People experience

The 5 things a new Head of People must do in their first month

Congratulations! You’ve just landed your dream job as a new Head of People. Go you! You’re gonna be great.

But you know what they say… you only have one chance to make a first impression.

So what are you actually going to do when you get your foot in the door. Here’s our suggestion for the five things a new Head of People must do in their first month…

1. Go and walk in people’s shoes

It’s so simple. And yet so few people do it. If you’re a new Head of People, you need to go and spend a day working alongside your people. If you have 5 or 6 key roles, spend a day with each. If you have 10 key roles… do 10 days.

Trust us, if you don’t do this in your first month, you’ll never do it.

Why is it so important?

  1. You can ask stupid questions. It doesn’t matter how senior you are or how much you’re being paid, everyone will give you the licence to ask stupid questions in your first month. And if you want to understand how your company really works, you have to start by asking stupid questions. (If you’re coming from a competitor and you think you already know the space well, force yourself to ask these stupid questions because they’re the best way to test your assumptions that could otherwise lead you astray). So often we meet Heads of People who’ve been in role for years, but who obviously don’t get how key parts of their business actually work. And the longer this goes on, the more embarrassing and difficult it is to face into. What tends to happen instead is that the People team either ignores these teams or just takes orders from them, because if you don’t understand how particular teams actually work then you can’t challenge or collaborate with them.
  2. Walking in your people’s shoes gives you a firsthand insight into the user experience of working at your company. It helps you to empathise with the employee experience and to understand these experiences in the context of what else people have going on in their lives: their history, their sense of identity, their personal frustrations, challenges and their hopes for the future. If you want to design and build a great place to work, you have to be able to see it through the eyes of the people that work there. And ideally you want to get this insight before you hear all the reasons (and excuses) for why the employee experience isn’t as good as it should be.
  3. You create your own network. Being seen to take the time, to be genuinely interested in your colleagues and making the effort to roll up your sleeves and actually do the work, will win you people’s respect. And a bi product of this is that you’ll build an informal network within the organisation that you can keep going back to to ask questions, to share ideas and to get the low down on what’s actually going on when the proverbial hits the fan.

2. Find your pioneers

If you apply a standard to a population of people you expect to get a distribution of performance. If that’s a normal distribution (a bell-curve), you’ll find you have a few under-performers, lots of people sat at ‘average’ and a handful of positive outliers… the people we call pioneers. Every company has them.

As a new Head of People you need to discover, who are you pioneers, what exactly do they do differently and why.

You should start your search with your data. But you can also ask around: which colleagues do your people admire? Who do they go to for help or advice? Who do your customers rave about and why?

Why is it so important to do this? Well if you’re a Head of People with a bias towards action and you’re someone keen to make an impact, the temptation is to start implementing things you’ve seen work elsewhere. But the risk with cutting and pasting initiatives into an organisation is that they don’t stick.

Successful and sustainable change starts with an appreciation of the context, the local maximum and the appropriate next move. In other words it starts with your pioneers - the people who are working in the same context as everyone else, but who are getting consistently better results than their peers.

If you want to create positive change you need to find ways to make it easier/more attractive/less risky to emulate your pioneers; and harder/less attractive/more risky to stick at average.

3. But, beware of the fundamental attribution error

We’re all biased towards interpreting events as people acting upon the world to effect change. Our instinct is to create a narrative to make sense of what we see going on around us. We make things meaningful by seeing a hero responding to a situation to achieve their desired result. This is the source of the fundamental attribution error - our tendency to over-emphasise dispositional and personality based explanations for behaviour and to under-emphasise the social or situational explanations.

To put it really simply, we like to understand behaviour as people effecting change in their environment and we tend to miss how the environment changes the behaviour of the person.  

So, when you’ve found your pioneers, your bias will be to look for the personality or dispositional explanations for their outperformance: “Cuthbert’s our best sales person because he’s so extrovert and driven… therefore, we need to go and hire loads of extrovert, hard driving sales people”.

It’s actually more helpful to try and identify the social or situational influences on your pioneers’ behaviour. Have they had different past experiences to others? Is there a difference in the culture of their team (e.g. more psychological safety) or different ways of working (e.g. greater transparency of data) or are they interpreting their role or environment in a different way? These are the types of insights you need to start making the changes to your people operating system that will enable higher performance.

4. Define your space

We used to think it was a matter of semantics and that it didn’t really matter whether you were called a “Head of People” or a “Head of HR”. But we’ve started to change our mind. As we talk to different companies, we think there are two distinct remits emerging: HR Departments seem to confine themselves to managing the talent lifecycle (recruitment, onboarding, development, reward and promotion); whereas People teams seem to take a broader interpretation of their role that looks at how people show up across the organisation, a perspective that’s less linear, more systemic. We think there’s an analogy here with the way companies think of Marketing and Customer functions. The former being more typically preoccupied with acquisition through a series of defined set plays, the latter with a broader perspective on the overall experience and the touch points that matter from the customer perspective.

It won’t surprise you to hear we think you want to be operating in the People, not HR space. And whatever your job title, you can define your role by being clear from the outset about what the company can expect from you.

In our view, a great Head of People performs two roles. First, they’re the Head Coach of Culture. They’re the person who always has their antennae attuned to how the company culture is evolving and manifesting itself across the organisation. In this role, they’re a bit of a guardian, a bit of a gardener and occasionally the person who shares some hard truths. Their second role is to be the Product Owner of the people operating system. The Head of People has to have responsibility for the value of what the company provides employees to get their work done and for the overall quality of the employee experience.

Whether you agree with this job description or not, you’ll make it so much easier for yourself if you define your role rather than letting the organisation define it for you.

And once you’re clear on what you want to be doing, think about the structure of your team and here’s a quick tip: shipping your structure is the number one failing that stops People teams from creating a great employee experience.

5. Map your people operating system

The final thing to do is to start making sense of how your people operating system currently works. (Click here for a reminder on what we mean by a people operating system). Our suggestion is to use the peopleOS canvas in two ways:

  1. Descriptively: use the canvas to capture your notes on how things currently work. Who does what, when, where, how and why for each of the components of your people operating system? Using the canvas in this way helps you to surface some of the deep rooted assumptions in your company’s culture. The type of profound influences on behaviour that have become so fundamental and so instinctive that people are no longer aware of them. It’s also a great way of identifying those situational factors that can explain the differences in performance between your pioneers and the rest.
  2. Diagnostically: use the canvas to reflect on the tensions or gaps in your people operating system. What are the constraints holding back people’s performance? What are the peaks and troughs, milestones and transitions in the user experience? And what needs to change for you to grow? You might find gaps (e.g. we do a great job of recruiting but a terrible job of onboarding, or we start lots of stuff but we don’t finish it) or tensions (e.g. we’re asking managers to do x, but giving them the tools and training  for y and providing them with information on z). These issues are the items for your people operating system backlog – stick them on a Trello board or on post-its on your wall and before the end of your first month you’ll have the material you need to plan your first sprint.

If you’d like a helping hand getting your new People function set up for success, ask us about our Purposeful Design product. We help you discover:

  • Your source of purpose and employer brand positioning
  • The company culture preferences of your team and the business you want to be
  • Your employee value proposition and sources of motivation
  • Your People Experience principles including desired tone of voice
  • Any immediate opportunities to implement ‘quick wins’ and the most critical People issues to address as a priority

If you’d like to chat about whether this could help you, grab some time with our Co-Founder, Bee, here.

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