Lisa Townsend is People Leader at Omio, a high growth travel-tech company based in Berlin and the leading platform and app to search, compare and book travel by train, bus, flight and ferry, across Europe. With almost $400 million in funding, a 400-strong team and more than 800 transportation partners, Omio is revolutionising the travel experience for millions of people around the globe. Lisa shared insights earlier this summer 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. Way back when I started I didn’t have a massive life plan. When I got my first job it was in a small agency in recruitment. When I saw what the HR people were doing around me, that lit the fire to work in the profession. What keeps me excited after all those years is the variety of the work. What I love is being at the centre of various different challenges that are going on across all levels of the organization and solving problems. I’ve worked across organizations of different sizes and complexity but the bones of HR stay the same. The job is being able to take that HR experience you develop and the general commercial acumen you have to understand this particular business and apply your grounding of people expertise to solve the particular problem at hand.
More often than not, I summarize my work as I am trying to help people do their jobs better in a place they can thrive.
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. In a high growth environment, you are building an HR service at every step rather than tweaking something well established as you would in a large corporate culture. I started my career in larger organizations and I benefited because you get a lot of understanding of the depth of each of the HR disciplines. This happens because you see very mature programmes. In a fast growth organization it is different. You have to be a service builder and adapt continually. You have to ask “Am I comfortable building, am I comfortable taking something that is good and solid already and creating something based on what this business needs at this point of its development.”
Also you need to be ready to build something now that is not only fit for purpose for today. You need to look ahead and know what you ultimately want to achieve and what is needed as the business grows. You have to build an HR service that won’t need to be thrown out in twelve to eighteen months’ time when we’ve doubled the size of the organization. It is agile HR, not being one hundred percent perfect and creating something you can build on. You are also dealing with ambiguity because we all have plans but you don’t know if you will double your growth or something like Covid is going to come along and slow you down.
Q. It sounds like you have a lot in common with how your product managers are thinking about the product set then?
A. Yes, the question is often how do we fix the basics. I’ve been talking about fixing the foundations to my team a lot. Certainly a big theme we talk a lot about also in the team is making the product excellent. There’s always things to tweak in the product and we also need to take that approach for HR. Our HR product is something we’re building and it's modular. It will grow and flex as we build into serving different volumes of people, different countries, different priorities as the business grows. We can only predict so much of that. There’s always that need to pivot a little and double down on something else.
When organizations get to a steady state is when I like to move on to another business. When all you are doing is tweaking around the edges of your service, where is the challenge with that?
Q. How do you prioritize in that ambiguous environment?
A. First I meet the basic hierarchy of needs - whether I am paying people properly, treating people properly and is the business employment compliant in all jurisdictions. Everything else we do is focussed on identifying where are we trying to get to in two to three years and selecting what’s going to get us there quicker. And then how do we help people thrive in that, often challenging, environment along the way.
I am a strong believer in the employee experience and being employee centric, so I work to make sure everything we are doing is making a difference to employees. I like to prioritize around not doing HR for its own sake or because the playbook tells us to do it. We want to make the environment better so the people in our organization can continue to grow and it reflects the priorities of our people.
First, we need the very core of things right. There’s a lot of talent acquisition focus as a result as acquisition is core for us. If we haven’t got the people to do the jobs and help us fuel that growth we have a problem. Second, there is a lot of focus on alignment within the organization. We ask if everybody knows what they need to be working on and are they all moving in the right direction. Third, we test if we are doing work in a way that has our values and a diverse and inclusive team at its core. Those questions tend to be the priority areas for me.
Q. Let’s talk about the CEO relationship. What matters to make that a success for a Chief People Officer?
A. Building trust with the CEO you are working with is important. You simply couldn’t do the job if you don’t trust each other. There should be a lot of investment up front in the relationship on whether your values are aligned and whether you are aiming for the same thing. Part of building trust is knowing you can challenge, have a debate and you can disagree. Often people are nervous about telling the CEO what they think. The uniqueness of the CPO relationship is it can be one of the only roles where the CPO says, “I think you are wrong.” Hopefully you are not the only one doing that! In that trusted space, the CEO can show a bit of vulnerability which allows them to learn and test their approach too.
Q. The CPO plays a unique role in the leadership team. How have you approached that?
A. If I was a CEO asking about the suitability of a CPO candidate for the company, I’d say I don’t want to hear about your playbook. I want to know have you understood my business challenges and do you know how to solve those challenges. How you operate in the leadership team is the same. Understanding the business context is critical to understand the challenges and issues they are facing so you can contribute beyond the people agenda. Being able to ask questions about the business model among other areas is really important.
A lot of what the HR role around the table is expected to do is to be a ‘player coach.’ A CPO is making collective decisions with the executive team but a CPO is also being the person that another leadership team member will come to when they are having a frustration or issue. The CPO has to step back and be able to hold trusted space. You will only get that credibility if you understand the business and have the trust of the CEO. A good CPO plays on the team but also works as coach, which means listening, understanding and trying to help put the pieces together for everyone to do better, together.
