A lot of HR thinking is focused on big companies with deep pockets and ample resources. But given that small to medium organisations (SMEs) comprise the bulk of businesses in Australia, it’s important to focus on the particular human resource needs of this sector.
As the HR manager for one of Australia’s most successful startups, GoGet Carshare, I’ve witnessed an evolution that has had it’s share of opportunities and challenges.
Up until a year ago GoGet didn’t have a formal HR department. So when I arrived, I was starting from scratch. At a large, established organisation, there may be up to 10 separate HR departments. At my company, I am all ten of those departments. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.
1. Startups need to prioritise the law
So many startups —and when I say startups, I also mean more traditional SMEs— are so focused on surviving and growing that it’s not uncommon for them to look up one day and realise that laws that once didn’t apply to them, now do. Then you’re faced with the inevitable desperate scramble to comply. On day one of your role, don’t assume that all the proper procedures and policies are already in place. Make it your responsibility to discover HR problems such as if and where there are potential risk of falling short of your obligations. Then set out to make things better. Make this your priority, because if you don’t, it can be costly.
2. Be ready to become a head coach
Since so many startups and SMEs promote quickly, and from within, a common issue is that management is made up of non-managers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have incompetent people in top roles. However it does mean that you often have very bright and capable people with gaps in their management skills. For example, an organisation might promote a very loyal and smart person, who has worked their way up, to manage a whole department. However, this person has most likely never dealt with a matter that required a formal disciplinary process, or a matter that demanded nuanced sensitivity, such as a bereavement or mental health issues.
How should an HR professional respond? You need to become head coach: identify the gaps and educate your managers. This is necessary for the good of the managers themselves and to protect the company. Oftentimes, the coaching required may surprise you; for example a manager may not be aware that they need give feedback to their direct reports. This is why it’s important not to make assumptions about leaders at start-ups and SMEs. And when you put in the hard work, I cannot emphasise how rewarding it can be to see the positive impact a manager’s enhanced skills has on their relationships.
3. Take the heat
The corporate world may not always get everything right, but it has produced some wonderful tools around assessing workplace engagement and performance. Remember that when HR is hired at a start-up or SME, it’s because the leaders there have recognised that it needs to grow, but cannot do it by itself. So far, the organisation has probably relied on its instinct, luck and passion. However, at a certain point in a company’s growth, only half the staff will be the early “true believers”. The rest will be outsiders, from mature, or corporate, careers.Your job is to make sure there’s a structure in place that creates a culture that motivates everyone. This is where the assessment tools used in large corporations can be useful.
You’ll also find there will be a lot of raised eyebrows and scepticism, particularly from those who’ve only known the startup world – and shunned the evil corporate. I would advise you to stick to your guns. In the end, I promise everyone will thank you. Why? Because these tools will help you discover exactly what is needed to create a dedicated, high-performing and happy workforce.
Philippa Box is the Human Resources Manager for GoGet, Australia’s first and largest carshare company. Prior to joining GoGet, she worked in human resources in global financial institutions in the UK.