Working at a start-up is hardly a cake-walk. Growing pains, miscommunications, and disappointments can make for a pressure-cooker atmosphere. Chat at noon today with Debra Woog about how best to grapple with the workplace problems that start-ups often face. Debra is Director of People Strategy at Cambridge Incubator, where she directs the development of the firm’s professional staff.
The following is a (slightly edited) transcript of the chat, which occurred on June 22, 2000.
Moderator Thanks, Debra for joining us. Let’s start off with what you do. Exactly what is “People Strategy?”
People Strategy is “human resources” plus. The plus is conflict resolution advising and community building across our member companies.
What do you find the hardest thing to do in a start up company?
Irast)y, I have found one of the biggest challenges is getting all the members of the start-up aligned to one vision
What’s unique about your own HR strategy at Cambridge Incubator?
CI believes that people are our most critical, differentiating, and valuable resource. We try to align all of our management choices with that philosophy.
Can you be more specific on the “vision”?
Vision is what everyone at the company hopes to achieve. Usually a company is founded by one or a few people with an idea that excites them. As the company grows and the team responds to the market, the vision may change among the group. The trick is staying on the same page.
How do you rally the troops when morale is low?
A lot of listening and a lot of expressing the strategy and the reasons why the company is working toward those goals. Celebrating success of the past and the ones we’re shooting for.
How do you feel about bringing in ideas/concepts of working strategies/visions from previous companies you worked at?
JS320, great ideas come from all sorts of sources. I bring them from my experience, I make them up fresh, and I encourage everyone at CI to do both.
As an employer, how much should you devote to long-term personal growth for your employees in an environment where the focus is on getting things done right away?
Otis, this is a great question. The key is balance. It’s difficult to prescribe an exact proportion, but development is a motivator. Development should always be a piece of the plan.
How do you celebrate success with your employees?
K, recognition is wonderful. Some people like private recognition, and others like public. When celebrating the success of individuals, I try to find out which they prefer and recognize them according to their preferred style. At CI we also do lots of group celebration.
What’s the right amount of stock/ownership to offer a really key player to keep him happy? I don’t want to loose this person, but I don’t want to give too much of the company away, either. I’m afraid too low an offer will insult him.
Fastdog, rewarding employees, which in a start-up environment often includes equity, is one of the most challenging issues. The “right amount” depends on many factors, including your hiring plan, your total number of outstanding shares, and how “key” you believe this individual is to your company’s success. Ask the employee open ended questions and let him know you’ll consider his interests as much as possible as you make your decision for your company.
Tell about the work you do.
I manage a terrific team. I serve on the Coordination Team for CI, helping to shape the strategy for the company. I coach employees. I help to resolve differences when they come up. I listen and create. I help people develop by partnering with them to direct their career paths.
I also have my own coaching practice called connect2.
My boyfriend recently started working with a start-up and it is just a chaotic mess. Any advice for someone living with a start-up employee?
My advice is to communicate a lot with your partner. Discuss up front, at the beginning of this job, what your shared values are. Write them down, and revisit that piece of paper when things get tough. This will help keep you on track together. The start-up life is a challenge personally!
Debra, How important is conflict resolution and how much does it impact you and the culture of your company on a daily basis?
searchforbalance, I believe it’s important for an organization to have a known channel for conflict resolution. Just having the place to go helps employees resolve small issues before they get big. At CI, having this resource enables, I hope, our culture to an open one where people share ideas, respect each other as professionals, and grow in the process.
I am barely familiar with your personnel at CI. one thing that strikes me is the fact that most of CI has its roots at the same school and probably shares quite similar backgrounds. even CI’s latest employment postings seek more like-backgrounded individuals (boston.com). all of the personnel are quite remarkable, but are you concerned that too many similarities may limit your future vision?
I am a huge proponent of diversity as a business strategy. People often recruit people from places they know because they are most comfortable. I agree this has been a challenge for us. When we were first building the business, we accessed talent from places we knew. Now that we are growing and have an active Talent Acquisition Group, we have the resources and the focus to seek people from a much wider variety of experiences and backgrounds. Our diversity will be a critical success factor for us!
