Is your people strategy making or breaking your business?

Six Degrees Executive

With the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, it is more apparent than ever the need for companies to ensure that their team understands the necessity of transformation.

Earlier this year, Six Degrees Executive consultant George Elliott sat down with Human Resources Executive Ilona Charles to talk about people strategy and surviving the next 12 months of uncertainty.

Ilona Charles is an executive with an extensive career in human resources, transformation and change across multiple industries and financial dimensions. She has worked across global and complex organisations from entrepreneurial start-ups to large-scale, multi-national corporates in digital and technology, financial services, health, telecommunications, and government. Most recently, Ilona founded Pivot Now, a consultancy that provides strategic people advice to founders and CEOs of organisations who are going through significant transitions or scaling up their businesses.

What drove you to start pivot now and shilo?

My experience at software company Aconex and interestingly at CSIRO, demonstrated there was a real gap in the market - people issues and the complexity surrounding them can be time-consuming and costly if not addressed early. Many fast-growing organisations are so busy running and growing their business, they don’t have the time, funds or inclination to be thinking through what they might need strategically from a people perspective. In addition to this, many founders do not have C-suite experience, and whether they do or not, it can be very lonely at the top.

Around the same time, it became very clear that it can be hard to find pragmatic business and delivery focussed human resources professionals. The HR function has a bit of a credibility problem. shilo aims to address this, offering a genuine alternative to building large, permanent HR workforces. The two businesses are complementary.

What are the key trends you’re seeing, particularly when working with leaders in the technology space?

Many tech companies have a great product or solution and their effort and investment go into research and development, building out the product and evolving their business model­­­. The challenge for tech companies is finding and retaining the right talent. As the company grows and they bring more software engineers, developers, tech people in – they start to grapple with the pipeline of work, trying to balance product enhancements, new features and fixes, and legacy issues with platforms. Often, they do not have a clear product roadmap and if they do, they have trouble estimating customer delivery times. Tech companies are often unclear on how to measure and track individual performance, as a traditional performance review process doesn’t really cut it in the agile workplace. Companies start to find they have different cultures in different parts of their workforce and whilst most recognise their culture is critical to attracting the right people, it has usually evolved over time and is very much linked to the founders, their styles, beliefs and focus.

What does a ‘good people strategy’ look like?

This is a big question! Early in a company’s evolution, a comprehensive people strategy is unlikely to be necessary. The key focus is getting people in the door and keeping them. From here, a good people strategy is one that is aligned to the business’s commercial goals. There are lots of great HR initiatives out there, but it is about assessing what is actually needed to support the business in its next stage of growth. More often than not, the question needs to be, “Do you have the right capability to take you to the next stage?” This includes the founder/CEO. Many senior employees in scale-ups have grown with the business, but this can mean that some may not be able to continue their growth. It’s about recognising these decisions as well.

What are the benefits of having a good people strategy?

Some of the key benefits are simply that the people at the top can have peace of mind. If the company is clear on the type of culture they want to create, their purpose and their strategy, they can start to make informed choices over the type of people they need to hire and want to hire and over what timeframe. C-suite positions are not applicable from day one. Some companies don’t need capable senior delegate work, they need people who are willing to live and breathe the values held by the founder. And importantly, companies also need to retain their very best talent. This is not just about getting the remuneration right – in my experience, tech companies in particular need a very clear purpose that their people are equally passionate about, they need to feel their work is in service of a greater good and they need to feel valued. In addition, there needs to be clearly defined accountabilities and overall performance criteria. It’s not all soft and fluffy and it’s not all about subsidised benefits like yoga. But there is also no doubt that work done early on articulating the workplace you want to be can save confusion down the track.

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What has been the biggest HR/People impact for your clients throughout COVID?

There are probably two phases to the COVID impacts for my clients, particularly those with large workforces in Melbourne. In the first phase around mid-March, the focus was on getting the workforce home and enabled to work remotely. Some clients had been preparing for this in advance and fortunately led to a seamless transition. Those with overseas’ workforces also needed to grapple with this, but with the added complexity of local country laws and cultural differences. This all happened so quickly and required a lot of work by a lot of people. In addition, for some businesses, cash flow started to become an issue. For smaller businesses/start-ups/scale-ups – cash is king. From a people perspective – this impacts jobs, so many were navigating redundancies, job keeper payments, tax issues, government grants etc. A lot of people were stood down and many lost their jobs. All of this had to be done remotely. Some of my clients in the tech space have continued to grow – and moved swiftly on the people issues enabling them to focus back on the business.

In what I am calling the second phase – the people focus has rightly moved towards employee well-being, their mental health, connection, and engagement. All of these have the potential to have long term impacts, not only for the employee, but productivity and outcomes for the business.

READ: How to transition to a flexible hybrid working model

What is your advice for effective people strategy throughout this time?

I think we are in a transition now. There is a continued need to focus on operational matters including managing people’s outputs, their mental health and well-being, keeping them connected and engaged. Even for states that have “opened up”, many employees will continue to work from home. But as companies start to emerge from the fog that is COVID – they will need to turn their attention back to the people strategies that will enable them to successfully grow and transform. Founders need to turn their thoughts back to the support they need both personally and professionally and the leadership and talent they need for their future. For the last 6 to 8 months their whole focus will, in many cases, have been on surviving. They, and their workforces, will be exhausted.

My best piece of advice? Have a break. With borders having been shut, no one has taken a holiday. One company I know was suggesting their employees take 1 or 2 days leave each side of the weekend over several weeks/months. Perhaps this isn’t as good as a proper holiday but it provides a much-needed break from the intensity of video meetings and work. I think people and companies have proven to be extremely resilient and are doing the absolute best that they can in very trying circumstances. Unfortunately, many people will have lost their jobs. This is a good time to start thinking about what skills are required for the future. If COVID has shown us anything, it is the resilience of the tech industry and the resilience of people to survive and in many cases, turn challenges into opportunities.

And finally, in your opinion, what are the three best qualities that make a good leader in a high growth environment?

Resilience, performance, empathy.