Picking Mentors – HR Novice to HR Guru

I’m not a guru (I only play one on the interwebs), but I think I’ve graduated from novice with a lot of help from a lot of people. Some I stumbled on through luck or some prodding, some I sought out. If I was talking to a younger version of me (with fewer gray hairs), here’s what I’d say:

Work for someone you can learn from. Provided you have the flexibility to be patient on job offers, only accept one working for someone you know you can learn something valuable from. Pick someone super smart. Pick someone who is an expert in their field. Pick a great leader. Provided the job ticks off your other needs, always choose the role reporting to someone who awes you with some characteristic or skill.

I have a list of people I’ve interviewed with over the years that I would have loved to work for, solely because of how much I thought I could learn from them. Only two of these people are in HR. And mind the other side of you tenure at a job. It may be time to consider another role if you don’t feel you are still learning from your manager, or at least invest in some other avenue of learning

Find HR thought partners. My CEO at Buildium, Michael, acknowledged I was relatively inexperienced and encouraged me to find experts to use as thought partners, even if it cost the company money. I used an HR consulting company called Insight Performance and worked closely with the amazing Amy Scannell. Early on, I’d call with a question and follow her recommendations. Later, I’d call with a solution and ask if I was missing anything. Over four years, I developed in large part because of her mentorship.

Our investors hosted summits where I was able to network with other HR professionals. Annually, we were able to hear what others were trying, things that had gone well, and lessons learned the hard way.  It’s here I met one of my HR crushes, the incredibly amazing Christine Song. I still find myself learning from her amazing LinkedIn article shares and occasionally bouncing an idea off of her for feedback.

Lastly, blogs and conferences were a great sources of inspiration and expertise. I religiously read upstartHR, then met the super talented author, Ben Eubanks at a conference. Keeping up to date with what was on his mind helped me keep a thumb on what was going on in the profession and challenge my own thinking and beliefs about the right way to do things. It made me grow and evolve. Getting to interact with him and ask for feedback was amazing.

 

Network. I hate the thought of schmoozing people in a large room, so I try not to. That doesn’t mean I don’t see incredible value to expanding my circle through smaller events, speaking on panels, and offering to feedback to people who ask. I’ve found myself with a groups of individuals that have taught me a lot about different functional areas and other business problems. I have found that as I’ve learned more about all aspects of a business, I’ve become better at my role.

The wrap. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to stumble into some amazing mentors who have shaped the professional I am today. I didn’t really start to see the value until in my thirties, but I wish I had started earlier. Don’t limit yourself to people in your profession – there is something to be learned from anyone who is really good at something. Ask them about the biggest lessons they’ve learned, the biggest mistake they made, things they wish they knew earlier in their career and anything else that comes to mind. You’d be surprised at how much it helps you navigate things you face.

 

That 6:30AM Factor – Scaling Drive and Commitment

“We used to have people here at 6:30AM everyday. How do we get our team back to that?”

“Mike, we’re bigger now. You can’t expect people to do that.”

I recently was having a discussion with an engineer at a growing medical device company about the issues her company has had scaling. Her boss was lamenting how they used to have a culture where he wasn’t the only person in the office at 6:30AM, with the underlying feeling being that it meant people just didn’t care as much or weren’t as driven.

Maybe the 6:30AM factor is defined differently at your company, but it’s such a common concern when scaling that I wanted to talk about it a bit. How do you make sure to keep the special something as you grow and aren’t afraid of shuttering your doors tomorrow? While I think it’s really hard to do, I think scaling that sort of drive (in this case) is possible if you are really deliberate throughout the process of growing your headcount. Here are some of the components you need to have.

Great hiring (and firing) practices. Your founders should define the characteristics they love in employees and the culture they want to have early on, then work with the HR or People Ops team to engrain them into the hiring process. The earlier, the better. You want to have it down to a science and learn from your mistakes before hitting a stretch of rapid growth.

Many companies wait too long to hire a strong person to build out the people infrastructure, so it’s not a surprise that it becomes an uphill battle. You should be interviewing for fit, work style, skills and experience early on, and exiting people who aren’t a fit for the culture you want to sustain. Your culture will naturally change as you grow, but you need to be vigilant about reinforcing the characteristics you want and avoid letting it slip into a bad place early on.

Purpose. Part of the reason you see such a vibrant culture in a lot of start-ups is that every person feels able to impact the company’s ability to sink or swim. Even the intern gets face time with the CEO to hear about the vision and strategy. How can you not be excited to come into work with that level of clarity and ability to impact great things?! As you grow, that doesn’t happen organically. Before you know it, you have a content writer writing about tax returns, who doesn’t see how what they does matters to the company and watches the clock until they can leave.

As you grow, you need to be much more deliberate about purpose and making people feel impactful. People further down the ranks are going to feel further and further from what the company is trying to do and top-level metrics. The content writer doesn’t see how this article impacts MRR or growth rate, but maybe they can see it impacting organic search results or customer satisfaction.

Your leaders should take the time to position tasks and initiatives very specifically, tie them up to department goals, and explain how that impacts company goals. Also, define the mission and goals of their teams. When you give people a task, show them the metrics it’ll move. Let them own it. People want to feel like they make a difference – it’s what gets them pumped to get out of bed in the morning and, maybe, show up at 6:30AM to try this new thing they think will move the needle.

