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Why is it so important to implement a HR function into a start-up?

Date Posted: 7 July, 2019

In small/start-up businesses, HR can be easily overlooked. Many of the region’s most successful CEO’s will tell you this is a mistake. I wanted to explore why is it so important to implement a HR function so I sat down last week with Laura Dryden from consultancy firm Ecomass to discuss.

Laura, having worked with several start-up’s in the region, most notably including Careem, can you tell me why you think it is key that a HR function is implemented into a business as early as possible?

In the startup space, cutting your teeth is tough! You are often competing with players that are more established, experienced, and possibly have stronger financial backing too. You must balance tightly between investing in growth and containing costs. Leaders often find themselves dividing their time between business development initiatives, customers, and investor relations and it’s essential to invest time/money wisely; especially in the beginning, as any sloppy or slow decision-making can be crippling.

Two things will help in launching a successful business and differentiate you from your competitors, and they are Talent and Performance.

There are definitely advantages to having an active HR function onboard early; a HR function has a primary responsibility to help the organisation to deliver its business strategy and objectives. It does this by effectively managing people and performance. They can provide meaningful data on people and performance topics, which will help to drive better decision making. That said, it need not need to be a big/expensive function; there are several ways to build a model that makes the most sense for your business/budget.

What do you see the main functions of HR as in a startup?

It depends on the business; I believe we can best add value by aligning ourselves with the business objectives and achieving commercial goals. Try to avoid getting bogged down in bureaucracy; yes, policies and procedures might be nice to have, but if you hire good people, give them the right tools and outline some basic parameters to work within, then just let them get on and do their stuff. Based on my experience, here are a few priorities I feel should be on the list for a startup:

  • Company Culture

Clearly articulating what your purpose is and how you will get things done, (vision, mission and values), will help others to understand what you are trying to achieve and how they can contribute. Having a clear understanding of these points and being able to articulate them well sets the tone for positive company culture, and you will attract people that are aligned with your goals and share common values.

  • Organisational Design

Investing time to consider your structure; the purpose of each team, how they work together, and how this might change as you grow, I believe, is fundamental.

Having clarity on these points enables people to work more efficiently and deliver the best results – it’s like lubricating a machine – the cogs turn far more comfortably, and at speed. It will also help you to build strong teams that can evolve with the needs of the business.

  • Recruiting & Onboarding

It is a significant investment to recruit and onboard people, and it’s not just the commitment to interview time, but finding and exciting talented people to join your startup is challenging. In my experience, the first few hires are critical as these people will set the tone for your culture and how the business grows. Leaders should be involved in the process and take time to assess culture fit – aptitude can be developed; attitude cannot.

You also need to set people up for success with proper onboarding and provide them with the necessary tools/knowledge to start delivering results… All this while trying to minimise the disruption to day to day business; and I didn’t even mention the time, cash and capacity constraints yet– it’s no easy feat!

As you are also beginning to build your reputation as an employer, keep candidate experience in mind – This is all the more important if you are a consumer-facing company. People talk! And they’re not just potential employees walking through your door, but maybe even customers.

You mentioned culture first. So, does that mean you see HR as being responsible for driving the culture in a startup?

They should focus on culture as a priority for sure! But they are not the owner. It’s essential to continually develop and sustain a healthy, productive and engaging work environment, and HR can support by identifying ways to cultivate a positive culture and drive engagement initiatives. Ultimately though, this is something that must be driven by Leadership.

I believe we need to find ways to build better connections with people. A person that feels appreciated will always want to give more, and with all the energy that goes into finding the right people, we should invest in those relationships.

Humanise your HR team, avoid referring to people as ‘Human Resources’ or ‘Capital.’ People are not commodities – focus on connecting with people and collect meaningful information through conversations and feedback. This will help you to understand better how to support your teams, (and ultimately your business,) to thrive.

Do you think it is important to hire an HR professional with regional experience?

While it isn’t an essential criterion, it can be a distinct advantage, and I would generally try to find this if I can.

We have an excellent opportunity in this region to work with an incredibly diverse group of people, which in itself can present some exciting challenges. I have experience working with many international organisations, but I find the UAE particularly unique.

While the Labour law here is fairly well publicised, it isn’t always easy to interpret, and there are areas where it is not clear cut. (e.g. managing redundancy). If you are not aware of the appropriate practices, missteps can be time-consuming and expensive, and potentially damaging to your employer brand.

An HR professional with experience in this region should be able to navigate fundamental employee relations matters effectively and will also have a good understanding of how to work in the agile and diverse environment in this region. If it is not possible to find regional experience, then try to find a competent HR professional with a solid background in international business. You can always engage with, and leverage experts in the market for ad-hoc needs that require specialist experience.

Meeting with Laura really confirmed to me why HR is an essential function in any organisation regardless of its size. To me it’s clear that businesses need to allocate resource and funds into this function for the greater good and progression of the company and its people. What are your thoughts?


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David Mackenzie

Group Managing Director