Navigating Startup Success: Insights on Talent, Change Management & Innovation

By: Victoria Bethlehem, Chief People Officer, Jitjatjo | Friday, 5 July 2024

Victoria is a seasoned professional, having spent over 20 years working in the Human Resource (HR) and change management space. Having held various roles across Europe, America, Asia and Australia, she is adept at leading large scale change initiatives and company integrations.

In a recent conversation with the Global Woman Leader Magazine, Victoria shares insights from her extensive experience in HR and leadership in the startup environment. She also talks about building a cohesive culture in today’s times, shedding light on change management dynamics as much more. Here are choice excerpts from the conversation.

In a rapidly evolving startup landscape, what innovative strategies do you believe are crucial for attracting and retaining top talent, especially when competition for skilled professionals is intense?

Talent acquisition is challenging in the startup space. Many startups are in build mode, without a fully developed product or service. They lack historical stories to share about the company's growth and employee experiences, making it difficult to attract talent.

Instead of selling a story, you're selling the dream and opportunity—the dream of where the organization is headed and the individual's role in achieving that vision. This creates a different narrative focused on the problem being solved, the approach to solving it, and the game plan to get there. Therefore, defining this narrative is crucial.

The second challenge in attracting good talent. Beyond the product or service, startups are competing on compensation. Startups often lack the funding to offer the perks that larger companies such as Facebook, Google, or big banks can provide. This requires creativity, often in the form of equity, such as shares or share options. Another way to appeal to potential hires, beyond monetary benefits, is by offering fast-track career opportunities. For instance, promising rapid promotion and role transitions can be highly attractive to young professionals. Startups need to consider their narrative and the financial and non-financial packages they offer to make positions appealing enough to attract talent from established companies.

With your extensive background in change management, how would you advise startup leaders to effectively navigate the challenges of cultural integration when merging with or acquiring other companies, particularly in a virtual setting where physical interactions are limited?

I've been involved in several M&As, and there are various levels of culture to consider. There's ingrained cultural components of the country, regardless of the company itself. Then, there's the internal company culture, which should be understood from the grassroots level up, not just from leadership down. It's important to get input from across the organization to identify the company's culture. This can be done through workshops, engagement surveys, feedback and exit interviews, and onboarding discussions with new employees.

Next, it's crucial to look at values, which are like the DNA of any company. When integrating two groups, you need to find synergies in competencies and values. Determine whether it's a merger of equals or integrating one company into another. This requires taking people on a journey, as change can't happen overnight. It needs to be a well-planned integration, involving collaboration between teams from both organizations to ensure all voices are heard. It's important to ensure that the executive management team includes representatives from both companies, not just one. Cultural integration requires careful planning and communication at every step. Clearly articulate the desired culture, letting everyone know the intention and goals. Establish cultural pillars that people can identify with and understand. This way, everyone knows what the company is striving for in terms of culture.

What innovative techniques or technologies do you recommend for fostering collaboration, creativity, and productivity among dispersed team members, especially in startup environments where agility is paramount?

First, you need good collaboration tools and environments where people can come together, put ideas in writing, and share them through video and notifications. We use various tools like Figma, Linear, Lattice, and Slack for collaboration and communication. The first rule of thumb is to decide which tools to use, ensure everyone is aware of them, and provide training. The second is to be proactive in finding ways for people to connect. For example, we recently refreshed our company values. I intentionally sought volunteers from across the organization to help compile our set of values. I selected a diverse group, including a mixture of men and women ranging between the ages of 24 to mid-50s, and 10 nationalities. Some were managers, but most were not. The selection was very specific to ensure representation from everywhere. Those involved worked together, some for the first time, exemplifying cross-cultural, cross-country, and cross-division collaboration. This diverse group effort is a prime example of fostering such diversity in a work environment.

We recently created a new initiative called Bond and Brew to connect people from different parts of the organization. It runs once a month, where participants are randomly paired to meet for a coffee or a drink, sponsored by the company. If they are in different countries, they can meet virtually; if in the same city, they can meet in person. Pairing is done randomly through an app integrated into Slack, adding an element of surprise to see who gets selected to meet with whom. This initiative helps people who have never met or interacted before to make new contacts and work friends.

Additionally, bringing global, dispersed teams together regularly in a virtual environment is crucial. We hold a senior leader meeting every week, a global leadership team meeting once a month, and a company all-hands event for all employees every quarter.

A lot of information is shared repeatedly in these environments to ensure key messages and information are disseminated among all employees. This is crucial for collaboration and innovation as it helps people understand what other departments are doing.

Which key insights or trends do you believe are critical for HR professionals and leaders in startups to understand in order to stay ahead in today's rapidly evolving business landscape?

When people are too internally focused, it can be problematic. You need to maintain a balance between internal and external perspectives. Accessing blogs, business magazines, networking groups, conferences, workshops, and similar forums is crucial for HR professionals (and any professional) to stay informed about industry trends and practices. This exposure allows you to learn from other companies and stay updated on local or industry-specific developments, particularly in HR. Personally, I emphasize continuous learning and staying alert.

Internally, HR professionals should navigate the startup world by not only focusing inwardly but also understanding the company's progress, challenges in product or service delivery, client relationships, and financial performance.

What innovative metrics or KPIs do you believe are most valuable for assessing the effectiveness of HR initiatives in startups, especially in virtual environments where traditional performance indicators may not fully capture the nuances of remote work dynamics?

In the early stages of a startup, HR metrics primarily revolve around attracting and hiring candidates. HR focuses on essential setup tasks such as establishing employment contracts, setting up payroll and statutory reporting, and determining current and future benefits. Initially, it's less about KPIs and more about identifying milestones for the startup to achieve in the short and medium term, like in month one, month three, six months, 12 months, 18 months, and two years.

As a startup progresses through various growth stages, the metrics used for assessment evolve accordingly. What you measure at month three will significantly differ from what you measure at month 12, as the business undergoes its formative stages. There's no one-size-fits-all approach applicable to every stage of an organization's growth. All HR metrics must align with the startup's delivery roadmap.

What messages do you have for our readers who wish to become saucerful in their careers?

Firstly, lead with passion for your work, the business's mission, and the people involved. Secondly, provide clarity on expectations to prevent burnout and maintain interest among team members. Consistency is crucial across all aspects of leadership, including values, policies, and operations. Empathy is essential for understanding both personal and business challenges from others' perspectives. Lastly, courage is indispensable for tackling the challenges of leadership and driving progress.