People Ops Leadership Imperatives for Emerging Companies

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How do top-quality People Operations leaders empower emerging companies to achieve sustainable growth and success? John Anderson, Managing Director of the People Operations Practice of Allegis Partners, and Chris Yeh, co-author of The Alliance and co-founder of Allied Talent, who serves on Allegis Partners’ Advisory Board, share their strategic insights about this essential leadership role.

Q: Let’s start with a question that’s of profound importance for any emerging company, regardless of its industry or region, or the current state of the economy. What are the most critical skills that their People Operations leaders need to possess?

John Anderson: From my perspective, the most valuable skill is strong business acumen. These People Operations leaders must really understand the business, where it’s been, where it’s going. That is critical to their ability to align the company’s people strategy with its overall business strategy.

It’s also important for them to be strong communicators. They need to communicate effectively with the company’s leadership, its board, employees, investors, and other key stakeholders. To do this, they should have the ability to leverage data to help them break down complex issues so the organization can understand and really get behind their initiatives.

Chris Yeh: I agree with John and will just add two more skills of critical importance. First, because companies in this hypergrowth phase will inevitably change—quite a lot and quite quickly—People Operations leaders need to be flexible and adaptable, in roles that will morph every six months or so.

They also need to possess the expertise to help companies establish a strong and positive culture. Most emerging companies take on the culture of their founders, especially in their early stages of growth, and this can be a good or bad thing. An impactful People Operations leader should be prepared to play an explicit role in the way that the company’s culture develops over time.

John Anderson: What Chris is alluding to can be characterized as “influencing capability” and it’s an important skill—that ability to influence an organization and especially its leadership team.

I recently conducted a small survey within a group that I belong to—PeopleTech Partners, whose members are primarily People Operations heads within the startup community. I raised this same question with the group and two answers came up frequently: strategic insight, meaning the People Operations leader’s ability to ‘connect the dots’ between what’s happening in the organization and what should be happening; and the importance of empathy, which, of course, is related to the ability to be an effective communicator and influencer.

Q: We’ve talked about valuable skills. For People Operations leaders who possess them, what should be their areas of focus?

John Anderson: It’s the People Operations leader’s job to amplify the culture and to help it evolve in the best way that supports the company’s business strategy and development.

Chris Yeh: It’s about bringing processes and principles around people management to the company. In emerging companies, it’s often the case that, before an experienced People Operations leader comes in, most things get done on an ad hoc basis, with people management taking place without critical oversight.

Effective People Operations leaders will understand that the company is changing so rapidly that their focus also needs to be on speed and getting the timing right. They will be upgrading people management processes, developing the corporate culture, providing oversight, all within a framework that demands speed and agility.

Q: Let’s drill down into the specific implications of that rapid growth for the People Operations leadership role.

Chris Yeh: Since companies change fundamentally as they grow, it would not be uncommon for a hypergrowth company to need to change out over 50% of the management team every year or so. This is normal, and maybe even necessary—the team that gets you from that first dollar of revenue to $1M is different from the team that will get you to $10M and then on to $100M. The People Operations leader needs to help access the right people to make this happen, also to manage the mood of the company so that people understand this is part of the growth cycle.

John Anderson: When considering those phases of growth, it may well be the case that the early-stage People Operations leader is a very different profile than a later stage People Ops leader simply because of the demands for leadership expertise and experience varying stages of growth.

Q: What about the ways that the People Operations leader interacts with the CEO and the board? Should that also evolve, as the company develops?

John Anderson: The People Operations leader’s relationships with both the board and the CEO are critically important, and, yes, these will evolve, as the company grows. Ensuring that the leader has unfiltered access to these groups will create a winning formula and be critical to everyone’s success.

Chris Yeh: Top-quality People Operations leaders know when to communicate, how to communicate, who to communicate with and why, and how to sequence their communications. Building successful relationships and communicating effectively with the board, the CEO, and the entire leadership team are all key parts of that.

Q: How will all this be affected by economic changes, which, of course, are inevitable, if unpredictable?

Chris Yeh: Good question. When the economy swings quickly, companies need to be able to keep focused on their key objectives, but make necessary adjustments. Speed and agility matter as much if you need to trim staff and cut expenses as when you’re growing rapidly.

And the People Operations leader’s focus on the corporate culture is critical during economic change. When times are challenging, it’s more important than ever to be able to help people understand, this is who we are, this is why it matters, and this is how we work.

John Anderson: Chris, that message is key. Companies should be fairly consistent in how they operate and the values that are important to them. When economic downturns or upturns happen, the culture itself is the anchor. Strong People Operations leadership helps emerging companies establish and maintain those foundations that they need to develop and succeed.

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