HR in a Scaling Organization: 3 Success Factors
Welcome to another exciting episode of All About HR! This is the series for HR Professionals and business leaders who want to future-proof their organization and learn about the latest trends & insights from industry experts, CHROs, and thought leaders.
What are the non-negotiables for HR in a scale-up? In this episode of All About HR season 2, we talk with Kristel Moedt — Co-founder @ People Masterminds — about how HR can help build a strong People & Culture strategy for a scaling organization.
Kristel is a passionate People leader who has helped various scale-ups in different industries combine culture, innovation, and leadership to get the best out of people.
In this episode, we talk about:
- Common challenges for HR in a scale-up environment
- 3 non-negotiables for HR in a scale-up
- The one-page employment contract
Watch the full episode to discover the key to making HR work in a scale-up environment and the skills you need to help your organization move forward!
Kristel Moedt: I think that HR in general loves to over structure things. Of course, some of the structures and a bit of structure are okay. But I would say keep things short and simple. So the stronger the culture is, the less structure you need. So I would always say good culture above structure.
Neelie Verlinden: Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of All About HR. My name is Neelie. I’m your host, and on today’s episode, I talk to Kristel Moedt. Kristel is a chief people officer, and she is the co-founder of People Masterminds and we are going to talk about a topic that I’m super excited about, namely HR in fast-growing environments, such as startups and scale-ups. Now, I know a lot of people in the AIHR community are very interested in this topic. So we are going to get started right away. Before we do so, however, as always, don’t forget to subscribe to the channel, hit the notification bell, and like this video.
Neelie Verlinden: Welcome to another episode of All About HR.
Neelie Verlinden: Let me start first, of course, Kristel, by welcoming you to the show. How are you?
Kristel Moedt: Good. Thank you for having me. I’m doing really well. I’m in Spain at the moment on holiday. So yeah.
Neelie Verlinden: I know, I know.
Kristel Moedt: Best place you can be at the moment.
Neelie Verlinden: Yes, I think so too. Kristel, before we really dive into today’s topic, perhaps you can tell us a little bit more about yourself and about what you’re doing at People Masterminds?
Kristel Moedt: So I used to work as a chief people officer or head of people in several scale-ups.I used to work as a chief people officer at Bynder, a marketing tech scale-up in Amsterdam. And after that, I joined Tony Chocolonely. And while I was at Tony’s, my co founder and I decided to start a podcast to share more about how can you set up HR in a fast-growing environment? And already after the first episode, we got so many requests from companies like could you help us with that? And could you advise us on culture or leadership or performance management? So we thought, okay, there’s actually a business model in here. So after a couple of years at Tony’s, I decided to start my own business together with Eveliese. We’re now with six consultants. And what we do is we support scaleups with their people and culture strategy. So that’s in short, what I’m doing at the moment, which is great to meet so many great entrepreneurs and founders and work on so many different topics in a lot of different scaleups.
Neelie Verlinden: Definitely, I can imagine this must be such an exciting environment to be working in. That’s also why I’m so happy that we are going to be able to have a chat about that today. And as I mentioned in the intro briefly, as well, I know that there are quite a few people within our own community here at the Academy to Innovate HR that have a lot of questions about HR in scale-ups, for instance. So yeah, that’s what we’re going to be talking about. Now, let me start Kristel, by saying that every scale-up, of course, is different. But you’ve been able to work with various different companies, as you said, and various different industries as well. What are in your opinion, some of the key pillars to building a solid people-centric culture strategy?
Kristel Moedt: Well, first, you need to understand the company well and know where the organization is going. So what’s the vision? What’s the mission? What’s the purpose of the company? And then you need to know what is the company strategy, what are the plans for growth, what are the current challenges, but also the challenges that the company expects to face in the near future, so you must have a good understanding of that. And once you understand this, you can start building a people and culture strategy completely aligned with the organization. And your people and culture strategy is only going to work of course, if there’s a genuine belief in its importance of it. So support from leadership and more importantly, that they’ve promoted themselves. It’s extremely important to build a solid people and culture strategy.
Neelie Verlinden: And I mean, you were a chief people officer yourself at different scale-ups. What were some of the main challenges for HR in these types of companies that you also encountered?
