February 7, 2022

‘Culture needs stewardship’: A Conversation with Steven Bianchi on How Start-Ups Can Scale-Up

Melissa Malec

In the excitement of building a company, things tend to get missed. Start-ups get wrapped up in driving financial and product growth and run the risk of neglecting other aspects of the business until it’s too late.

Building a strong people's function can’t wait forever. A balance of time and resources must be struck.

In the quest for proving product-market fit or hitting monthly recurring revenue metrics, your culture can be overlooked. However, developing a strong culture needs stewardship early on. Without it, a company risks continuously playing catch up, and reaches a time when it’s too late to retrofit a culture to an organisation with 50+ people.

Steven Bianchi, Chief People Officer of Beamery and advisor of hyper-growth scale-ups including Revolut and Sensat, knows the damage putting off a people's function can have on start-ups who have the potential to scale-up. 

He talks us through the importance of stewardship in building culture and how conviction and the mission behind why any employee works for a company is the thing that keeps them there. 

Key Takeaways:
  • Let people create magic. Put people in the right place at the right time, give them the right tools, get out of the way and let them create magic.
  • People analytics allows you to keep your finger on the pulse. Always ask the questions that keep you in the know of how your people are doing. 
  • Create initiatives within remote offices to replicate break rooms. Regular virtual cafes can simulate these interactions but be prepared to help break down the psychological barriers that often prevent employees from feeling justified in taking breaks.  
  • Remember what your lighthouse is. Culture needs stewardship — start-ups who invest in their people function too late are navigating blind. 

Can you tell me about your journey into HR? 

When I was 10 years old, I started as a Cadet in the Navy League Programme in Canada. There were many summers spent on military bases learning and having fun until I turned 18 and went from Cadet to Cadet instructor and became a commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Navy. That was a great opportunity for leadership development which set a solid foundation for the world of work I eventually found myself in.

My first real job, outside of the armed forces, was in Ottawa where I worked at Canada Customs & Revenue Agency supporting systems for the collection and reporting of income taxes.  Following on from that, I moved to the UK in 2001 and worked with Unilever in an R&D capacity. I fell into HR because a colleague of mine went into labour and I was asked to fill her role while she was on maternity leave. 

I ended up being part of a group of early adopters, mostly people based in London, who saw and shaped the discipline emerging around people analytics in the heart of traditional HR functions. I feel humbled to have been recognised by industry peers as being a Top HR and People Analytics Influencer on several occasions.

As I progressed in HR with different companies, I started to appreciate the concept of employee lifetime value. At the end of the day, the job is to put people in the right place at the right time, give them the right tools, get out of the way and let them create magic.

How has people analytics evolved over time? 

It’s changed dramatically. In the early days it was less about decision support and more about having a reflection point of good information management practises that resulted in great management information. But since then, people analytics has had a transformation. It's moved away from reporting and it's now about deriving insights and ultimately supporting better decisions around how we support and develop our people and workplace environments.

Sometimes those decisions are reactive in nature. So asking what happened and why, and how can we learn? More often, they're predictive. Where do we think we're going? How do we get there? And, what are the market implications of that? 

How does people analytics help you in your current role and in response to the current situation?

Prior to remote offices being mandated, in response to the pandemic, we tested it as a pilot. We wanted to engage the environment and really consider things beyond the simple conversion of processes to ‘remote’ processes.

It’s necessary to gauge how people are feeling and that can be accomplished with net promoter scores, employee engagement scores and conscientiously asking after your team to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed and that the transition is going smoothly.

I have a wife and three children. There are moments when we all need to be on video calls and it’s hard to decide who gets priority. As a business, we have to make considerations for the environments that our team may be in.

People analytics, in this scenario, allows us to keep our fingers on the pulse and to know how people are doing. Coming under that umbrella is well-being and productivity. Are we maintaining productivity? Are we suffering? Have we improved productivity? It’s all about reprioritising.

What are you seeing in terms of productivity?

Prior to our working at home arrangement, a lot of people had manager schedules, as in more meetings where you talk about things and less time to sit down and actually do those things. In this environment of working from home there’s a greater need to time block and to make things. There’s a greater ability to focus more than when in a distracting office setting.

