The following is the second guest post in a series written by Victoria Schanen, founder of Ghrow.io, a consulting services firm specializing in fractional human resources and recruiting leadership for startups. We’ve enjoyed our conversations with Victoria and are pleased to share a series of guest posts authored by Victoria with you. Prior to launching Ghrow, Victoria served as an HR executive in three separate SaaS startup companies based in Minnesota. She speaks and presents at startup events such as MinneBar, Twin Cities Startup Week, and Enterprise Rising and performs comedy improv in her free time. To see the first post in the series, go here.
Startups are lean operations with tight budgets and, for good reason, they tend to staff up in two areas first: technology and sales. A dedicated human resources team member doesn’t make it into the picture until much later and so the function is often cobbled together and minimally viable. In this blog series, I’ll endeavor to demystify startup HR by unpacking common pitfalls and offering helpful redirects.
Moreover, because hiring a team is expensive, I hope my insights help founders protect and strengthen the people investment side of their businesses.
Startup founders often hire past colleagues, friends, or even family members, understandably. It’s much easier to recruit someone who knows and trusts you. The founder also knows roughly what they are getting versus hiring an unknown quantity. Perhaps equity is offered in lieu of salary, or the offer package has other tradeoffs, saving a founder precious cash for other uses.
These early hires often don’t have a job description nor defined objectives. Since the employee and founder have a close relationship, responsibilities and expectations tend to be communicated and understood in the context of working closely together. This works for a while but then reaches a breaking point.
When an early hire’s performance doesn’t meet a founder’s expectations, the conversation is going to be a hard one without a job description to point to. Or worse, a founder may realize too late that the hire wasn’t actually a fit for the work that they needed them to perform.
To avoid these scenarios, I strongly recommend writing a job description, even if it’s just a list of responsibilities and objectives, before hiring anyone – even a former colleague. Job descriptions help define who it is your business needs and then sets the north star and criteria for what work needs to be completed. This will help the new hire be successful, which in turn helps the company be successful.
Hiring functional heads for a startup – Head of Growth, Head of Engineering, etc. – is tricky. On the one hand, startups need leaders capable of strategic planning, which typically means someone who has previously held a director or vice president role. On the other hand, the leader will likely need to also perform hands-on work.
When hiring functional heads, I recommend being mindful that candidates who have a decade or more experience in a director or vice president role likely manage teams who execute all the work but they haven’t gotten their “hands dirty” in a while. That said, I wouldn’t swing the pendulum the other direction by hiring someone who has only ever been an individual contributor. A few profiles I’ve seen that translate well into startup functional heads: an experienced software engineer who just finished an MBA; an HR executive who spun up a new division from scratch; a former startup founder coming in as a head of Customer Success.
Setting up the function of people management in startups can also pose challenges. Often, the highest performing employee is offered a promotion to manager. Since promotions come with pay increases, which is hard to turn down…who doesn’t like money?…people tend to bite at the opportunity. In other words, they’re kinda forced into it. The issue is that being a strong individual contributor doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good manager of people. Further, strong performer often miss the hands-on work they need to give up to make time for management, leading to job dissatisfaction.
Here’s a manager introduction model I’ve seen work out. The functional head should talk to their employees about goals to get a sense of who is interested in a management vs. a technical specialization career path. Those interested in managing can be given “training wheels” such as managing an intern, a lower stakes / shorter term trial. If they like and are a good at it, you’ve got a manager pipelined!
People management is of course a complex topic, peppered with the sub-topics of learning and development and performance management. Please tune in for the next installment of “Startup HR Demystified” for a continued discussion touch on these areas.
The following is the first guest post in a series authored by Victoria Schanen, founder of Ghrow.io, a consulting services firm specializing in fractional human resources and recruiting leadership for startups. We’ve enjoyed our conversations with her and are pleased to share this series of guest posts with you. Prior to launching Ghrow, Victoria served as an HR executive in three separate SaaS startup companies based in Minnesota. She speaks and presents at startup events such as MinneBar, Twin Cities Startup Week, and Enterprise Rising and performs comedy improv in her free time.
Startups are lean operations with tight budgets and, for good reason, staff up in two areas first: technology and sales. A dedicated human resources team member doesn’t make it into the picture until much later and so the function is often cobbled together and minimally (or barely) viable. In this three-part blog series, I’ll endeavor to demystify startup HR by unpacking common pitfalls and offering helpful redirects.
Mission, Vision, and Values
Creating a foundation for startup employees to be successful begins with aligning people to the company’s mission, vision, and values. Employees look for purpose in their work, which stems from the purpose of the organization. A well articulated mission, vision, and core values provide not only a shared purpose for employees to rally around but serve as a guidepost in company operations – helping inform anything from processes and practices to traditions and shared experiences.
The first step is setting aside time to create the mission, vision, and values – either independently or with the help of an outside consultant. Oftentimes, and understandably, this alone is incredibly daunting. For the startups who pull through and produce the mission, vision, and values, a common outcome is that they’re published on the website, spoken about once or twice, but largely forgotten. This is especially true for the core values.
A founder’s challenge, should they choose to accept, is to actually breathe life into the values. Thankfully, the work can and should be shared as it definitely “takes a village” to get momentum. To get started, here are some ideas:
- Use core values in discussions around important decisions
- When announcing company wins, tie them to any applicable core values
- Include core values in the decks for recurring meetings (ex. cover slide or end slide)
- Highlight core values in job postings and use core values interview questions
- Use core values as a portion of your performance reviews and use them to guide promotion decisions
- When recognizing employees, tie in any applicable core values; use core values hashtags or custom emojis in Slack (employees love creating and using emojis!)
- Give out core values awards at the end of the year to employees who exemplify them
- Share and discuss articles from business publications (ex. Harvard Business Review) that tie to or show thought leadership around values
Tying operational practices back to the core values helps employees feel invested in the company and, by extension, their jobs. When employees are invested, they’re not only more productive but more loyal. The market for talent is tight and when (not if) your employee is approached for another opportunity, it’s in your best interest that they are fully engaged.
The True Test
The above recipe is one I whole-heartedly stand by, but with one caveat. Your core values can quickly, unexpectedly, be redefined as and reduced to the worst behavior your company tolerates. Oftentimes there is an incredibly smart, valuable team member who simply refuses to “drink the Kool-Aid” as it is perceived. Talk to this employee, point out the issue or case in point, and see if changed behavior is feasible. If not, either the values or the employee will have to go – you can’t have both and retain the integrity of the core values.
An outgrowth of mission, vision, and values is the company narrative – the collective sense of what is going on, who we are, and employee morale. The narrative is of course created by the founder and leadership team, but it becomes the story employees tell themselves and each other. Keeping a positive narrative on track is important and often tricky.
Having regular shared experiences helps keep the narrative consistent. Most startups have plenty of team meetings, lending itself to co-workers sharing the same narrative. That said, co-workers from another team might have a very different narrative. If left alone, this creates a disjointed narrative and can cause strife. Establishing shared, company-wide experiences helps.
Narrative sustaining ideas:
- All Hands meetings on a regular cadence (weekly, monthly, etc.) with recurring segments
- Weekly recap emails from leadership (same or rotating leader sending)
- Lunch and Learn sessions, led by anyone with specialty knowledge
- Recreational events and volunteering
- Kickoff or year-end meeting, in-person
- Annual traditions (summer BBQ, holiday party)
The Path Ahead
Mission, Vision, and Values are a part of the foundation but obviously there is so much more that goes into a successful employee journey. Stay tuned for the next edition of Demystifying Startup HR when we’ll unpack topics around leadership and management.
To see the next post in our series, go here.