Kristel Moedt: Well, when you come in, there’s always a backlog to catch up with. And in addition, you need to keep up with today’s businesses. And you need to make sure that you’re preparing for the future and people quite underestimated it. So a lot of people are – also in HR fields – interested to work in, in a scale-up environment and it looks fun and it is a lot of fun, but it’s also hard work. Because in many scale-ups, there’s not always much in place yet. So there are often operational issues on your plate where you also need to have strong strategic skills and challenges in general not to get caught up in all those daily issues. Another thing is that HR can be quite busy with a lot of individual actions and projects like building a salary structure, organizing a seminar around well-being, setting up performance management, etc. And that’s not bad in itself, of course, and important, but everything should click together and fit the culture. Start building the culture foundation first, because it is super important. And then prioritize your projects and actions. So I would say those are a couple of main challenges you will face when you do HR at a fast-growing company.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, yeah, I have the feeling that those are just a few of the challenges that exist. Now, you briefly touched on this already, but like, how do you then balance this paradox of on the one hand, trying to bring structure and get processes in place, while at the same time also not losing that entrepreneurial spirit that exists within a scale-up?
Kristel Moedt: Yeah, that’s an important question. And a lot of people wonder how to do this. So first, I don’t believe that HR dares to bring structure and control – especially not control. We’re not the police, or at least we shouldn’t be the police. And I really think that we should help a company move forward, help them to build an amazing culture and attract great people. And we need to make sure that those people can make an incredibly valuable contribution to the organization while they’re working with us. And of course, we need to make sure that once they leave, they look back and think, oh, yeah, this is one of the best work experiences I ever had. And when it comes to structuring, I think that HR in general loves to over structure things, like expense policies, job descriptions, remote working policies, and super extensive handbooks. And, of course, some of the structures and a bit of structure are okay. But I would say keep things short and simple. So the stronger the culture is, the less structure you need. So I would always say good culture above structure. And what I often say is that I only want to put things in writing, if it is to achieve more together, not to avoid mistakes, or to prevent people from taking advantage of something. I always keep that in mind. And sometimes the request for control and structure is also something that managers like to have. Some managers love to have that structure because if the policy isn’t there, they should have an honest conversation with an employee, for example. And they can refer to well, you’re not allowed to do this, because the handbook says so for example. So sometimes the request is more based on what managers want to make their life easier than wondering if it is really, really necessary to create a policy around it.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I like what you said there as well. And yeah, it’s a read, like, if there’s too much being written up in these handbooks or guidelines, it becomes something that you can also easily hide behind, right? Rather than, as you beautifully pointed out, having an actual conversation with people in the organization.
Kristel Moedt: Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s also easy, like, instead of thinking for yourself, okay, does this feel reasonable to me? Does it sound reasonable? What do I think that should be fair, and just referring to your handbook? And before, you know, your employee handbook is like 200 pages with a lot of rules and regulations? So you don’t want that, of course, especially not in a scale-up.
Neelie Verlinden: No, I don’t think that’s something that you should want. Absolutely not. You mentioned the culture a couple of times already Kristel, and I think then if I were to ask you, for those who are listening to today’s episode, and they are in HR in a scale-up themselves, right now, what would be some of the non-negotiables for HR in any scale-up?
Kristel Moedt: A non-negotiable for HR, at least for me, is make sure you report directly to the CEO. I used to work with amazing CEOs and CFOs. But you get more done and faster if there’s a direct link between you and the CEO. And it also often says a lot about how important they think the people’s topic is. So if you’re in an HR role, I would say that’s the first non-negotiable. Another one is that you have to make sure that there are enough people on your team. So often the entire organization is growing fast, but the people team is always understaffed. And while especially this team plays a crucial role in getting the right people on board and creating a great onboarding experience, and they have a huge amount of work to do in a growing company. So yeah, having enough, also senior people on your team, that’s another non-negotiable. And the third one would be knowing when to involve people in a decision, and when to just make the decision yourself. So I’m a big believer in involving employees in projects. But I also noticed that some managers think they know better. Once it comes to HR, many HR people, including myself, like to involve people in a decision. Yeah, but you are the expert in this field. So also, dare to make choices without the approval of everything, and everyone so know when to involve. And when to inform, I would say that’s the third non-negotiable,
Neelie Verlinden: Very nice, very nice, I think. I like all three of these non-negotiables very much. And since now, we talk about HR, specifically around the HR team and the people team, I think something that’s interesting here as well, Kristel, to perhaps talk about for a little bit is, what do you believe are some key skills that are important or can come in handy for HR professionals in a scale-up environment? Well, yes, I do.
