February 7, 2022

Strategise Your Culture and Career: Anne-Marie Headley on HR and the Future of Work

Melissa Malec

Throughout the pandemic, we've witnessed a clear shift in attitude towards what's possible in this new era of work. It's been a revelation for those who have not been afforded flexibility in the past, and now many of us are emerging from lockdown with new ideas about how to make work-life integration a reality. One thing for sure, we're not going back to the old way of working.

What does this mean for the HR function? Well, there is a huge opportunity for HR practitioners to innovate and lead the way in helping organisations reinvent how they organise their teams around the work. 

A career in tech HR, focused on scale-ups handling the challenges of rapid growth in pan-European and global teams including Uber, Google and Cisco, makes Anne-Marie Headley the perfect guide to the changes coming in HR. Anne-Marie recently founded Workforce Buddy to help start-ups and scale-ups build supportive, people-first cultures that empower teams to deliver their best work and pave the way for profitable sustainable growth.

● Remote work is going to become the norm. Companies need to prepare for a more tech-dependent, distributed team with a more agile HR function.

● There's no one right way to cope with the difficulties of the COVID lockdown. We need to be personal and creative in our efforts to connect.

● People Managers are the crucial link between founders' visions of company culture and employees' experience.

● Decisions about who you hire and how you grow are decisions about culture: make them consciously and where possible take a long-term view.

● Don't wait for your employer to build your career path. Seek support at work, but always look outside your current role for development too.

How did your HR journey start, and how did you get where you are today?

At school, I envisioned myself doing some type of advisory/community work. After work experience at Brixton Community Law Centre and two years volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau during university, I decided I probably wasn't cut out for life in the public sector.

I got my first proper HR role at a tech company called Tibco Software. It was my first tech company, my first pan-European company, and my first scale-up all in one. When I joined, we had under 20 people. Within 18 months, we grew the team to about 240.

That first experience completely changed my career path. I’d caught the tech bug. Since then, I've continued on the theme of building something from the ground up.

What key lessons did you take to your consulting with start-ups?

Early in my career, I was very intentional about my development; if there wasn't scope to grow new skills or learn new ways of working, then I'd move on to a new gig. This opened the door to a variety of rich experiences.  Frequently moving around from one company to the next is a great way to learn new ways of working, different tools and processes. Along the way, I saw systems, processes, and behaviours that worked very well in scale-ups and those that were an epic fail.

I learnt that the culture you decide you want for your organisation can be very different to what employees' experience day-to-day. A crucial factor is how well your managers are equipped and supported to bring your desired employee experience to life. Managers buy-in and accountability are an important part of the equation when it comes to delivering on well-meaning executive intentions.  

Many start-up businesses focus on short-term planning and don't realise that some of those decisions can have long-term unfortunate consequences, especially when it comes to people and culture. And whilst the trust of your employees can take seconds to break, the job of building it back is a very onerous, uphill battle. If you want a transparent, empowering culture where all voices are heard and input into decision making, then ownership and accountability are two values that become essential.  

I've been fortunate to work in environments where I've been empowered to take ownership and solve problems. I've seen the impact on culture, making employees more committed and driving engagement and performance. 

How do scale-ups keep their original culture intact as they grow?

You need to be very intentional about culture build and ask yourself some questions. What is our purpose? What are our shared goals? What do we stand for? How will we work together to execute our strategy? And what does that require in terms of the skills, behaviours, and mindsets we will need to succeed?

Personally, it's less about keeping the original culture intact and more about making sure the culture evolves in line with the companies’ goals – keeping the best of the cultural DNA and being open to new ideas and ways of working as your environment grows in complexity. I also recommend leaders revisiting their cultural values, at least every year, and asking themselves, do these values still support what we're trying to achieve and how we're trying to achieve it? Do these values actually reflect how we do things here? Do our employees see tangible examples of these values in their day-to-day work? If the answer is no, then quickly identify what needs to change.

When you're just starting out as a new founding team, you might be hiring individuals with specific skill sets to deliver critical pieces of work; quite independently. Later on, solving problems as a team and collaborating cross-functionally may become a bigger priority.

I've worked in environments with high-performance cultures, but employees' wellbeing has been an afterthought. Other companies have successfully delivered great employee experiences but lacked the drive to disrupt the status quo. I started my own consultancy because I strongly believe the two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Do you have any examples of companies that really got this right?

For many companies, it's work progress; it requires ongoing effort. Companies that you see placing high on the UK Great Places to Work list have been doing the work over several years, sometimes decades. 

One thing start-ups can do is be intentional about 'the three Cs': Communication, Culture and Connection.

  • Communication means being clear about goals and how you intend to deliver on them. It always needs to be two ways, not just top-down.
  • Culture means thinking about the environment you're providing for employees and asking how you can enable them to deliver their best with resources, tools, systems and reward.
  • Connection is about employees feeling seen, heard, and, most importantly, understood — those ingredients are essential for building trust. When you get this right, you start to unlock the power of teams – the results are extraordinary and inspiring.

