Chief People Officer interview series: Growth-stage & entrepreneurial tech businesses
UK/EU   |   10th September 2020

Chief People Officer interview series: Growth-stage & entrepreneurial tech businesses

Renaissance Leadership works with some of the most exciting growth-stage tech businesses to identify and secure the brightest and most exciting talent on the market. The role of the Chief People Officer has evolved in recent years and is now more influential than ever as part of Founder/CEO’s high performing leadership teams.

Malcolm Kemp, Partner at Renaissance, leads the People Practice at Renaissance, which specialises in delivering successful people leadership hires across Europe and the US. Malcolm was formerly VP HR at Klarna and Director of Talent Acquisition at Betfair, two of Europe’s most recent Unicorns, and puts his direct operational experience of building superb leadership teams into practice with global Founders & CEOs.
 
In this series of interviews to be published over the coming weeks, Malcolm has partnered with David Mulligan - former senior HR executive at American Express for nearly 11 years and currently studying Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford University - to interview some of the leading Chief People Officer profiles in the industry. We hope you enjoy these interviews and the insights provided – for more details, or to get in touch with Renaissance Leadership, please contact Malcom Kemp on malcolm@ren-lead.com

Lisa Hillier is Chief People Officer (CPO) at recipe box Gousto, a high growth company based in the UK, with a vision to become the most-loved way to eat dinner, with easy to follow recipes and precisely measured ingredients, delivered to your door. Lisa shared insights from her multiple growth CPO roles in our interview for this series with David Mulligan.

Q. What is it that got you into the profession and what keeps you motivated about working as a Chief People Officer?

A. I have a real passion for hiring and growing talent.  Bringing people into the organisation and watching them develop themselves, their teams and their careers. This is the best part of being a Chief People Officer.  It’s a huge driver for me and is such an exciting part of my role.  Why it’s kept me interested? The role has evolved so much. I started out many years ago as a personnel officer, it was very much what I call ‘picnics, policies and payroll’ and we’ve moved on significantly since then. Every role I’ve had has been different and the context is different. Creating value through people is one of the most exciting things about my role.  I love that it remains challenging due to the role being focused on people who of course respond differently, have different levels of capability and experience and motivated by different things - This means the job never gets old.

Q. When you think about the more traditional leadership roles you have played in bigger companies, what are the two or three things that are different for success in a fast growth company for a CPO?

A. One of the things is you just have to be able to work at both a very operational level and strategically. When you work in a high growth business you can wear a number of different hats. You have to get a lot of energy from getting stuck in the day to day but also being able to remain focused on the strategy.

The other unique thing is to pivot a lot to find solutions for today while always thinking about your three to five year plan.  In my current role we will have doubled our workforce this year and this trend will continue over the next three years.  I am therefore thinking about solutions today but also accept that these solutions will evolve and will need to flex.  It’s small things like changing processes or policies which work for us today, however when our workforce is 5x bigger, those solutions may no longer be fit for purpose.  Therefore, we have to be thoughtful about today and be future proof and consider what scales in line with our growth.

Q.  Do you think you’ve developed new muscles and how do you make it viable to be in so many places?

A. You need to be incredibly focussed on prioritisation. We are doing a huge amount of recruitment. Whilst there may be a number of things you’d love to change and invest in, ultimately you have to put your money where the big bets are. Given Gousto is such a fluid environment, I am not a big believer in gold plating anything as it won’t stay the same. You have to be able to pick three things you know will create the most significant value for the business, pick your battles and leave the rest. Otherwise you become overwhelmed by the job. You have to be confident and courageous and think, “I will worry about these things and the others will sort themselves out and we’ll have to live it in the meantime.”

Q. Let’s talk about the CEO relationship.  What matters to make that a success for a Chief People Officer?

A. It is so different depending on the CEO. Ultimately, where it has been successful is when you have trust. It sounds so obvious but I have been very fortunate to work in partnership with a number of CEOs where I have felt you have each others’ back no matter what. Privately you may disagree and don’t get me wrong you can (and should) have lively discussions about certain things but I do think these conversations are always in the context of developing solutions for the greater good, know your collaboration is built on trust and you’re in it together. Sometimes you have to accept to disagree and commit, which is one of the values we encourage at Gousto.

You also have to be very commercial. One thing I am relentless about with my own teams is being focused on the end goal and finding solutions which work. I take great pride in working with CEOs and asking “what is the end goal here” and working backwards from there. To be the best CPO you need to have good understanding of what makes the CEO tick and what the company is trying to do.

Our job is to find solutions. I want to do that in partnership with the CEO. I have worked with some very demanding CEOs, who hold you and themselves to account, hold the bar high and are hugely ambitious.  Often the CEO is the hardest working person in the company.  They can be agitators, provocative and forensic in their thinking style, driven by insights, data and financial performance.  I feel I am complimentary to that, demonstrate empathy, warmth, a safe place to go, spontaneous and willing to speak my mind.  Often others in the organisation may use the CPO to facilitate conversations and ask you to “test the water” with the CEO first. It does depend on the context and the relationship.

A CEO needs to bring the CPO into discussion early, trust them with that and work in partnership. Not all CEOs know what the role should be. Part of our job is to guide and explain what the relationship needs to look like to get most value from a CPO. With some, you’ll need to prove that model and others will be relieved when you ask for more. Go with that. You have to allow some of these relationships to take months or years to develop and be ok with that.