Autonomy and growth. When you are a small company, it’s really easy for people to feel like they control their own destiny and get to take on stretch projects. It’s invigorating. When people are pumped about what they do, the time flies. As you get bigger, there’s less green field, more process, more specialization and things may move a little slower.

It takes a very deliberate effort by managers to distribute the boring tasks that nobody wants to do (and give them context so they are slightly less awful), and also distribute the stretch projects to members of the team so everyone still has something they are really excited about. No, your customer service rep probably won’t have a chance to run social media as you grow, but maybe they can be a team lead or run an onboarding program.

What happens more typically is that a couple of people get all the stretch projects, while others get the grunt work. So you have a smaller number of people feeling autonomy and the opportunity for growth. I think this adds to critical mass becoming less and less engaged. I think the only real way around this obstacle is good management. Unfortunately, many quickly-growing start-ups end up with a lot of first time managers (usually the people who got stretch projects and crushed it) who aren’t able to be as deliberate about divvying up work. Which brings me to …

Good management. Great managers are a differentiator. People join for them, excel under them, and stick around through the hard times because of them. They make work exciting. You need really good managers to hire and fire correctly. To give purpose as you scale. And to ensure autonomy and growth opportunities throughout their teams. If you have great managers, you can scale that start-up feel where people are invigorated by what they do. Every business struggles with this, but particularly growing ones where every day there are a million other things to take on.

The wrap. Even if you solve for all of the above, reality kicks in. When you are a small company, your demographics may be very different than they need to be as you grow. For example, with more experienced leaders, you likely will have more people who have families and other commitments outside of work than a fifteen person start-up with a lot of twenty-somethings. Having people in the office at all hours becomes less likely (and I’m not sure it’s the best measure of scaling success).

If your company grows, your dynamics will need to change, regardless. As a leader, you need to really get to the heart of what’s important, define it for your HR team, listen to their feedback (i.e. are you focusing on the right measures of success?), and let them get to work weaving it into the fabric of your company. That is, in my opinion, the best way to scale a really positive culture that reflects the wants of the founders while meeting the needs of the business.

Oh. And hire/develop good managers as you scale. That, too.

 

Thoughts for a new HR professional

Hey there. Sorry I’ve gone dark on you. My new job started and I’ve been immersing myself in meeting people, collecting feedback, and working on a plan going forward. It’s meant that few humans outside of work have gotten even a wink of my time (my dog has, though), and that I didn’t follow through on my goal of 1-2 posts a week.

However, with starting a new job, I’ve found my mind wandering at night with thoughts about what I’d tell a younger version of me to prepare myself for this role and opportunity. I figured I’d share those thoughts.

  1. This career is the right fit, but it’s hard. I never would have thought that as an introvert, the path that would drive me the most would involve interacting with so many different people. I care about people I’m close to so intensely, I suppose it makes sense that creating an environment for people to feel engaged and invigorated really excites me. However, it also makes the job challenging because it’s hard not to take every bit of failure or tough news very, very personally. You will need to sit on difficult information that you can’t vent to anyone else. You will hear things nobody else in the organization hears that you can’t un-hear or share. And you will need to deliver really bad news. There will be nights it’s hard to sleep, but in the end, you are (hopefully) impacting things in a really positive way.
  2. It’s lonely. People who have worked for me can attest to my philosophy on this. I think to be really good at this job, you need to be neutral. Nobody should fear coming to you because you are close friends with so-and-so. That means being lonely at work. Very rarely do you have a peer you can be totally open with and vent to. I am human and I develop soft spots for people. It’s always been hard for me to remain detached enough to maintain objectivity, while balancing the need to build trust with people throughout the organization.
  3. We need more creativity and passion in the field. There are a lot of amazing people in the profession and we need even more. I think we’re in the era where HR and People Ops go from risk mitigation to strategic partner to the organization. Anytime you see a function make that transition, creative thinkers are needed. Don’t give into the pressure to think inside the box. Dream big and push the envelope. Focus on creating an exceptional experience that you’d want to see.
  4. Network. You can speed your learning curve up by going to events and learning from others’ successes and, more importantly, failures. Ask the “stupid” questions you are afraid to ask. Introduce yourself to founders and execs and ask them what they like to see from the function (and hate to see). This is all info you’ll need to learn at some point – best get started on it early!
  5. Learn numbers and presenting. You will be working with a lot of data-driven functions. Learn to speak their language to sell your ideas and get buy in. You need more than “everyone is doing this” and “it’ll be great” at executive meetings – you need to paint the picture of value to the organization. You may thrive in the softer and more ambiguous side of business, but learn how your peers work best and you’ll be far more effective at impacting change in the organization.
  6. You’ll usually have an uphill battle to earn trust. While there are a lot of good people in the field, there are some bad eggs. Add to that the fact that the job requires us to deliver the worst sort of news to employees and you can understand why it can require a lot of upfront investment and consistency to earn trust. Don’t take skepticism or guardedness personally, just keep working and you’ll get there. Be as open as possible. Be genuine.

Accidentally landing in this career has been the best thing for me. I hope that’s helpful perspective!