Hello, I’m Maria and I’ve built a career leading People, HR & Recruitment in high-growth tech startups, taking them from early stage through growth, from 30-300 employees. I’ve worked at Monzo Bank, Snyk, GoCardless and Permutive – some of these are unicorns now, and in my time at each the number of employees was doubling every 6-12 months.
This means that I’ve been involved in hiring more than 500 people, into a huge variety of roles, from C-level to interns, customer operations to design to risk to security engineers, across four companies in three industries (fintech, adtech & cybersecurity).
In these high-growth environments, I’ve had a really accelerated opportunity to learn a lot – I’ve made mistakes, I’ve had successes, and want to share my experience with such a range of hiring.
Why? Well, two stories (to start with):
1. Many years ago, I was supporting hiring someone new into a business. We arranged on-site final-stage interviews for four candidates for a business-critical role. Afterwards, the six of us who’d interviewed the candidates sat together to make a decision on who we should hire. We couldn’t reach agreement because every one of us was looking for different traits, skills and experience. None of us really knew what the role was, what we wanted or what we needed.
2. Last summer, I was searching for a new role. I spent seven hours being interviewed with multiple people at one company. Towards the final stage, I presented a first year strategy and spent a couple of hours discussing it with a handful of the existing leadership team. And then I was rejected from the process, because they were looking for someone with a background in consulting. I have exactly zero consultancy experience. This is clear from my CV. No amount of strategy presentations would have changed this fact!
Sometimes you reach the end of an interview process and realise that everyone has different expectations, you have no idea what the job is, and despite hours of interviewing nobody knows whether you’d be great or not.
A glimpse at some of the event:
I’ve spent the last seven years leading People work at some of London’s highest growth tech companies. My personal mission is to build cultures where people can do their best work, learn, grow and contribute to a meaningful product that improves the world we live in.
In January 2019, we hosted a Culturevist event to bring together people to discuss how the onboarding process impacts company culture. We started by telling our story of how Dr. Martens defined its culture without losing its soul. Here’s a short extract of what we shared.
Throughout the twentieth century, Dr. Martens was a family-run business.
The business was fiercely independent but following threats of bankruptcy in the early 2000s, in 2013 we were acquired by a retail turnaround specialist.
The private equity company laid down ambitious plans to generate £400 million in four years, more than double the headcount and increase the number of stores globally from 15 to over 100.
With so many people joining the business, and other long-term employees moving on, combined with the pressure to meet tough targets, Dr. Martens’ strong brand identity and independent culture were at risk of being diluted. It became a key priority to identify and articulate the business’s global strategy and increase communication from the top down.
As our business grew, our culture was at risk!
We needed to decide what to preserve and what to evolve within our internal culture.
In 2015, over a 6 month period, we held 6 focus groups involving 78 employees from different areas and all levels of the business with a combined service of 644 years.
Using these insights, we extracted the essence of the business into “Rebellious Self-Expression”; a simple, powerful and memorable phrase felt to be at the heart of everything Dr. Martens does.
The next step was to identify our company ambition, what we believed in, who we are including our fundamentals and the stuff that sets us apart (which other companies may deem as values).
Then, we need to ensure the whole global business knew this and we lived the brand everyday. We did this by:
Capturing everything and literally putting it “on the record”, imprinting them on a seven-inch vinyl, complete with artwork, sleeve design and sleeve notes and sent it to each employee.
Setting up a leadership program – “Leading the DM way” which looks at how we want to be as leaders and what the ‘fundamentals’ and ‘stuff that sets us apart’ (our values) mean to us and over a 12 month period we managed to reach over 80 managers in the UK and Europe.
Launching our On the Record newspaper – written by, and for, the people of Dr. Martens. Not only communicating key commercial milestones, but celebrating people for their hard work and individual talents.
Ensuring our new head office in Camden, was a true representation of our brand values, identity and culture.
But, this was not just an internal branding exercise, it has been about continuously influencing behaviour with the support of:
The Culture Vultures. A group of volunteers from across the business who were tasked with being our culture ambassadors.