Kristel Moedt: Well, you must be able to act at all kinds of levels, like I just said, often, there’s not a lot in place yet. So you must be able to switch quite quickly between more operational topics that also come on your plate and strategy. So one moment, you’re still busy with the basics, and the next year sitting in a board meeting or talking to investors. So you need to be aware of that you also need to understand the business well. So what problems do we solve? What are the challenges? How is the company doing from a financial perspective? So also, understand the financial numbers and your analytical skills, understand your numbers in an analytical sense, that’s also important. And I would say you must have thick skin. So working with a founder and CEO is great. It’s often a super visionary person, but it can also be quite challenging. So you need to make sure that you’re not a follower, but that you can form your own opinion. That’s an important skill as well. And maybe a last one, that’s not specifically related to a scale-up. But I would say ensure a good balance between the organizational interest and the employee interest. And sometimes HR goes too much to do one side. And then we become or are seen as too soft or too hard to so to find that balance.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah. Last one, something I actually spoke about in another podcast episode recently is that sometimes HR can be perceived as being always on the side of the company, and therefore against the people in the company. So it’s very interesting that you’re mentioning this balance as well. Yeah.
Kristel Moedt: And sometimes HR can also be experienced as too soft. So that’s why I also say you need to understand the business as well. So you’re here to move the business forward, including the employees that are working there. So we have to balance those.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah. So Kristel, I think what’s very interesting here is what you mentioned about making sure that you know the business well. And I think from your own experience, you worked for scale-ups in different industries, Bynder must be something very different from Tony’s Chocolonely. Is there may be something that you can share with our listeners about some of the learnings that you had in getting up to speed with these businesses, and what they were doing? Yes, absolutely.
Kristel Moedt: Yes, absolutely. So always when I joined a company, I talked to a lot of people, not only to the managers, but also a lot of employees to understand what’s happening here. What are the challenges? How do people feel? What makes them lie awake at night? So that’s always the first thing that I do. And second, like I just said, I really want to understand the business. So I asked a ton of different questions. So if I’m in a management meeting, everything I don’t know, I’ll write it down. And I figure out later what it is, but I really want to understand, okay, what are we talking about? So, the fun thing is that a product manager at Bynder, a marketing tech company is completely different from a product manager at Tony’s Chocolonely, right? So it was very funny to figure out those differences as well. So really ask your questions, write down everything you don’t know, and try to figure it out later.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, and then so I perhaps can say here that it’s just super important to ask these questions if you have them, right?
Kristel Moedt: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Fantastic. That’s it. That’s, I think, a very important one to highlight. Slightly moving tack here because, of course, always, before we record a new podcast, I like to research a little bit about what my guests are talking about and what they have been doing. And so LinkedIn is often one of the places to go. And I saw that on your LinkedIn, one of the things that you said was like, unconventional companies need an unconventional approach. And that was a phrase that really stuck with me. And I thought, okay, that’s something interesting to talk about because at the moment, we find ourselves in an era that is characterized by change and by uncertainty. And so what HR practices, specifically, do you believe require a complete overhaul? Would that rather be performance management or organizational design, or maybe something else entirely? Or should we stick with some of these? What are your thoughts on this?
