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 big tech recons with its toxic work environments, many smaller tech companies are addressing their culture earlier to prevent later institutional problems.
But more likely, that's not the case. You're probably walking into a mess with a dozen fires blazing at once. Because most startups spend their first few years identifying and reaching product-market fit, every ounce of energy in the early days goes into engineering and sales. That effort comes at the expense of operational excellence.
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.
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.
By understanding the concerns of the leadership team and addressing those early, you can start your new job with the top-level buy in you need to get rolling on other initiatives.
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 an HRIS system is annoying, but can likely be tackled a little bit later.
💡 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 can be de-prioritized is the first step in accomplishing anything in your new role. You need to know where to focus your time.
While the leadership team might have their own ideas of what's most important, there are likely other lurking concerns that they are unaware of. In many cases the 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 be proactively scheduling meetings. You won't uncover everything there is to see if you wait for people to bring things up proactively.
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.
When you arrive with a blank slate, you might be excited to test out the latest program 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.
It will be your responsibility to understand the culture deeply and build programs that match it.
You work for a high-growth startup. The only thing that stays consistent 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 two or three years.
You don't want to build programs that will be outdated before next year or you'll end up falling even farther behind. In every program that you create— onboarding, offboarding, work anniversary recognitions, parental support, and more—you must be thinking about scale.
As the first Head of People, you will feel like you are way behind from day one. That's okay. To be successful in your first year and to deliver an employee experience you can be proud of, you must identify your priorities quickly and set the foundations for solutions that will last years.
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.
P.S. Here at Gather, we work with the first Heads of People to help them build top-level People Operations programs that scale alongside the team.
Thank you to the following folks for help on this post: