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Top 5 Priorities as the First Head of People at a Startup

Jul 11, 2021| Reading time: 8min

BY Alex Hilleary

Principal Content Marketing Manager

So you’ve just been hired as the first Head of People at a growing startup.

Maybe you’re one of the lucky few hired proactively to build the cultural foundations from the ground level. As organizations reckon with toxic work environments, many smaller tech companies are addressing their culture earlier to prevent later institutional problems.

Or maybe you’re walking into a dozen fires blazing at once. As startups focus on reaching product-market fit, every ounce of energy in the early days often goes into engineering and sales. That effort can come at the expense of operational excellence.

In turn, by the time you come on board, your team is likely deep in people debt. Recruiting is behind. The culture is cracking. Employee experience strategy is non-existent. HR processes aren’t compliant. Early team members have no professional development path.

With so much to do and only you to do it, you probably find yourself wondering where to start. In this post, we’ll address how to prioritize your time and what to fix first.

1. Assess Immediate Needs from Leadership

The leadership team decided it was time to bring on their first Head of People for a reason. Hopefully the C-suite told you why they needed you. But if not, you need to figure out what results the leadership team expects from you as soon as possible.

  • Maybe the team just raised a big round of funding and they need you to focus on using that money to acquire top-notch talent before anything else.
  • Perhaps the strong culture that the founders built at the start is showing signs of growing pains, so your time is best spent solidifying core values.
  • Or the company could be starting to lose its best talent and they need you to help figure out why employees are leaving.

By understanding the concerns of the leadership team and addressing them early on, you can start your new job with the top level buy-in you need to get rolling on other initiatives.

2. Recognize Which Fires Can be Left to Simmer

Not all fires are created equal. Not being able to pay someone is a big problem that should be addressed as soon as possible. Not having the right HR technology in place is frustrating, but can likely be tackled a little bit later.

  • Schedule a get-together with the leadership team and hiring managers to understand what processes have already been put in place and how well they’re working for the team. This meet-up will help you identify weak spots and better understand the needs of various stakeholders.
  • Create a prioritization list based on predicted outcomes of taking action or not. Focus your time on the issues that will have the biggest negative impact if they aren’t addressed quickly.

💡Pro tip: Think like a Product Manager. Ask: What is urgent? What is quick? How do these projects intersect with each other? Identifying which problems you can deprioritize is the first step in accomplishing anything in your new role. You need to know where to focus your time.

3. Find Lurking Issues by Gathering Context

While the leadership team might have their own ideas of what’s most important, there are likely other lurking concerns of which they are unaware. In many cases, startup founders don’t know what they don’t know. It will be your job to establish relationships with team members across the organization to expose other potential people issues.

Here are a few ways you might do that:

💡Pro tip: Don’t just hold office hours. You should proactively schedule meetings. You won’t uncover everything there is to see if you wait for people to bring things up on their own. As a Head of People, the organization’s employees are your customers and your product is the employee experience. At the heart of any good product is extensive customer research.

4. Build What’s Right for Your Organization

When you arrive with a blank slate, you might be excited to test out the latest trends. But remember, your organization has a unique culture and context. Don’t force a new program that doesn’t fit the way your team works.

  • If you have a great idea for celebrating birthdays with a big bash but your team doesn’t get as excited for them, maybe a simple note will do the trick.
  • A box of swag on the first day of work might not be the right choice for a team with values focused on non-waste and eco-friendliness.

The more you get to know your team, the more you can experiment by introducing new ideas that still work within the company culture.

5. Build for the Long Term

At a high-growth startup, the only constant is change. If you continue to grow, the company will reinvent itself every six months for the next several years. As you start to build solutions for the challenges you see around you, think about how these programs will look in two or three years.

  • A high-touch, personalized work anniversary program might seem impactful now, but it could end up being a nightmare when your team triples in size in 18 months.
  • Using Google Sheets to manage onboarding tasks may seem like the no-brainer solution at the moment, but what will that system look like when you’re bringing on 15 new hires a month?

You don’t want to build programs that will be outdated before next year, or you’ll end up falling even further behind. In every program that you create – onboarding, offboarding, work anniversary recognitions, parental support, and more – you must always think about scale.

Final Thoughts

As the first Head of People, you will likely feel like you are behind from day one. That’s okay. 

To be successful in your first year and to deliver an employee experience of which you can be proud, you must identify your priorities quickly and set the foundations for solutions that will last years. Doing so requires understanding your people and your culture, establishing clear goals, and being transparent about what you’re doing.

Over time, you will need to continue to advocate for the initiatives, programs, and outcomes just as passionately as you do for the people they intend to serve.

Ready to dig in? We’ve got you covered with the complete checklist for what to do in your first 90 days as a startup people leader.

Get the checklist

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