Kristal Moedt: I think we all know by now that some things do not necessarily work as a performance review in December where you get a score, for example. But I think more importantly, is that you have to create practices that are aligned with the organizational culture, not because everyone says you have to go left or right. Everyone says at the moment, you need to stop with performance reviews, well, maybe it works for your organization, maybe not those conversations in December, but maybe you can do it in a different way that works perfectly fine for you. And you need to be aware that what works worked or works in Company A can be different from the best solution for Company B. So never just copy and paste. But always think about, okay, what is our culture? What do we want to achieve? And what can help us with that? And if you’re asking for like, specific practices at the moment, I think we have to look critically at our benefits. That’s not just one size fits all, if you look at benefits, the adoption rates are super low to use, for example, your headspace subscription or so. So I think it would be good to give people options that suit their personal situation. And another topic that is quite a lot on the table at the moment is career development. And I believe that goes much further than getting a promotion or a new job title. And I think we should tell this more often. So there’s no career ladder, it’s sort of climbing wall, how I always explain it. So it’s not just going up, but maybe you can go to the left or the right or down for a while, that’s perfectly fine. So find your own path, basically. And people say if I don’t get a new job title, or if I don’t get a promotion, I’m not growing, which is not the case, of course, because working in a new environment with new products, meeting new people, working in a fast-changing organization, like a scale-up, that is actually growing and you will grow along with the growth of the company. So I think we have to look beyond that promotion and share more about okay, what is growth actually, so just to name a few.
Neelie Verlinden: I really like what you said there about growth. And I was imagining this climbing wall that you mentioned. I also very much like the analogy there. And this is also something that we’ve been talking about before on the podcast as well, that it really is time and I believe that strongly, that we abandon this idea of the only way of growth is up because that’s not the case. And I think what’s cool is that there are already some companies, let’s say they don’t just offer growth opportunities vertically, but also horizontally, where people that prefer to be a specialist or an expert in one thing or another that they can completely develop themselves that way. And it’s also seen as growth and career development rather than just okay, you need to become a manager and then you need to go. So yeah, I that’s something that.
Kristal Moedt: Exactly, exactly, yeah. And then the challenge is not to structure everything, because a lot of companies ask us to, so we need to have career development paths. Why? Why is that so important? I think that you should learn about your team. Okay, we want to support you, but it’s your development, you have to find your own path. And we can support you with coaching, with mentoring, or with training sessions, for example. But find your own path, instead of trying to create a limited number of fixed career paths. Look beyond that. I think that’s another step that we can take as an organization.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, I think that’s a very beautiful one as well, Kristel, because I think that it’s totally fine that we give a little bit more responsibility to every single person to find their own path and to try something and perhaps, then realize that it’s not for them and they can maybe try something different because I think the danger lies when you offer some already completely clear parts that people are not going to think beyond those parts, and so they are still going to be confined to whatever kind of direction has already been set out for them.
Kristel Moedt: And it also makes people maybe unconsciously learn how to think for themselves.
Neelie Verlinden: I love it. I really, really love it. Fantastic. Yes. So there is something else that I absolutely wanted to talk to you about. And you already mentioned it a little bit at the start of our conversation. It was about not overcomplicating certain things, including documents or processes in HR. And I think there was a really cool example of that. And that was something you were working on when you were at Tony’s Chocolonely. And that was also an unconventional approach, I would say. And that’s the one-page employment contract. So well, perhaps you can just, you know, tell us a little bit more about that, first of all,
Kristal Moedt: Yes. So my sort of fascination with contracts started years ago. So when I joined a startup, I had like a great interview process. There was a super vibrant atmosphere, super enthusiastic, great conversations. So I was very excited to start my role there. And then I received a contract. And I still remember, it was like 14 or 15 pages, super formal. And I really thought, what? This doesn’t match the culture at all, at least not what I experienced during that interview process. And it also made me less enthusiastic. So I thought there must be a different way a contract that reflects the culture and makes people even more enthusiastic to start and to read it and actually also understand what they’re reading. So I’ve tried to find a different solution. And a lot of lawyers said: No, that’s not possible, you have to avoid risk, etc, etc. But then I met Daniel Matts, and he did something like this in the past for another company. So we created an employment contract on just one page for Tony’s Chocolonely, and we call it a ticket of trust. So don’t include all the do’s and don’ts, especially the don’ts, but just make it short, easy to understand, and fun to read. Yes, was really fun to do.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, the result – it is also a pleasure to look up the results. So for everybody listening, or watching, I would definitely say, check out Kristel’s LinkedIn page, because there you can find it. And you can see what the contracts turned out to be like, perhaps it can be an inspiration to you.