It's essential to grow your leaders, and one of the things that we're trying to do at Workforce Buddy is make people leadership excellence a core competency for growing entrepreneurs. I’m always baffled as to why, we just expect people to know how to lead or figure out how-to on the job, which I think is a real disservice to those we ask to take on this responsibility. Asking high-performing individual contributors to manage others without providing skills, tools, and techniques to do that well, leads to poor morale. I really think we owe it to our teams to do better.

Do you have any advice or insights around the shift to more remote work?

When we initially went into lockdown, and everybody had to go remote, some surveys showed that performance and engagement had gone up. Managers were having conversations with their team, addressing individuals' current circumstances and wellbeing, and employees received that really well.

To avoid longer-term feelings of isolation it's crucial to think strategically as well as tactically about how you drive connections between individuals and teams.  For example, creating regular touchpoints with employees, bringing the teams together for face time, doing stand-ups, virtual coffees, creating opportunities for your team to offload their week and have some fun on a Friday afternoon, helps create much-needed opportunities to connect. Unfortunately, for many of us, that connection time has been predominately screen-based over the past year, and I think that in itself is starting to take its toll.

As we continue to work remotely, some of those things will stay relevant, although it's good to take the time to evaluate what really works for your particular team members? Some colleagues have meetings or touchpoints with their managers as they walk the dog – great whatever works. I think we have to be a bit creative.

Hybrid working models come with a fresh set of challenges for us to navigate.  So, we're going to have to ruthlessly purge working practices that no longer serve us and get creative around what employees need, to deliver their best work in a progressively tech-enabled world. The challenge will be figuring out how to do this in a way that supports agile, distributed, cross-functional teams spread across multiple geographies – leadership, systems and culture just got elevated.

When should founders start thinking about their people function? Do you have any tips to avoid common mistakes?

The growing pains for hyper-growth companies are pretty predictable. A big part of my job is helping founders recognise and plan for them. It's never too early to start that process; I work with companies as early as the pre-seed stage right through to Series C, by which time many clients have made the investment to bring onboard in-house experts.

Budgetary constraints may force some founders to hire on potential versus proven experience, however in these situations, you need to be mindful of the cost of helping a hire grow into their role in terms of supervision time, cost of correcting mistakes, do-overs and speed to execute. If you’re hiring on potential, be clear about the mechanisms you will use to develop that talent.

If your expecting candidates to take a pay cut to join your organisation – what is your compelling EVP? and How are you planning to make them financially whole over time? If you struggle to answer those questions, it’s unlikely that talent will stick around for very long.Finally, founders should not forget about the investment they need to make in themselves to ensure their skills scale at the same pace as their business.

You've worked with pan-European and multinational global companies. What advice would you give to early-stage founders addressing an international talent base?

I've worked for several US companies trying to grow their European footprint. And those experiences taught me that while it's good to have a global framework, there needs to be room for teams to localise.

Different locations have different cultural norms, compliance and regulatory environments to consider, so you want an overarching cultural DNA with room for local interpretation. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach; you have to take cues from your environment and the specific needs of your workforce.

How do you see the role of technology within the people function, and how has it evolved?

As the complexity of the workforce grows, we need to make sure that we can provide real-time meaningful data insights to support decision-making.

Self-serve systems that let leaders pull data about their workforce in real-time is vital for decision-making. The old way of manually collating different data points into one report is too slow.

In terms of other HR priorities, helping teams seek out the best communication tools that help connect employees wherever they may be working in the world should also be high up on the list. 

And many organisations will end up fully distributed. Again, the technology needs to be reliable, secure, and cost-effective.

The move to artificial intelligence and machine learning will definitely impact organisations, so HR need to get ahead of those trends. We need to figure out how best to meet consumer-grade expectations of user-friendly, simple-to-navigate tools and systems in the organisation.

What's one key learning or life experience that's been pivotal in shaping your career?

One of the things that really helped me accelerate my development was intentionally seeking out small HR teams where I would get early responsibility.  

I would also regularly take stock of what the deal was for me – what it was I was hoping to achieve or reason to stay if you like.  It really does pay to be thoughtful about your own expectations and seek out companies, managers, and job experiences that are most likely to deliver what you want. Re-evaluating each year: What do I need to get this year? Is it development? Is it a promotion? If you're not growing in line with your aspirations, that might be a cue to change what you're doing, move to a different role, or perhaps it's time to move on.

Most of the people I see advancing up the ladder quickly strategise their career in this way. Realistically, your employer will not be able to cater to all your career aspirations and development needs. They should be supporting you - yes, but it's down to the individual to take the ownership and lead the pace.  Looking inside and outside your current workplace for opportunities to grow.

One positive knock-on effect from the past year is that the world of work is changing for the better, and with that change comes many opportunities.  If we can be bold and creative, I believe we are on the cusp of something great, a more human-centric approach to work which can only be a good thing.  

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