Alternatively, people who are often makers in the office are finding that they miss the distractions and interactions of the office. They miss the casual and sometimes intrusive interactions of having a colleague swipe jellybeans from their desk, lean over to share something funny or ask if you want to grab a coffee.

So we initiated a Beamery Café every afternoon, it’s time zone friendly, and it’s there to simulate the break room experience. The challenge has been that people find it hard to justify to themselves that they can and should take that break. We see the same hesitancy toward using quarterly wellness days, which are opportunities to take the day off outside of the holiday allowance. People feel that they have to justify putting that label on it. That’s the dogma now that we're trying to tackle. 

What are some of the common mistakes that you see in hyper-growth scale-ups and what advice would you give to companies like these?

When leadership expands and hyper-growth takes hold, a company has to pay attention to its culture. Often startups and scale-ups invest in their people function too late after recognising that culture needs stewardship. 

You need to have good advisors on top to ask the questions that will help founders and managers remember what their lighthouse beacon is. Empower someone to ask, what is our way of doing this and how do we maintain that consistency? 

Modern startups and scale-up organisations should not bypass the maturity curve. They need to avoid the temptation of jumping right to where they want to be without taking the steps to get there. With Improbable and Revolut they were recipients of in excess of $500 million in investments. It can be easy for companies who see an increase in cash to try to become the company they want to be overnight without building the foundations for their team to expand successfully. Fortunately, these businesses are supported by great advisers and led by level founders.

I would encourage founders and management teams to prepare in advance. Know what you're going to do with investments and plan it out, rather than reacting.

With the aspect of maintaining culture, what advice would you give an entrepreneur who is about to embark on that expansion journey?

Number one, you have to make sure that you’re always listening. Know what urgency and pressures exist, where people are, and what's happening in the business. For founders and management, it’s also about communicating to the wider team what you spend your time doing. 

The second is, identify what it means to be a member of your team. For instance, just about every engineer in London loves to work with cutting edge technology and strives to solve novel and difficult problems. But what distinguishes an Improbable engineer from a Beamery engineer? The conviction and the mission behind why any employee works for a company is the thing that keeps them persistent. When the going gets tough, working for a company where they feel they’re making a difference will sustain them. 

Before you're tempted to change who you are because of an investor relationship or for new money landing in your account, get clear on who you are and remain authentic to your own vision, mission, values, culture and behaviours.  

What do you see the role of the HR function to be post COVID-19?

If you go back a few months ago, a lot of people had lofty strategic ambitions. Now they’re having to re-evaluate what fundamentally needs to happen. I’m really focusing on articulating what Beamery’s value set is.

We're also looking at what investments we can make internally from a capability lens, not just a workforce planning view. If we want to affect change in the way that businesses engage with potential prospects and candidates, we have to earn the right to be the ones who have a substantiated and valid opinion. That means we have to invest in our own workforce and being an engineer at Beamery means you have to also know how recruiters work. It becomes more of a cross-pollination exercise. Not everyone needs to be an expert in every discipline, but we have to go beyond customer empathy.

What’s on your learning playlist?

Nowadays, I find myself recommending 2 book titles with fellow People leaders, founders and managers:  “The CMO of People”, by Peter Navin and David Creelman and “The Alliance”, by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh.

“The CMO of People” reminds us that the People function’s role is to use its expertise in talent and its ownership of talent operations to create competitive advantages through great and differentiated employee and candidate experiences, which help the organisation achieve its mission.

And whilst I don’t subscribe to the precise doctrine articulated in the book, “The Alliance”, it is a terrific source of inspiration and a reminder that employees are no longer looking for “jobs for life” and that they do not need an organisation’s permission to resign or change employers. It’s up to us, as leaders, to maintain an engaging and fulfilling environment that delivers on social contracts being forged by employees and employers every day.

In case it is not yet obvious, I have passion for learning and sharing. I have recently embraced the concept of innersourcing and am in the process of making my ideas and trials public in the hopes that together, we can help to make every company a great place to work. If you’re interested in participating, please do get in touch. I’d love to hear from you!

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