From “Strategic Partner” to “Go-to-Person”- HR Role in Startups is Inevitably Challenging

From “Strategic Partner” to “Go-to-Person”- HR Role in Startups is Inevitably Challenging

From operating in a traditional cocoon to holding a seat at the senior leadership table, HR has come a long way. With the changing role of HR, HR managers have managed to move beyond the administrative function. Today, they are the facilitators of employee success and organisational growth, and they utilize technology to get there.

“Before you turn 30, follow somebody, go to a small company. Normally in a big company, it’s good to learn processes, you are part of a big machine. But when you go to a small company, you learn the passion, you learn to dream, you learn to do a lot of things at one time.” – Jack Ma.

In recent times, there has been a lot of buzz around the changing role of Human resources with cutting-edge technologies. Everything revolves around how automation, AI, ML, RPA, AR/VR, CaaS (Chatbots) will change the
future of HR for any company. This entire transformation will create a more agile and sustainable ecosystem in the VUCA world and help the teams to create ROI in each vertical of the HR function. This is going to happen with big,
organized corporates having a huge workforce and a giant HR team to make it a reality. Now take a pause and think about the companies who are still in the nascent stage or scaling up gradually and still thinking- Is it right to hire an HR? For them, it’s a contentious territory.

Let me take you through a case. Amruta is a newly appointed HR Head in a tech startup company and holds a master’s degree with close to a decade experience wherein she has had experience in all the major functions of
HR end-to-end evolved from transactional role to HRBP role, she has a track record of successfully implementing HR programs in each vertical. She is responsible to start from scratch and set up the department. Her major responsibility is to balance out people’s operations and people’s development single-handedly. The company is in the sixth year of its operation and has no visibility (non-existent branding) amongst the talent. Amruta has a task to help the company grow two-fold– increasing headcount from 50 to 200, improving employee productivity from 70% to 95%. She needs a plan…definitely. Will she be able to do it? Let’s see.

How it differs for startups?

From “Strategic Partner” to “Go-to-Person”- HR Role in Startups is Inevitably Challenging

1. Change is the only constant

Most of the startups are fast-paced, dynamic and don’t want to be bogged down by hierarchy. Hence, they prefer cross-functional teams and expect them to cohort towards a common vision.

2. Life is short, break the rules

Teams tend to work in a non-process compliant mode and any adherence to a process can kill the spirit.

3. Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity

Most of the startups intend to gravitate towards revenue per employee hence focus is purely on maximizing potential and contribution of an individual.

4. Transparency is the key

With a high degree of possibility to reduce the blind spots, most of the critical or non-critical information is available down the line. It has its own pros and cons, at times, too much of the information can become too bad to handle.

5. The grapevine effect

It is well accepted that people have different needs but there is one that tops the list- the need for communication. In an environment where grapevines grow rapidly, it converts into power centres that may lead to malpractices.

Having said that, the above features create an environment that is more volatile and uncertain, and the probability of success is very less. Talking about the challenges, each HR in startup dons various roles- employee success manager, cultural scout, evangelist, change agent or merely an ear to grievances. But there is always a silver lining behind the cloud. For HR it’s an opportunity to do a more meaningful job while bringing their expertise and skills
garnered during working with big setups. So Amruta shall take ownership of creating a work culture where everyone feels valued, motivated and eager to contribute. If she can pull this off, the rest will be a cakewalk. As a hospitable environment will not only create a foundation to retain but also to attract more talent. Mr. Vineet Nayar has put an emphasis on employee perspective in his book “Employee First Customer Second”, the major takeaway is if our internal customers are happily engaged, it will create happier and engaged customers.

Following are the few insights from a recent study that shows why India is emerging as a hub for Startups, why there is a huge scope for HR to find their foothold in this world, how this will open a gate for new opportunities and a platform to showcase their skillset and contribute in a true sense-

India’s startup ecosystem has the potential to create up to 12.5 lakh direct jobs by 2025, as compared to the 3.9-4.3 lakh direct jobs in 2019, according to a new report from industry body National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom)

So, let’s first understand the internal ecosystem a bit.

From “Strategic Partner” to “Go-to-Person”- HR Role in Startups is Inevitably Challenging

For the HR in startup hiring, developing and retaining people is a vivacious cycle that needs constant branding and
engagement at each stage. A startup has the basic work culture that revolves around-

1. Shared vision and mission with a value system
2. Collaborative Teams
3. Flat hierarchy and minimal structure
4. A handful of policies with efficient use of technology

As HR witnesses the key challenges here is how to cope up with this dynamic environment and create HR value chain throughout this cycle-

(I) Don’t Hire, Sell the Job

“As much as 42% of companies in the IT, startup and SME sectors find getting top tech candidates as the biggest challenge during recruitment, according to a report by talent assessment firm Mercer|Mettl

The biggest challenge for HR is to get people on board in a startup. The turnover at each stage in hiring is high enough to give any HR nightmares. Therefore, the conventional ways of hiring will not be fruitful, and HR must think through this.

There is always a marketer and salesperson inside an HR, the traditional ways of posting jobs and waiting for the response is not going to work. We need to think like a salesperson and create an employment pitch.

From “Strategic Partner” to “Go-to-Person”- HR Role in Startups is Inevitably Challenging

Attract the “right talent”

There are various ways available to maximize your reach to potential candidates. Your website is the gateway and social media is an extension of it. We need t to understand the “What” and “Why” behind peoples’ perception of
applying to jobs at startups.

