In today’s interview, we talk to Tabita Luis, Head of People and Culture at Too Good To Go, a fascinating startup that’s well worth checking out 😜. Tabita is a true professional with over 10 years’ experience in HR team leadership. Today we chatted to her about the key aspects of strategic human resource planning.
What makes a successful strategic human resources plan?
The word strategy has a very different meaning for companies that are just starting up, than for a consolidated organisation. The speed and timing are different, and this has a crucial impact on the way actions are planned. The most important thing in strategic human resources planning in this context, in my opinion, is to achieve a good balance between the short term and the and long term.
The long term can be six months away, which can sound excessive for many startups, but I believe this is an essential timeframe for establishing a coherent course of action if we want to get anywhere.
Also, many high-impact HR strategies need time to develop and produce results. Poor long-term management will result in an HR team with short-term thinking, which is equivalent to a company who only focuses on getting new clients but does nothing to retain them.
When should a department consider creating a strategic HR plan?
Strategic human resources planning is an exercise you should do from the word go. Even if you may not fulfil 100% of your strategy, it helps to put day-to-day tasks into a future perspective and guide them towards higher-impact objectives.
At Lingokids, the first thing I did was to create my annual strategic plan, by doing a reflection exercise on the status of the department’s function and the vision I wanted to build to respond to the business needs.
The following year, the plan served as my compass and I made hardly any changes. I didn’t manage to do much of what I intended because there was a lot of unplanned operational work and I was unable to fulfil most of my strategic objectives as a result.
What are the biggest challenges when building a HR department from scratch in a startup?
Apart from prioritising, another major challenge when building a HR department from scratch is educating the rest of the organisation, and managers in particular, about the things they can expect from human resources and those that are not within our range of influence. Not all people-related things fall into HR hands. There are strategic activities that we can lead from our area and others that are the manager’s responsibility.
For example, a dismissal is something that, administratively-speaking, can be resolved in the HR department as it deals with their payroll, but the decision and communication aspects are the manager’s job. All of this responsibility seems to fall upon the personnel department in some companies, used as a scapegoat to relieve the manager from making difficult decisions.
And sadly, I feel that there are widespread beliefs have significantly distorted people’s image of our profession. For example, the idea that anyone can do this job because you don’t need technical knowledge to design a selection process, conduct interviews, implement effective training plans, etc. There are certain skills that HR professionals should have.
I have seen some selection processes in startups that were designed by their owners or the technical team manager without any scientific basis, or which contain questions that are impossible to operationalise (such as: “If you could be an animal, which one would you be?” or “How may airports are there in Italy?”) Besides that, they force candidates to perform technical tests to measure skills that are irrelevant for the position and with a series of phases unrelated to assessing skills for the job. They are merely based on the personal assessment of people without a background in social sciences. And this is without going into detail, such as the fact that they don’t consider the basics of how to avoid bias during the interview.
So, after establishing your priorities, the next major challenge is educating the organisation about the HR profession itself, demonstrate the value it can have when done professionally and define limits and boundaries in relation to other people-related functions.
How do you prioritize actions when implementing the strategic HR plan?
This will largely depend on the size, timing and the state of the business I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits-all formula, but in the absence of one there are some rules that can help you. These include evaluating each action according to the effort/time/resources it requires vs. the impact it has. I’d give the green light to high-impact actions that require less resources.
Then we dig a little deeper into the high-impact actions that require more resources and decide which ones will allow us to implement a preliminary version of the action and then improve it over time. As we can’t do everything we need or want to, there will be some actions that we won’t be able to include in the plan. This brings me to another rule: we should be aware of the consequences and how we accept them as a team and as an organisation.
What are the key skills for hiring the first human resources team members?
I think that looking for people with complementary skills is a healthy strategy. My strengths lie in leadership development and talent management, so colleagues who are stronger in the legal, administration and remuneration areas are a good fit for my team.
One general recommendation that I feel applies to all startups is not to build your HR team solely with recruitment specialists. It’s true that recruitment is important when the project is growing. But building a department that only focuses on acquiring talent is risky and often neglects equally relevant areas like team performance management, remuneration strategy and internal equity, as well as leadership development for managers (many of whom are leading teams for the first time).
Can you give us an example of a strategic plan you’ve implemented?
I was the first HR person at Lingokids and so I was able to implement a plan from scratch. I should say, however, that people and culture is never built from scratch. There is always a small group of people working in talent management, with a culture and some processes, for better or worse.
Two key things I did to create a strategic plan were mapping all the department’s processes and then to prioritise actions according to the business needs. In doing so, I secured some quick wins to gain time in some of the actions that needed longer to yield results.
The major challenge was to achieve a balance between the team’s development needs with other equally important strategies, but ones that produced more long-term results. One thing that helped enormously was to automate everything that could be automated to the max, especially recruitment processes, to free up resources that could be used for other actions.
I carried on, knowing that many important things were not getting done, but also confident that I’d done everything possible to help build the most talented, passionate and humble team I had ever seen. Remembering this helps me sleep at night when I think of all the fires I couldn’t put out and the loose ends I left untied.