Q. The CPO plays a unique role in the leadership team. How have you approached that?

A: When speaking to founder CEOs I get a greater sense there is an increased passion for people, culture, inclusion and diversity than in the past. When I first started out (many years ago) it was harder to get People on the agenda as a strategic discussion and you were considered a helpful pair of hands and reacted to requests and got stuff done. There has been a real shift where leaders know they can differentiate through the People agenda and create massive competitive advantage. Before you used to struggle to get People issues on the Board agenda, now it's like I work with multiple Chief People Officers so be careful what you wish for! I am wrestling work from the CEO as he is so passionate about it and believes in it. It’s such a positive shift for CPOs but also for the employees who work in an environment where all the leaders feel responsible for the People Agenda.

Q. How do you advise people to approach the CPO role as a first timer?

A. You wear many hats, but three fundamental hats. First is an advisor and confidant to the CEO when it works well. Second role is as a general leader of the business and attend meetings in context of driving the business and you park your functional hat. The third role is as a People leader and what I mean by that is how you set your stall out in your own People function and how you nurture talent and also the role you play as mentor and leader of people outside of your function.  What’s interesting is that a CEO can apologize sometimes saying “I don’t want to put you in a difficult position as we’ll be discussing one of your peers.” I respond “I’ve done this many times and ultimately my loyalty will be towards driving the best possible business outcome in partnership with you.” I have to recognize there are times when I am put in a difficult position. It varies — during trauma, executive teams can pull together when a team is going through tough times and the CPO can be the glue to give people a safe place to go and talk.

I don’t lose sight of being a leader of my function. I look to Inspire a People function who anticipates well. A CEO once told me don’t anticipate the first question because it’s the second and third that you have to think about. “What are you solving for here” is the point I try to instill in my team.

You can broaden that out and you end up mentoring people across the organization and you can have impact. Never underestimate the amount of responsibility and privilege you get as a CPO in terms of access to information and talent.

Q. When hiring for a CPO, what should a CEO be looking for and vice versa?

A. You have to ask yourself how much are you prepared to let go, particularly if they are very driven. Am I prepared to involve the CPO? You have to work on the basis of one hundred percent trust even if it doesn’t happen from day one.

A CEO has to be thoughtful about their context. Do they want someone who can scale with the business as there is a big difference between start up and scale up. Gousto is very much a scale up. You need to be clear on the difference. When you expect to grow five times in next five years, you need to over hire and get someone who has seen that journey and can be there at the end of it.

If you are in a startup, it can be difficult to attract a CPO into an organization that is very small so you have to be realistic. If you have low engagement or cultural issues or a difficult chairman relationship...whatever your context or scenario, be clear on what you are solving for as a good CPO will ask that question.  If there’s alignment on the journey and the challenges of the role, that creates a great starting point. Chemistry is much harder to gauge as often that is an area of the relationship which evolves over time.

As a CPO you have to have a huge degree of empathy and look at the world through the lens of the CEO and the other stakeholders, understand what others want and you have to flex. A CEO needs to understand the degree of adaptability you need for a CPO as you have to shift from talking to a recruiter about what pickers we want to recruit at the factory straight to writing a 3 year strategy for the company’s Executive Board. Ask the question “will this person be willing to do that, to create value and feel genuinely excited about it?”

For a CPO, my advice is to look for authenticity and believability in the CEO.  You need this if you are going to have the opportunity to build trust and a true partnership.

Q. What percentage of time do you think you are spending on different issues across a given week?

A. To reflect on my last three months, two-thirds has been spent on recruitment which includes both operational and Technology hiring.  I’m spending a significant amount of time interviewing.  I think it’s safe to assume that in an earlier stage business in high growth that much of your time will be spent on the talent agenda.

We are considering certain scenarios of scale of growth and what the People implications are. We will have to consider criticality of roles, map talent, what needs to change and what do we need to work hard at protecting and keeping, particularly in the context of our culture.   We are spending a lot of time considering the organisation structure and various operating models in the context of significant growth and shifting from a single site business to multi site. It’s important we are inclusive and we take our employees along the journey.  I want to build confidence in the organization about the roadmap and the decisions we need to take about how we get there.

Q. What do you think the two or three trends you think everyone is wrestling with right now?

A. Given our current climate, there has been a significant switch to online. This creates a huge opportunity for organisations who are in this space. Therefore attracting and retaining talent is critical.  We are at a pivot point related to how we work. What does working from home now mean, what is the future of the office, how do you grow talent remotely? I worry about young people who in the past would learn and grow from seeing interactions in the office. If we do switch to a more remote working model, how do we stay connected and help people grow? If you are working and living in your bedroom as part of a flat share as many people are, that has to be less fun than being in a high energy, buzzy office.  We are actually doing a great job at Gousto, both employee engagement and productivity has increased over the last 4 months.  We keep connected with our workforce through a huge variety of ways, including town halls, yoga, meditation, virtual parties, demos and cook-alongs. We have surveyed our teams to understand from them how they would like to work in the short and medium term.  Our biggest priority is the safety and wellbeing of our workforce and that continues to be a worry for all CPOs right now.  

Secondly, I think Inclusion and Diversity is hugely important and again on many CPOs minds. People are wanting to initiate uncomfortable conversations beyond gender pay gap and quotas. There will be a much deeper level of concentration needed and it could be a huge differentiator if done authentically.   The industries impacted by Covid tend to have a significant proportion of female and BAME employees, this could be a game changer for online companies to access and attract a much broader workforce which is representative of society and of our customer base.  All these issues could change how we hire, support and grow people significantly in future.
 
 

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