The 3 things to look for in your first Head of People

So you’ve decided the time’s right to hire your first Head of People, but what exactly should you be looking for? At The Pioneers, we know this can be a tough role to fill and an important hire to get right, so here’s our advice on the three things to look for:

  1. Someone with a Product Mindset
  2. Someone who can coach
  3. Someone with relevant experience

1. Finding your ‘Product Owner for People’

The biggest mistake growing start-ups make is hiring a Head of People because they want someone to do the people/HR admin.

Don’t get me wrong, the people admin has to get done. And it makes sense to take this weight off your managers and your teams. But you want a Head of People who’s going to automate your admin, not a Head of People who’s going to try and do it all themselves over and over again.

Recruitment. Onboarding. Compliance. Goal setting. Performance management. Pay and reward. All these things are ‘People Products’. They’re things your employees use to make their lives easier/happier and to help the business work better.

So the first thing to look for in a Head of People is someone with a product mindset. Someone who can design and build solutions to these challenges that are self-sustaining (i.e. automated) and generate data about their efficacy. Above all, these products need to meet the needs of your users (your employees) and ought to reflect the aspirations you have for your culture.

You want a Head of People who can build out your people experience ‘brick by brick’ by creating modular products. This is how you scale: by fixing one challenge and moving onto the next. If you hire a Head of People who fills their days with repeatable tasks, you’ll end up creating a bottleneck on your growth and burning them out.

In this respect, your Head of People should operate as the Product Owner of your people operating system. You want someone who's:

  • A design thinker: someone who can identify user needs and who understands how to translate your brand, values and cultural aspirations into user experiences.
  • Analytical: someone who knows how to take a data led approach to improving a product or process.
  • Tech savvy: someone who’s an informed buyer of HR Tech, who can automate user journeys and who can knit together applications to create seamless experiences.

2. Find your ‘Head Coach of Culture’

If the first requirement speaks to the ‘People Ops’ side of the role, the second requirement relates to the more ‘human’ side of being a great Head of People. You’re looking for a Head of People who can bring out the best in the people around them. And that means you really want to find someone who’s a great coach.

Your ideal candidate should be someone who:

  • Finds time for quality conversations and who can build trusted relationships with people across your business.
  • Asks great questions, is empathetic and genuinely cares, and who wants to help people grow and develop.
  • Is attuned to what’s going on, how people feel and the emerging cultural norms in your company.
  • Can hold up the mirror and provide constructive, candid challenge.
  • Can express their point of view clearly and can influence how other people think and feel.

As a founder, the key question to ask yourself is: would I listen to and act on feedback from this person? If you wouldn’t, don’t hire them.

3. Find someone with relevant experience

The final requirement is to look for someone with relevant experience. You really want someone who’s been through the same growth phase as you’re embarking on and ideally someone who’s done this transition more than once. This firsthand experience is critical to developing the judgement about what to prioritise, when to intervene and when to let fires burn.

But the truth is that you only need to look at the job boards to see that at the moment there aren’t enough experienced, high calibre candidates to meet demand.

Which means scale-ups are often faced with a choice between a potential superstar who doesn’t have experience or someone who’s worked in a People Team in a much bigger organisation and who wants to try to move into the start-up/scale-up space.

The risks of taking someone with ‘high potential’ but no People experience

Building out a people function is harder than it looks. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re likely to incur legal and reputational risks, and it can have a detrimental impact on a company’s culture that is almost impossible to undo.

So if you’re going to take a chance on someone you think could become a superstar, think about:

  • What can you do to check they’ve actually got the potential and raw materials to do a bigger role? A good psychometric assessment would be a way of reflecting on this with more objectivity.
  • Can you put a support network around this person? Unfortunately, there just isn’t a great, comprehensive training qualification available for People people (in our humble opinion the CIPD doesn’t translate well to the world of start-ups). So at the very least, if you hire someone with little or no People experience, they’ll need an external mentor; and as a founder, you need to be confident you can invest time in their development.

The risks of taking someone from a bigger company

This is another classic mistake. Founders fall into the trap of assuming: “they’ve worked for a much bigger company, so they must know what they’re doing”.

Bigger isn’t always better. Particularly in the world of People and HR!

So if you’re taking someone from a bigger organisation, do your due diligence. Do they actually have a healthy culture and a great people experience? If not, you might end up hiring a Head of People who becomes a Trojan Horse for a lot of anachronistic practices and bad assumptions about how companies ought to operate.

And in any case, there’s a fundamental difference in skillset between People people who operate in an established function and system, and those with the skills to create the system from the ground up.

If you’re hiring your first Head of People you want a settler not a town planner!

The risk of taking someone from a big, established organisation is that you’ll be paying a big salary for someone who isn’t going to be effective and who can’t cope with the ambiguity and chaos of a thriving start-up.

At The Pioneers we know hiring your first Head of People can be a challenge, particularly for founders who are making this hire for the first time in their careers.

And as we mentioned, it’s not a buyers market at the moment. There are lots more vacancies than quality candidates and that’s why you’re looking at £120k+ for a good Head of People for a Series A company.

If you’re struggling to find the right candidate (or if it's too early to invest in a full-time People person), please talk to me about our People Partner Service. We can provide you with an experienced People Partner who can help you develop your people strategy, identify the areas that can be productised and automated, and coach and advise your leaders and managers.

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