The CPO role in the team is sometimes to be the champion of the people. Sometimes it is to be the devil's advocate. A CPO is not always going to have the technical depth of a business issue but playing a different role inside a team adds value by helping us all work well together and be comfortable challenging each other in a safe space.
Q. When you are trying to drive the people agenda, everyone can believe they are a people management expert so how do you bring them into your planning and decision making?
A. Everyone has read a management book - there’s 500 million of them. I tend to say, “I’m really interested in that, but please understand that is one person’s off the shelf management philosophy of which there are thousands we could do. Let’s focus instead on what do we need, what are we doing and ensure that we are being authentic to who we are. You can pick off the menu of leadership approaches from many others but let’s be grounded about what we have in terms of resources and what we can do now.”
One thing I have learned in HR is you can never please everybody. Any change we go through you will have people who think you have made the best decision ever and the worst decision ever and you’ll have people in the middle. You have to accept that and I try to do that by being authentic to what we are trying to solve and stand for and the stage we are at. I tend to be fairly collaborative and go in with a recommendation. Early in my thought process I will go in with a proposal to the management team and get input. I’ve never once gone into a situation where there isn’t a strong opinion round the table and I like to flush it out early. I take that reaction to a proposal away and refine it. Once I have that general alignment and develop it down to a product ready solution. Then I get people back involved and share with them what they each need to do.
Q. When hiring for a CPO, what should a CEO be looking for and vice versa?
A. Commerciality and that entrepreneurial quality is important in a CPO. A good question to evaluate a CPO is whether you believe they will get in the trenches with the CEO. The CPO needs to know if they themselves truly believe in the opportunity. You can meet so many CEOs or founders who are unrealistic about their goals. For me there needs to be a two way belief in the product, business model and you can both see where it is going. You have to buy into the dream of the founder. (CEO). This shared belief helps when the CEO is calling you on holiday or 8pm on a Friday night! A CPO has to have that commitment as it’s not just a nine to five job.
Finally, consider what the CEO is trying to build as an organization and does that resonate for you? If you are pushing water uphill on core issues like diversity or work and life balance, it's going to be a frustrating place to be and that fit is not going to work. There is also always a bit of a personality play to this. You don’t have to like everyone you work with but it really helps as you will spend a lot of time wrestling with difficult problems together. That cuts both ways. You don’t always have to agree but you have to have a certain respect for each other even if you are quite different from each other.
Q. What percentage of time do you think you are spending on different issues across a given week or month?
A. The thing that is unfailing is time with the team. Building alignment across what we are trying to build is very important to me so we are talking as one function. In a small organization, people go to anyone for the answer so it is important everyone is onboard and informed and speaking with one voice. Then the other definite regular thing is time with the leadership team on business management. Those two are the bedrocks. Then from there it is what we are building at the time.
I think in this role you are very operational at times, particularly as you are building out a team. Maybe twenty to thirty percent of my time is moving forward projects and proposals. I try and spend time out talking to the organization. I don’t officially people partner anyone but the CEO and the leadership team to a certain extent but I do spend time visiting offices and hanging out to get the pulse of the organization. Particularly when times are tough being accessible is important. Recruiting is a big part of the role which I am sure is typical of fast growth. You need to make sure if you are bringing someone into the team at the senior level you are part of bringing the right capability and culture into the team for at least the top two layers of the organization. There’s always multiple things to be doing and urgency is a big part of prioritizing.
Q. What do you think the two or three trends you think everyone is wrestling with right now?
A. Continuing to build the culture of the organization in what is a remote way of working is one theme. We want to encourage remote working for practical and value based reasons but also have opportunities for teams to come together in the office for collaboration and to build in person relationships. So it’s striking the right and safe balance and having flexibility to learn quickly and adapt. How do we continue to build a solid culture and that sense of belonging and identity when we have a dispersed workforce spending more time working at home? Linked to that is we have a young and diverse workforce who want to work anywhere in the world. Tax authorities just don’t keep up with that! So we need to figure out opportunities and constraints there.
Building loyalty as we go through change is another theme. You join a start-up often because you want a fast paced career growth environment. In the travel industry right now, this pace is going to slow down for a period. How do we retain and engage our people when market conditions have changed? How do we create a longer term engagement in this time? we know there are opportunities for people to jump around to other organizations, but we want to keep people on this journey with us - so we know we need to still deliver on commitments we made to the teams.
The other thing I am trying to instill is moving from less of a ‘buy’ (external) talent strategy to moving to being better at “building” talent and making opportunities for internal team members to get growth opportunities. This period gives us an opportunity to build out development experience and make a positive experience for the current team. That means pivoting the recruitment team who are not at full capacity into internal mobility conversations and leading that work while also not turning the hiring process off for when we need it again in future.
That is what is on my mind today, but I think remote work balance, maintaining engagement and loyalty in challenging times and building growth opportunities for the talent in your teams are probably fairly prevalent as challenges right now.