What- Usually startups have very fancy designations and innovative work profiles that attract talent. A mindfully crafted job description well supported by role analysis is what talent looks for. “Be part of a journey”, “Join a growing team”. “Craft your careers” are few catchy phrases that no one can overlook. After all, it’s all about making it eye-catchy hence a good quality job poster will win the case. Powerful content with visually appealing ads creates a lot of curiosity among the talent. Also, it’s the compensation and flashy perks that could divert the talent to your doorstep.

Why- The talent looks for a purpose, the vision and how the company is bringing a change in the industry or on a bigger scale to the society. They connect very easily with the mission if it is communicated effectively and repeatedly.

Employment Pitch

The employment pitch must have all the common elements just like the sales pitch-

1) Tell a story

It talks about the objective; this is the first touchpoint where the prospect gets to see what is in it for him. Simply making a bland presentation about the company and offering a job will not help. They need to be on the same page
so make it a discussion, more like knowing their current state (passive, active, super active/ immediate joiners) and making them explore the opportunity.

2) Create a value proposition

Talk, talk & talk about it so that they can see the value through credibility, relevance, differentiation from the competition and finally with ambition particularly during scaling up.

3) Make it “personalized”

This is towards building “trust”. The adoption of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) is accelerating dramatically. Therefore, it’s important to maintain that “human touch” through constant communication and persuasion, hence striking the right chord.

4) Practice before you pitch

Most of the time we forget to prepare before we start the hunt, drafting the pitch and practicing will make you prepare for better delivery.

Close and follow up

No matter what the response on the other side is, always close it on a positive note with few updates and follow-ups at regular intervals. It creates a lot of ripples and one can think of buying the job. Remember, there may be a few who will not fit into the job but feedback at each stage of the process is a must.

There are various ways available to maximize your reach to potential candidates. Your website is the gateway and social media is an extension of it. We need to understand the “What” and “Why” behind peoples’ perception
of applying to jobs at startups.

(II) Spot Untapped Talent

Startups don’t have to put any efforts into creating diversity as it happens to them automatically. People with varied experiences and skills join the team with a dream to make a difference and prove their worth. It’s up to us to harness
that potential to the fullest before they quit to get something better. Leverage their talent with proper training and upskilling.

The next challenge for HR is to develop and maintain a high-performance culture that develops individuals and empower them for future needs. Everyone in the team should be given a development goal after proper assessment and evaluation. Building capacity and capability are two pillars that make the foundation for a startup in the growing phase.

“An IBM study revealed that employees who feel they cannot develop in the company and fulfill their career goals are 12 times more likely to leave the company.”  

From “Strategic Partner” to “Go-to-Person”- HR Role in Startups is Inevitably Challenging

So, addressing the people development paradox becomes the next challenge for HR to look upon. Therefore, they need to invest in creating an internal talent pipeline. Since in stratus each individual wears many caps and developing such an individual as per the business requirement becomes a herculean task. There is an old model
(Johari Window) which has been practised many times to increase the understanding of self and interpersonal relationships with others. It can be used as a tool to create collaborative teams who learn together and grow together- For startups, the effective business teams who work in collaboration are a must as there is always a
risk of teams working in silos. This will help in avoiding such mistakes and create a culture of high performance. This can further be utilized in designing L&D programs as simply helping people to understand (self and others) is the most effective way to augment the value to people.

The adoption of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) is accelerating dramatically. Therefore, it’s important to maintain that “human touch” through constant communication and persuasion, hence striking the right chord.

(III) Don’t Wait for the Red Flags, Act Proactively

According to Gallup – replacing an employee can cost 150% of his or her annual salary. Another study by Deloitte found: The cost of losing one employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2X their annual salary.  

After emphasizing on developing people, the challenge for HR is to hang on to people. This is especially true for the tech and retail sectors. Recent research from LinkedIn indicates that the tech industry has the highest turnover rate at 13.2 per cent, with the retail industry just below that at 13 per cent. HR must adopt some retention strategies and execute those on opportune moments in the employee journey-

1. The first day, the first impression

The onboarding experience is the most memorable one for any person. This is the first touchpoint in one’s journey which can make them thrive in the company or dud them forever, as the experience validates their decision to join the company and build the foundation for the new journey.

Gallup finds that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organisation does a great job onboarding new employees.  

A well-crafted on-boarding program appeals to the new joiners and creates long-lasting impact.

2. Celebrate the milestones

As per another study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employee turnover can be as much as 50% in the first 18 months of employment. A few milestones like completing 6 months, a year or more than that
should be celebrated to avoid new hire turnover and disengagement. Significant achievements and contributions should always be acknowledged. This is the way to connect at each stage and convince them to stay for longer.

3. Beyond KRA’s and KPI’s

The shortage of talent calls for optimum utilization of resources and roles become flexible and ambiguous rapidly. Hence one’s role may have various dimensions and SOW (Scope of Work) has a wide range of activities ranging
from more than one department. In this scenario, evaluating performance and metrics become critical. One’s performance is bound to fluctuate and without a proper mechanism, the evaluation revolves around instincts and
intuitions. Hence an appropriate method and frequency must be decided for everyone that not only evaluates performance but potential too.

4. Connect, connect and connect

Most executives responding to the Global Human Capital Trends survey rated engagement as a priority for their companies- As per Deloitte Survey report, as this is directly linked to the business outcomes. As per Gartner Top
3 Priorities for HR Leaders in 2019 report, Improving Employee experience is a top priority for all HR leaders. It also predicts that supporting what employees value, not just what they need, increases employee performance by 20%.

For any HR to establish the connection, it is important to align the individual’s journey with the bigger purpose and that is what business needs. HR works as a mediator to ensure the persona aspirations and business goals come on the same page. After all, these experiences act as a catalyst in creating a platform where everyone feels motivated and craves to contribute more.


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