Several years ago I worked at one of the top tech start-ups in the country, one that Inc. named the fastest growing software company in the United States.
The company started as a small incubator with 5 employees, then quickly grew by ~100 employees per year. When I joined we were heading toward the 500 mark.
When I joined as an HR Business Partner, I was brought in to focus on employee relations. I had my work cut out for me.
What was the problem?
When a company is 50 or 100 people, it’s easy to get a pulse on employee sentiment, set the tone for company culture, and create alignment with business goals.
However, when a company hits a headcount in the hundreds, let alone the thousands, it becomes more challenging to shape the employee experience. This is because, as the company grows, there are less chances to interface directly with employees on a day-to-day basis, and as teams develop they take on a culture of their own.
My philosophy is that if you want to effect change in your organization, you start with your managers. Managers are on the front lines, having daily face time with their teams, and effectively driving performance for the organization as a whole.
They are the boots on the ground soldiers, setting goals, relaying messages from the business, and shaping the employee experience. According to a recent Gallup report, managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores across business units.
The trouble when a company scales quickly is that managers get promoted through the ranks without cohesive training on what it means to be a manager or even a consistent approach to goal setting and performance management.
Classically, we found that many of our managers had been promoted to their positions due to dynamic organizational growth, and the promotion didn’t necessarily come with the tools for the job.
Our HR team was inundated with employee requests and calls for help, usually around the struggle of adapting to the ever-changing environment and lack of consistent communication from the top down. It was clear that employees needed more support from the business, including their managers and senior leaders overall.
My first order of business was to implement what I dubbed the People Partner Program.
The People Partner Program
The People Partner Program (PPP) was developed on 3 concrete goals:
- Increase HR visibility and find more opportunities for HR touchpoints throughout the employee lifecycle, therefore driving an intentional employee experience and not one left up to chance
- Create alignment for the business’ goals by reinforcing them on the departmental level, while working with senior leaders on communicating top-down strategy
- Gain more insight into the happenings at the team level: assess for any flight risks, get a heads up about any performance issues, etc.
Ultimately, I created a structure for manager support in collaboration with my team. We each were assigned a group of managers to support and met them on a monthly basis.
There are several ways to go about structuring HR support for your managers, depending on the size of your HR team:
- By org: each HR rep supports all managers who fall under the same executive
- By department: an HR rep might support all of Sales and Operations, while another supports all of Marketing and Finance, while another supports all of Engineering and Product
- By job tier: an HR rep might support the executive team or senior directors and above, another might support junior and mid-level managers
- By region: an HR rep might support EMEA, one might support US and Canada, one to support South America
My team took a blended approach of 2 and 3. We had an HR team of 4 which we distributed to largely support by department, except for our VP who supported Senior Directors and above. This meant that each department had a senior-level leader who was supported by our VP of HR.
We took this approach in order to provide executives and senior leaders with support from a VP, who could communicate with them as a peer. The rest of the team was then able to deepen our knowledge of the departments we supported by becoming familiar with the wins and challenges of each function.
We found that having two HR reps essentially supporting each department was useful as we compared notes, experiences, and feedback.
What Worked About The People Partner Program
Overall, the program was impactful because it increased HR visibility for managers and helped them to support their growing teams. We were able to provide hands-on coaching to managers on how to handle staff issues.
Once we became the face of support and a point of contact, we heard from both the managers we supported and employees in their orgs much more frequently.
It allowed us to hear about performance issues earlier, communicate top-down business initiatives, and collect feedback about any recent changes.
Most essentially, we could proactively identify any pain points in a department and arrange for solutions such as additional training or procure approval for additional headcount.
On reflection, here are a few reasons why the program was a success:
We Were Transparent With Managers On The Goals
During my first meeting with managers about the program, I was clear and transparent on the goals I listed above. Most managers were receptive, saw that these meetings could benefit them and their teams, and, in many cases, were excited about having an additional layer of business support.
