Rick Kershaw is Chief People Officer (CPO) at Peakon, a high growth company based in Denmark, and with offices in the UK, US, Germany, and New Zealand. Peakon is “an employee success platform that converts feedback into insights you can put to work.” Rick shared insights from his work in the pandemic and other situations in our interview for this series with David Mulligan.
Q. What are the two or three things top of mind for you over the coming months?
A. The impact of COVID has of course boycotted our normal agenda. I am spending time thinking about the future of work at our organization. We are lucky because we are a tech business that has the ability to be flexible. What we are looking to find is balance in terms of how we are going to grow and expand that flexible approach to work. As an HR tech business we get feedback regularly from our team, and our employees have spoken very strongly on this. We are actively listening to what they want, and have learned how people have morphed to adapt to working from home, and have taken lessons from that. The challenge for a small business is enabling increased flexibility – so we can attract and retain the right talent – while also remaining an efficient, scaling business. We need to sustain what we build and be aligned to our values.
We are getting the sense that many of our young workforce are now at a point where they are going through a lot of those ‘firsts’, in terms of life cycles and life changes. We are hearing a lot about what they want outside of work, and around work/life balance. They are asking ‘how does Peakon enable that?’
Q. Tell me about the feedback loop you created during COVID
A. We survey our employees with our core engagement questions on a weekly basis. Our proprietary success platform allows this to be done. As we moved into COVID, we built a new, special question set for the situation. We asked, what do you need, what are your concerns, and this helped us to listen directly. Leaders played a big role in connecting to teams, but we also used the data to help inform decisions. We included questions on remote working, and asked if employees had everything they needed to be productive. Later, we evolved the questions to focus on concerns about returning to the office, and people’s aspirations for the future.
We can segment our data by location and function, so we’ve not had to take a vanilla or blanket approach to guidelines or updates on the timing of re-opening offices. We could see that employees wanted many different things. Some countries could return faster, so we used feedback to tailor approaches and shape our strategy. It’s been vital for informing our plans and it has created lots of value for us. We couldn’t have made the rapid decisions we did without this data.
Q. You personalized the experience?
A. We did. We get daily tranches of feedback from different segments. When we see comments where employees openly say that their mental health is being impacted, we can immediately react and help to improve individual experience, and uplift our mental health strategy. At first, people wanted chairs and monitors to make a home office make sense. As the situation has gone on, we’ve learned about a need to develop trust and confidence in our team members, to address goal-setting approaches, to provide structure, and to remove anxiety for employees. The real time feedback helps shape how we can always improve our employee experience.
Q. The question of how you show value when so much of the work you are doing is ‘off stage’ and in secret is one CPOs often face. As you think about being the facilitator of this feedback loop, how does this change your role in the senior team?
A. Our leaders see and hear their anonymised feedback directly. But there’s only a few people who can see the data for the whole organization, including me and the CEO. I am Peakon’s first CPO and I have been able to learn a lot about the organization from how the C-suite behaves and supports using the feedback. The ability to hear the employee voice, be clear on what is being said to then take action, and be clear on why we make decisions, has shown the value the people team here can create. So far at Peakon, I have been able to demonstrate what a good people function can do: How I can help predict outcomes for the future, and how we might shape strategy. I insert myself into commercial conversations, and bring the people agenda to that.
It’s all about progress over perfection. It’s different from creating a ‘gold standard’ environment in a large corporation, where every deliverable has to be ‘perfect’ and every stakeholder has to be aligned. In a high growth company, you have to be confident about taking decisions, having adult conversations with the C-suite, and showing the potential impact of the decisions being made, good or bad. I am supporting the executives in being more robust in that decision making while also moving very quickly. The CPO can look at the business as a whole, hear the voice of the employees and bring it all together. C-suite members can be very functional, in their own channel or swim lane, while CPO and CEO can provide help to have leaders look up and across more than they have done.
Q. What challenges are unique to this stage of growth for you?
A. We’re going through the teenage years. Our founders built up the idea for the company, and built it on very strong values. These values have worked well for the first five years. Now we need to review how those values will grow with us. Take ‘Transparency’ as an example. What we are finding is, as we grow, it’s not practical for every individual to know everything. As we grow, the value needs to evolve with us. The question is, how do we keep the secret sauce as we grow? Over time, the experience changes for long standing team members, especially as more people come into the business and help to shape it. Some talent wants to be part of a fifty-person organization, and this stage of growth may not be for them.
We want to set explicit expectations, and have adult conversations on what the culture needs to look like in future. We are more like a sports team than a family, and getting aligned around that is a process we are working on.
I interviewed in a few tech firms and met different CEOs. Our leaders are very compassionate and caring, and really want the best. This almost makes it tougher to take the tough calls on people who have been real advocates for the business in its early days, but no longer feel they are a good fit. However, we need to focus on our ‘north star’ to help employees worldwide drive the change they want to see, and less on trying to design ourselves around individuals.
Q. Let’s talk about the CEO relationship. What matters to make that a success for a Chief People Officer?
A. I had four weeks working with my CEO in person before going remote. Early on, I wanted to build credibility and trust. The person I needed to connect with was not his persona as a leader but the person behind it. A CEO’s time is always limited, so I need to make sure that my interactions with him are relevant and timely, and we are very efficient in how we spend our time together. I try to work out who a CEO is as a whole person, that I absolutely know what is keeping him up at night. My conversations usually start with what came out of the Board meeting, what the investors are saying and unpacking what’s going on for him, before I go to my agenda. I have a good level of honesty and transparency going both ways. You need to build a connection and it cannot be artificial. I need to know he trusts me and that I really have the pulse of the organization.
Someone asked me: “What is the question you don’t want your CEO to ask you?” For me, that question is: “Why do people stay or leave?” It’s such a wide-ranging question. You have to be clear on what the future is. My role is identifying issues, finding future value and delivering solutions that drive that.
Many CPOs have different relationships with the CEO, but we are all looking to get into an honest space. A CEO doesn’t want to talk about compliance. You need to talk about talent, capabilities, and how we are achieving our goals.
Q. Two other common features for a successful CPO is access and being commercial - how do you achieve being in flow of business decisions?
A. I don’t get lots of time. I have a 1-to-1 with the CEO, and a 90-minute C-suite meeting each week. I challenged that early on, and felt that as a new team, we needed to be in more regular contact. As I build my reputation with the C-suite, people are now coming to me in advance. Previously, on control and cost issues, Finance took the lead. But now I am helping to shape this too, and clarifying what decisions I need to be involved in, or proposing some decisions made by the team. It’s important that we are working collaboratively, and have the right control points. We are also doing some work as a team to look retrospectively at some of our decisions to evaluate why something worked, or did not.