The Culture Vultures bring to life our fundamentals everyday – the stuff that sets us apart from other companies. They use our engagement survey data and drive communication to ensure we are constantly listening to our people and keep Dr. Martens a great place to work. Some of the feedback they have brought to life include:
Learning and Development: 68% of people have access to the learning and development they want. This is an 8% increase since launching “lunch and learns” which give people the opportunity to share their skills and knowledge internally over a complimentary lunch, and “twist days” – an opportunity for retail store staff to shadow someone in an office to gain insight into their job role and we’ve consequently had 17 internal moves in the UK in 12 months.
Communication: 80% of people have confidence in the company, a 9% increase since the implementation of LifeWorks, an internal social networking platform which allows people to connect more easily and promote their hard work, and monthly townhalls form the Global Leadership Team with the objective of updating everyone on our performance and priorities against our global ambition.
Wellbeing: 80% of people feel their wellbeing is genuinely supported.To support mental health wellbeing, in the UK we have implemented mindfulness rooms that appeal to all senses and are filled with mindfulness resources. We have over 30 people across UK and Europe trained as a Mental Health First Aiders and rolled out a global Employee Assistant service with toolkits and a confidential helpline.
The Global Leadership Team focused many hours of discussion to identify our priorities. This led to the birth of their strategy, the DM4, representing 4 key priorities: Direct to customer (DTC) Acceleration, Operational Excellence, Consumer Obsession, and Sustainable Global Growth. And in 2018, for the first time in DM history, 70 global managers were gathered at an event where they communicated exactly what was needed to achieve their ambition.
These efforts have resulted in a 68% global engagement score (+1%), an impressive achievement in such a large, fast-growing organisation. 86% of people understand how their work contributes to the goals of Dr. Martens, and 64% believe there is open, honest two-way communication. Additionally, revenue growth of 25% accompanied a profit increase of 27% to £37.5mil and the opening of 21 stores, bringing the total to 94 (as of end 2018). Ensuring they have the right people doing the right things in the right way, Dr. Martens are only getting started on their exciting culture journey.
Our story is a truly an incredible journey lead by the people at Dr. Martens and supported by the very top of the business. Over the last 4 years, I have learnt a lot working with the Global Leadership Team and with the help of Amanda Fishburn, Head of Change, Communication and Learning. But, as we grow as an organisation it is very important we continue to nurture our culture. Currently at Dr. Martens we:
Try to bring to life our fundamentals and what sets us apart in every job description globally, although this is written by the hiring mgr so can be inconsistent
We send out a brand history timeline and induction pack to every person that is offered a position however, this hasn’t been properly refreshed in a long time
Due to rapid growth we are unable to set up specific working spaces for people on their first day because most people are now hot desking
We have an amazing immersive experience in the first month that brings to life everything we have spoken about but.. Only if you work in the Camden office.
But we want to know – how do we continue to do the right things in the right way but tailored to individuals? Whose role and responsibility is it? Onboarding is an essential step in the life cycle of an employee’s “career”, and often times not enough resources go into making it a comprehensive and positive experience.
I’m a Culturevist, and Director of People at Onfido.
In the 2.5 years I’ve been at Onfido, we’ve grown from 12 people to around 150.
We deliver next-generation background checks, helping businesses across the world verify anyone, anywhere. We work with companies such as TaskRabbit, HelloFresh, and JustGiving.
We’ve gone from 1 geographic location (London) to 3 (London, Lisbon and San Francisco). In London, our once-tiny office in Aldgate has transmogrified into a fabulous Covent Garden pad, and a team that could once be fed on a couple of pizzas is now so large that we’ve decided to introduce Donut to help people get to know each other.
It’s been quite a ride.
From a People standpoint, the challenges have been numerous. But I start with this story of scale to contextualise perhaps the biggest – and most rewarding – challenge we’ve tackled so far: how to get feedback working at Onfido.
Why was it necessary?
