correlation? Basic data literacy makes the difference between a People leader that does fluff and one that actually recognizes the value of their function.

5. Don't hire for experience over potential

I learned this the hard way. The truth we learned is: at Series A with little name recognition and an unsexy (to most) product, our biggest lever to pull is progression, impact and a strong culture. Especially senior individual contributors often want things we can't offer: really big salaries and moving up into managerial roles. Very few will be fine with the relative chaos of a startup.

We found that hiring more junior folks who will champion our company will, with a modicum of training, deliver comparable value for us than would someone at double the price.

Working in startups is rewarding, but can be unforgiving. Processes are largely undefined, all roles are ASAP, hiring forecasts are guesswork and selling a role mainly hinges on how attractive your company mission, fast growth opportunities or whatever other startup stereotype you fancy are. Add a legal tech SaaS product into the mix (snore! Give us fintech, cleantech, agtech, anything but contracts!) and growing your team becomes a nightmare — if you lack a genuine culture, that is.

On the other hand: if you have a strong set of principles, if you prioritise whatever is needed most at your stage to succeed, and if you can count on your leaders to support you on the ride then there is little you cannot conquer – and go head-to-head with even the biggest players in your industry.

To hear more from Thomas, please listen to our podcast Leading Between the Lines, where Thomas was featured in the 21 April episode “Aligned Values.”

Working specifically with fast-growth organisations, we offer specialist coaching and development programmes, together with assessment and selection centres, designed and facilitated by experienced and qualified coaches. If you would like to find out more about how we can help your company and workforce grow, why not request a free consultancy call?

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