I Created A Monthly Agenda That I Distributed To My Team
We didn’t leave the contents of the manager’s meetings up to chance. On the first of each month, my HR team and I would meet to discuss the current happenings in the business, any important changes or initiatives to communicate and identify top priorities or top issues we wanted feedback on.
A sample template would look like this:
Agenda for People Partner Program for May
- Feedback on most recent Allhands, what worked and didn’t work?
- Priorities this month:
- Brand refresh goes live on the 15th—do you foresee any challenges to your team being ready?
- Launch of our new learning management system—let your team know it’s available for them to take courses
- Remind your team to take employee engagement survey so we can have high participation
This way, using a structured agenda, we could focus our efforts on current happenings in the business.
We Used These Meetings To Get Ahead Of Any Performance Issues
This was beneficial because, rather than a manager coming to me at the 11th hour saying they wanted to let someone go, we could start the conversation much earlier and ensure we provided an opportunity for early intervention on underperformance, and get ahead of any documentation necessary.
We Were Able To Design Solutions For Pain Points
An example is, during my ongoing meetings with the managers in Customer Success, a recurring theme emerged of a knowledge gap in our product. We were able to organize department-specific training with a member of the Product team for a learning session and Q&A.
What I’d Have Done Differently
Despite the overall success of the program, there are a few things I’d do differently:
I Wouldn’t Give The Same Amount Of time To Each Manager
Our original goal was to meet with each manager monthly. However, if a manager only had one or two team members, there truly wasn’t enough change on a monthly basis to warrant that cadence, and we found the meetings becoming stale and not as valuable. For those managers, we changed to a quarterly cadence. My suggestion is to ask the manager what level of support they need and what cadence they’d prefer. You can always adjust as necessary.
Avoid Rescheduling As Much As Possible
We have all been guilty of this—schedules get packed and people occasionally need to reschedule. However, if you treat a recurring meeting as nonessential, you run the risk of sending the message that you are de-prioritizing a manager and their team. If you really do not have significant updates and the manager is not in need of that level of support, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate the cadence of the meetings.
Not Allowing The Sessions To Become Venting Sessions
It’s common to run into an employee who is frustrated or having a negative experience. I try to quickly gauge if they’re looking for help or looking to be heard. If it’s the latter, lend an ear but be wary of regular venting moving into a territory that is non-constructive. A way to avoid this is to provide a more structured agenda as above.
Keep The Sessions Action-Oriented And Less About Collecting Opinions
I am always open to feedback and want to hear from the managers I support. However, I have fallen into the trap of just “collecting opinions”. A question such as, “Did you like the most recent AllHands?” isn’t necessarily helpful. A better question to ask is, “What worked and didn’t work about the most recent company Allhands?” This gives you an opportunity to collect feedback that you can put forward.
Share Findings At The Exec Level
If I were to do this program again, I'd prioritize creating a cadence of sharing results with the executive team.
In the best-case scenario, there is HR representation at the executive level, driving the people strategy for the business and representing the needs of the employees.
If this is not the case, one option is to have the most senior level team member of the HR team regularly attend executive meetings—for example once a month for 15 minutes—to share any significant results with senior leadership as a whole.
Another idea is to have each dedicated HR rep have a quarterly recurring meeting with the executive of the department they support for regular updates. I believe this component is critical to ensure that the feedback and findings are being directed to the best chance of enacting change: the top.
My team and I implemented the People Partner Program to scale HR support for a rapidly growing business. We found it was successful in strengthening relationships with managers, identifying gaps in departments, and creating consistent messaging for organizational goals.
I maintain that in order to drive performance and develop culture as an HR practitioner, the people you need the most buy-in from are your front-line managers.
Harvard Business Review states that approximately two-thirds of managers are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their work and workplace. If this is the case, how is this impacting the rest of your employees?
The business must create a partnership with its managers, and HR can be the builder of that bridge. This will ensure as your company continues to go through changes, your people will evolve along with it.