6 months ago, we were up against some meaty challenges. Our product was evolving fast, with big implications for the people working with it, and we were taking part in important and competitive client trials.
Whilst some of that was going well, some was not – and frustration was starting to build.
Given the pace we’d grown at, our systems for gathering feedback were in their infancy. Much relied on personal relationships; people who knew one another well simply initiated a conversation to air difficulties and brainstorm ways to make improvements.
Of course – that was precisely the problem.
‘People who knew one another well’ accounted for a tiny proportion of the company. In the absence of well-established feedback protocols, information flowed in many different directions, through numerous channels – and often got lost, mistranslated or forgotten. Some flowed into the People Team who became bottlenecks. Some flowed onto external platforms which was not only bad for our brand but also difficult to action, since the detail and real-life examples that flow from face-to-face conversation were lost.
All in all, we needed to take action.
What did we do?
In Q4 of last year, we set a company OKR to ‘Improve the Frequency and Effectiveness of Feedback’ at Onfido. In the spirit of our ‘Find a Better Way’ value, we set up a plethora of experiments – then sat back to watch them run and evaluate their impact.
To name a few, we set up or designed:
a whole company survey which went out every 2 weeks, and allowed us to track frequency and effectiveness of feedback – as well as some key stats around engagement (happiness and challenge);
a PollEverywhere account which we used to gather feedback data on company presentations;
a PollEverywhere account for our team to up- or down-vote questions for our cofounders. The most popular questions are now regularly answered at our Friday company meetings;
a ‘Team Lead Development Survey’ (and CoFounder equivalent) allowing us to gather anonymous data from team members about their team lead’s performance and hence prompt tailored coaching; feedback workshops for the whole company – in groups of 10 to 12 people. We covered techniques for structuring feedback effectively, for planning difficult conversations (including Johari’s window for understanding, in advance, how somebody might respond to our comments) and looked at techniques for responding constructively to feedback too.
What were the results?
At the start of the quarter, an average of 78% of Onfidoers were involved in a feedback interaction in a 2 week period. By the end of the quarter, that average had jumped to 91% (we’d set a target of 90%) and, in our first survey of 2017, we hit 95%.
Likewise, at the start of the quarter, Onfidoers gave the feedback they received an average usefulness score of 3.9 out of 5. By the end of the quarter, it had jumped to 4.2 (we’d set a target of 4.5).
Whilst both are statistically significant, what has been just as rewarding is the qualitative feedback we’ve received. One team lead said that he’s finding performance reviews more rewarding because “people don’t see feedback as snitching any more”! Another team member told us “it’s great to see how management have worked to maintain internal transparency as the company’s grown…they’ve made huge headway in how they collect feedback as part of day-to-day life”. A recent Glassdoor review even mentioned the “regularity and effectiveness of feedback” as a key benefit of working for Onfido!
What have we learnt?
1. Go deep – not broad – with culture change. Create focused messaging and ensure it’s regularly high on the agenda (in company meetings/ company comms/ team discussions etc). Roll out a whole range of supporting systems, and get buy-in from senior leadership. Model what you’re expecting and talk about what you’re learning. Dedicate serious focus, courage and resource.
2. Always work backwards from your desired outcomes. Figure out (and measure) what you want to achieve and use that to plan what you’re going to do;
3. Be bold. If people are given the tools and encouragement necessary to change behaviours, they can and they will;
4. Treat people like adults. Whilst it’s tempting for People Teams to take a huge amount on themselves, the only truly scalable thing is for adult: adult conversations to happen throughout the business every day.
As a startup scales, it falls upon the People Team to be constantly vigilant about aspects of its culture that are no longer working. Whilst I’m confident our feedback systems have improved,
I’m also sure that there’s plenty of room for further improvement – and that what works today may not be fit for purpose in 6 months.
This continuous need for iteration can sometimes feel like a treadmill, but it’s the inevitable outcome of success. No startup culture can stand still; as more people join the business, so its systems, processes and even assumptions must flex.
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