Kristel Moedt: That was my colleague. A very good designer. Not my credits at all
Neelie Verlinden: No, but I mean, it was a collaboration, right, it was a collaboration. And this is the final result. But what I find very interesting in what you were saying, Kristel, here is that this shows how many things that we are not necessarily aware of actually have an impact on candidates, because in this case, for instance, you know, you interview with a company, you’re super excited about joining the company, because you’re gonna get a contract from them. And you have this image of how the culture is at the company. And then you get a 15 or 20-page-long employment contract. And you can see how this affects the image that you have of the company.
Kristel Moedt: Yeah, so we thought there must be a different way to do that. But then you need to approach it may be in a bit of an unconventional way. And a lot of people say no, it’s not gonna work like that. But it’s actually working really, really well. Yeah. And fun thing is that, when we just started with that, and we send it to potential colleagues, they said, Oh, this looks great. When do I get my official contract though? Oh, this is the contract. And what I was hoping for happen, they were even more excited to start.
Neelie Verlinden: I find that super interesting, because it really shows how all these things that we don’t necessarily think of have an impact. So your one-page employment contract example, Kristel, made me think of a discussion that we had with a friend of mine recently about how often HR is an afterthought in startups and scale ups rather than embedded into culture immediately, as we’ve seen here with your example. But at the same time, when companies search for an HR person in a scale-up, it’s very difficult to find somebody that can stand up to the challenge of, on the one hand, doing all the operational things, and on the other hand, be a strong people and culture architect in strategy discussions and in talks with the CEO, for instance, whether you believe that the issue lies here?
Kristel Moedt: Yeah, good question. What I see now that I’m working for a lot of different companies is that a lot of companies still see HR as a sort of administrative function. So sometimes that’s still a challenge. And we have an office manager who can do this. And once we come in, and we talk about HR, we call it people or culture, but HRM and what it all contains and why culture is so important, and what are the elements that need to be in line with your culture, then? Oh, now I understand it. And also, yeah, I just said we shouldn’t be the police. But that’s how quite a lot of people still experience HR – as police. I know when I joined Bynder, back then they had already 200 employees. And there was a closet with a paper on it that said HR. And if you want to complain about something go sit in the closet. So my introduction was this is Kristel and she’s replacing the closet. Because they tried it. True story. They tried to delay this as long as possible to get HR on board because their perception was okay, then we’re going to hire sort of police who’s going to say what you can or can’t do. So, yeah, try to find someone who looks at your culture, who understands HR, also from a more modern perspective, and not necessarily about the rules and regulations, not just talk about, but how can I support you to bring the company forward? And so more from a strategic expect perspective, then you’re setting those rules and regulations and just seeing it as an administrative function and finding people who are capable to do that. And that can be quite a challenge also to bring someone on board who can look beyond the daily operational things and really look at HR from a strategic point of view, and someone who wants to understand the business. Well, and I agree that that can be quite a challenge to find the right people.
Neelie Verlinden: Just coming back Kristel, to this one-page employment contract, and you already nicely quoted the tickets of trust. Now, I do want to know that if things do go wrong, what do you do? And in that case, because maybe this is something we need to abandon, but in HR, we often have to write, you know, a policy for the 2% that goes wrong, as opposed to the 98% that goes smoothly. So yeah, what are your thoughts on this?
Kristel Moedt: Yeah, trust plays a huge role in this. And if things go wrong, we fix it. But how big is that chance? Do you want to create complex, lengthy, lengthy contracts for all employees, while there’s only like two or 3% chance that things will go wrong? And what I often see if things escalate, is there’s often already a lot that has been going wrong in a previous period. So I’m just not afraid that things will go wrong. And if you really hire people you believe in and if you do your best to help them grow and develop within the organization, if you have those honest conversations and give feedback, etc, etc. How big is the chance then? So I’m more than willing to take that risk?