What’s the difference between Human Resources and People Strategy. Isn’t it all the same thing?
Traditional Human Resources conjures images of a department that’s not tied into the corporate strategy. I used a new name for this area when I joined CI because I wanted to send the message, within the company and externally, that we’re doing something different and special here. At CI, people strategy is a combination of traditional H.R. practices with a strong focus on company morale, internal culture, and building community across our member companies.
I am in a startup (my third) and I am having trouble getting my team to cope with our changes in strategy. Any suggestions for keeping them informed but not rocking the boat?
DirectionFinder, where possible, I suggest you seek input from your team on the changes in strategy as they are created rather than after. Getting buy-in from your team is as important as informing them.
My experience with start-ups is that there is little an organization can do to preserve the unique communal/familial/fraternal feel that a 15-40 member organization can have once the organization’s numbers get into triple digits. Do you agree or disagree? How many members does your company have? How have you observed this change take place over time and what, if anything, have you done to address it? Is it even worth addressing?
start-up geek, we have about 100 members of our community now, including our 5 member companies. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out here. It’s natural that a company culture will change as the company grows. It takes constant attention from all aspects of leadership to create a culture that attracts and retains terrific people. We are addressing this issue through lots of communication, formal and informal, all over the community about what we want this place to be like.
I have been working with a start-up for six months as Director Sales and Marketing…I was employee number 4. We seem to be going through our first real shakeout as we have had our first resignations. Any advice on how to make newcomers to a small start up environment feel more comfortable.
JMK, I suggest creating a “welcome process” at your business. One idea – start a tradition where you send out an email announcement on every employee’s first day announcing who they are and their experience, and the other members of the company email that person with welcome notes. I once worked at a 200 person company that did something similar and through this tradition I met a person who ten years later is one of my close friends. One of the things we do at CI when a new employee starts (and this may sound trivial) is have a plant waiting for them at their desk. People stop by the new person’s desk to check out the plant and conversation begins.
My issue is attracting talented people. How do you differentiate yourself from all of the other PRE IPO’s out there? Besides the obvious (internet, advertising, etc.), are there any recruiting techniques that have been successful for you? I feel I’ve turned over every rock in Boston!
Knowledge worker, two of the most successful recruiting techniques are a) an attractive culture and b) employee referral. If people like where they work, they’ll tell their friends. We offer valuable prizes to employees who refer great talent that we hire.
M do you know of any new technologies that exist that are critical to uncovering and analyzing problems in the workforce before they affect a company’s bottom line?
M, I think the best way to uncover and analyze problems is through human attention. No computer can replace the value of listening to your community. In addition to having me as a Conflict Resolution Advisor at CI, we have CI Town Meetings, staff meetings and other communication vehicles. We also offer an Employee Assistance Program, a 24 hour, confidential resource for anyone dealing with a personal problem that could affect them at work.
Hi Debra, Does CI help plan the people strategy of startups in general or just CI?
Dawn, at CI we work with our member companies exclusively. Through my coaching practice connect2 (connecttwo.com) I work with other entrepreneurs. CI is sponsoring with boston.com, the .competition – an opportunity for a winning new start-up to receive the benefit of CI’s advice.
I will likely be joining a B2B site start-up any ideas on how to attract the right people for a Public Relations team?
BJames, There are lots of talented PR professionals in the Boston area, because this is a hub for agencies. The best thing to do is make sure you have a business they would WANT to promote, then reach out to senior, talented individuals in agencies, or at start-ups who have had success in PR. Networking is an excellent tool for job seekers as well as employee seekers. Use recruiters who specialize in PR and marketing (PR people go to them).
Debra, you mentioned that you have your own people strategy business, can you tell me more about this please?
Rosie, I coach independent professionals and entrepreneurs. In my coaching practice, I’m especially interested in helping people become successful (whatever that means to them) around work/life balance issues. My web site is at https://www.connecttwo.com/
Debra, thanks for joining us. Debra Woog is Director of People Strategy at Cambridge Incubator, where she directs the development of the firm’s professional staff. Cambridge Incubator is co-sponsoring our Boston.competition business plan. Be sure to check out details at http://www.digitalmass.com/competition
Thanks for the great questions! Goodbye.