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3 Tips for Leading Through Change

January 14, 2020
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Want a career to keep you on your toes? Human resources might be a good place to start.

Change comes with the territory. You’ll need to navigate acquisitions, IPOs, upsizing, downsizing, and everything in between — not just for your team, but for employees at large. That might be why a recent study ranked HR as one of the most stressful professions.

Navigating change is hard, so don’t go it alone. Here are some proven strategies shared by HR professionals at Lattice’s recent Resources for Humans Live event.

1. Don’t lose sight of culture.

Company culture’s importance isn’t news to anyone in HR. But in the face of steep hiring goals, IPOs, or acquisitions, it can easily get lost in the shuffle. If you know change is coming, take the time to formalize your culture and values so that you don’t lose sight of what makes your company great.

Beth Karlsson, Pinterest’s Head of Talent, didn’t want the then-private company’s identity to slip through the cracks. Ahead of its IPO last year, she knew it was time to put pen to paper. The company needed a cultural compass to inform everything from hiring decisions to corporate programs. “We sat down with our CEO and the rest of the leadership team to create our core principles,” she said.

The exercise paid dividends, giving the company a means of gut checking every big initiative or decision moving forward. “Having a place to go back to pass decisions through was hugely helpful in grounding ourselves,” she said.

Preserving culture in the face of change isn’t always the challenge teams face. Sometimes you need to figure out how to get two pre-existing cultures to gel. In the case of an acquisition, the term “culture clash” might even come to mind.

It’s a dynamic Tami Rosen, Chief People Officer at Luminar Technologies, is more than familiar with. Prior to Luminar, she was an HR leader at both Apple and Goldman Sachs — two businesses that together account for over 100 acquisitions. The biggest mistake company leaders make is to get lost in the “dollar and cents” of the deal, not the “people, the purpose, and the integration,” she said.

“Take the extra time to make sure that you understand the culture of the company you're buying,” she said. Finding commonalities between your two cultures could be key to winning employees’ hearts and minds. That’s especially important when dealing with managers, directors, and other leadership, since trust often trickles down the org chart.

“[They’re] the glue of the company you just bought...Think about how you get those leaders integrated into your company first. Because if you get them integrated, they're going to get their teams along for the ride,” she said.

2. Embrace process — especially in recruiting.

Early-stage startups aren’t known for having a lot of HR processes in place. When you reach hyper-growth status, playing it fast and loose with talent acquisition isn’t practical. It’s time to trade in those casual coffee interviews for a structured recruiting process. That means using applicant tracking systems, setting formalized interview stages, and leveraging templates for job descriptions, email outreach, and more.

Prior to Pinterest, Karlsson saw firsthand how important doing so was at Apple. Fifteen years ago, she started with the tech giant just as it started scaling its retail operations. There were just over a hundred Apple Stores back then. Today, Apple operates 500-plus stores across 24 countries.

For Apple’s HR team, it was sink or swim — and operationalizing the company’s recruiting funnel was the only way to stay afloat. “We were hiring hundreds of people a month, even 400 to 600 people a month...You have to really have incredibly tight recruiting operations,” Karlsson said. That trial by fire later helped her scale Pinterest’s staff from 200 to 2,000 over just two years.

That focus on recruiting efficiency doesn’t mean eschewing culture fit. Nathalie McGrath, formerly the VP of People at Coinbase, helped come up with a list of behaviors for her interviewers to look for. “Be curious” was one, as was “bring positive energy.” The exercise didn’t just help answer what “culture fit” meant for recruiting, it gave Coinbase a chance to look inward and pin down its identity.

“Fundamentally, I believe that culture is a combination of behaviors, decisions, and values that exist within an organization,” she said. McGrath rolled out behaviors with a training program led by the company’s head of recruiting and CEO. In conjunction with that training, her team also rolled out a set of standard questions that interviewers could use when evaluating candidates.

For the cryptocurrency software company, the investment in process and training came with big returns. McGrath and her recruiting team grew Coinbase’s headcount from 250 to 750 employees in just one year.

3. Lean on managers and leadership.

Leading through change, good or bad, isn’t a one person job. Though companies often pin it on HR departments, change management is a company-wide effort. That’s what your managers and executive team are there for.

“When you’re growing and scaling, you’re no longer able to hold your entire team accountable. You have to depend on your managers and your leaders,” McGrath said. That’s largely why her company made manager training such a priority early on. Smaller startups, which often abound with “green” or first-time managers, stand to benefit from programs like that.

But depending on managers to help employees navigate change doesn’t mean leaving them out in the cold. It’s important to trust and equip them with the information they need. Without that kind of transparency, you won’t just lose face with leaders, but their direct reports as well. That’s something McGrath has seen play out firsthand.

“You find that if employees go to their managers and they don't know what's happening...they start to lose trust in their managers. Making sure your management layer has as much information as quickly as possible is really important,” she said.

Transparency means transparency. Stretching the truth or being evasive with managers is going to cause unnecessary problems. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it pays to be forthright. Saying “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” won’t ultimately shake managers’ faith in your team. That honesty isn’t just a best practice for HR teams — it’s an approach managers should emulate in their own day-to-day work with direct reports.

“If you tell us the good, the bad, and whatever the ugly may be, we can deal with it. But if you go out there and you give a line or you spin a story, it will come back and it will haunt you and it will be harder to come back and get that trust again from your people,” said Rosen, recalling her time at Goldman during the 2008 financial crisis. “They're going to look to you and your HR team for the source of truth and reason,” she said.



We’ve all heard the cliché about opportunity and change. But here’s the thing: It’s true. Unexpected turns really do lead to growth. Pinterest’s IPO made that patently clear to Karlsson. “I think that was a moment of heat and crunch for us as an organization. We were able to grow something really powerful and important for the company,” she said.

Change fosters growth. But just as importantly, it creates lasting bonds and unlikely friendships. “There's something about human dynamics and human behavior when you go through something really hard,” McGrath said. She regularly grabs dinner with past coworkers, now close friends — some of whom she occasionally butted heads with.

Upheaval can frustrate or energize, divide or unite. But it might have been Karlsson who most aptly described its power.

“In moments of high change and heat, great gems are born,” she said.