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah, and I think, again, this is such a good point here, because we will never be able to fully cover every single possibility of something that might go wrong in one direction or another. That’s not possible anyway. So perhaps we can just, you know, save ourselves a lot of time and energy trying to do that, and just create something that is fully aligned with our culture and the kind of environment that we want to create within our company, right?
Kristel Moedt: Exactly. And even if your contract has like 20 pages, you will still have those situations once in a while that you need to solve. I mean, it doesn’t avoid it at all.
Neelie Verlinden: No, exactly.
Kristel Moedt: And it’s the same, like I just said about career development, etc. I want to have a discussion with my team here. What do you think should be fair here? What could be the best solution instead of just referring to a contract with all the do’s and don’ts? That’s more important for me to have that open conversation.
Neelie Verlinden: Absolutely. Now, Kristel, so we are now getting to one of my favorite parts of the podcast. And so this is the part where I always ask my guests. Well, the first thing I ask them is what they believe is the biggest cliche out there that exists about HR. So let me start with that one.
Kristel Moedt: Yeah, I thought about it. And the first thing that came to mind is that I think that HR is full of cliches itself. And statements we often use sometimes because everyone else is using them too. We even created a podcast about it a couple of months ago saying things like people are your most important assets and I believe people are not your assets. So be happy if they want to work for you and want to come back tomorrow. An asset is referring to something you own so I always hate that sentence. And another thing is that we always talk about the war for talent. I don’t like that it refers to like external influences and you as a company can’t find good people because other companies want them to and you can’t help it and also makes you a bit dependent. And but at Tony’s we got like hundreds of applications per week and of course, you will think that it’s easy. You sell chocolate. Of course, that’s correct. But even when I worked as a chief people officer at Bynder, we never had issues with finding great talent because we made sure that we continuously distinguished ourselves from others. You could work with the latest tech stack, and you get a lot of flexibility. We had unlimited holidays, which was a big thing back then. And not anymore. But think it was 2016 or so. It was very innovative in the Netherlands, we shared a lot about our culture. So you have to take control yourself. So sometimes as HR, we’re just saying these kinds of things, because everybody is saying it. But is it true or not? Maybe a bit of a cliche. Sometimes cliches are true, but not always.
Neelie Verlinden: I like that perspective on it. Thank you for sharing that. And also, I mean, I think people if they want to hear more about cliche’s in HR, they should definitely check out that podcast episode that you mentioned there. And then there’s one other thing that I wanted to ask you about Kristel and is about sharing an epic win, and an epic fail. Now we’ve had all sorts of epic wins and fails already on the podcast. So it can be anything that you feel comfortable enough to share.
Kristel Moedt: My biggest lesson learned is that you have to make sure that your team is senior enough, especially if you go through high growth. And sometimes I’ve just hired too junior people or let people on my team stay on board too long, because I wanted to give them a chance to prove themselves for example, which is good, but sometimes you just need people who already know the drill, and there’s just no time to learn it because that growth goes so fast. So a team that is too junior, it sort of gets in the way of your own success because you stay much too involved with the operation and you should focus more on the strategic challenges. So that’s a big lesson learned for me. And an epic win. Yeah, we talked about the one-page contract. I’m pretty proud of that. Not necessarily because of that contract, which was great as well and we got a lot of positive feedback on it. But mainly because so many people in organizations decided to create a one-pager for their company as well. So I still remember that my LinkedIn exploded after I posted Tony’s contracts and it’s amazing to see that others share that belief that even a contract should match your culture and that so many companies follow these ideas. I’m pretty proud of that.
Neelie Verlinden: Yeah. And I think you should. I mean, this is clearly just been such an inspiration like literally been such an inspiration for a lot of other people and companies. So that’s a beautiful one. Thank you for sharing.
Kristel Moedt: You’re welcome.
Neelie Verlinden: That brings us to the end of the episode and of our conversation. So another big thank you for making this happen, even while you’re on vacation at the moment. So thank you very much for joining me.
Kristel Moedt: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Neelie Verlinden: And thank you everybody for tuning in to today’s episode. If you liked this episode, you know what to do. Subscribe to the channel, hit the notification bell, and share this episode with a friend and then I hope to see you very soon again for a new episode of All About HR. Thank you and goodbye.