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How to Scale Staff and Set Priorities for Rapid Business Growth (Episode 65)

Most people in Andrew Bartlow’s industry are office managers or recruiters who have stumbled into human resources. Andrew found his way in through a formative experience in high school. There was an organized 3 year labor strike of auto workers in his hometown of East Peoria, Illinois. It was on the front page of the Peoria Journal Star every day for three years, and he learned about labor negotiators, the impact that human resources could have on a company, a community, and all of its workers.

From this passion, Andrew chose to pursue law school, got into Cornell and Northwestern, took a bunch of negotiation classes, and found that just down the road, the University of Illinois had the top Labor and Employment Relations Program in the world.

He never looked back.

Fortunately, he was part of a great program in the mid-90’s, which meant company interest was a hot market. As he was completing grad school, he had several internships – one with Cummins, one with General Mills, and ended up taking on a full-time job with Pepsi.

At the time, Pepsi was known as the top human resources function in the world – a huge opportunity for someone so captivated with the industry. He worked with Pepsi for three or four years, taking on four or five jobs during that time. This was part of why they were so well-known for HR – they weren’t afraid to scale staff and move them around which meant employees got an accelerated experience.

At 23 years old, Andrew had the opportunity to become head of HR for a startup that went international, funded by KKR, McKinsey and Deloitte.

Like so many other startups during the .com boom and bust, most of their clients were in the tech space. They busted, and then went belly up. They grew from 20 people to 120, and then down to zero. He laid everybody off, laid himself off, flew back to reality, and took a job at General Electric in Chicago.

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Scale Staff For Success

Living in the Bay Area, Andrew found himself in the cradle of startup culture. He’s been part of the high-growth culture for 15 years or so, and the human resources management of those organizations. He brought with him the academy experience of the great masters, education, and the Pepsi and GE experience.

Within the startup community, if it’s not big name tech, if Google didn’t do it, they don’t care. If Wells Fargo did it, they want to do the opposite, because they don’t want to be like those big stodgy, old, slow bureaucratic companies. Andrew noticed a gap, a need, where the avoidance of some tried and true practices that could really help some small companies was destroying them.

He started trying to elevate some of the management practices at these high growth companies,  which is when he dove into content versus context.

Why shouldn’t startups model companies like Google?

That was the big question. Unfortunately, there is often a detrimental pride that comes with creating a startup, which leads to throwing away the old rules because “they don’t matter anymore.”

The reality is, some of the old rules, processes and frameworks still work. There’s no such thing as a best practice. It all depends on your own context, so whatever worked for Google might have worked for them in the moment, and whatever works for Facebook works for them in the moment, but simply copy and pasting trendy principles won’t mean a company will have the same results.

There’s a real risk in taking someone else’s content and shifting it into your context without applying some critical thinking.

It’s a balance: you can’t throw out the ideas of the old economy without at least considering it, and likewise, you can’t just apply the practices of some big successful company.

If you’re looking to grow a business fast, you need to be documenting the processes. If you’re scaling staff, you need to know what your processes are, and that needs to be communicated to the rest of the team. For small companies, it can be difficult to find the resources to document their processes. Some policies might be getting tweaked every 10 minutes as your business changes and evolves.

Fast, sustainable growth is driven by your operating practices and how you choose to manage and run your organization.

Pillars of People Leader Accelerator

Andrew, with his team at Series B Consulting, have created a training program to help professionals who are working in a rapidly changing work environment. Here are a few of the pillars they built this program on:

  • Context over Content

Again, there’s no such thing as a “best practice.” Be really cautious about lifting and shifting. Don’t just do things to keep up with the Joneses.

  • Have a Plan, and Expect the Plan to Evolve

The second pillar is to have a plan – full stop. Have a plan, and then expect that plan to evolve. There can be a strong reluctance within startups to commit to a plan, to a goal, or anything solid. There’s a fear that if something is written down, and the team can’t achieve it, then the employees will quit, the investors will move on, and the business will dry up. It’s not necessary to have a strict rule or policy for every single thing in order to develop highly productive people. But how are they supposed to know what they should be working on if leadership doesn’t have clarity at the top?

  • Master Only the Basics

It’s really easy to get distracted by bright, shiny objects and novel practices, and in the land of startups you’re constantly reading the latest HBR articles, attending investor meetings with other CEOs, and in general interacting with people doing cool things.

For startups that are in high growth, high tech change, high stress environments with limited resources while also trying to scale staff, choices and sacrifices must be made. You have to ruthlessly prioritize – you might have a novel product or a novel service, but you don’t need to create a novel organizational system to run the company. Instead, choose to become really good at the fundamentals.

Tools of the Trade

Effective tools are a necessary requirement for the job. In this industry, you aren’t stamping out widgets. The teams need Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and email. So much of the work happens via collaboration and teamwork that collaboration tools like Zoom and Dropbox have become essentials.

One of Andrew’s favorites is Calendly, which allows people to book time on a set calendar and immediately sets them up with a zoom invitation.

Google Drive is fantastic for easily sharing content with everyone. This tool in particular has become a core item, especially when teams are divided all over a nation, or even globally.

Human Resources in Remote Work

Remote work, or working from home, is one of the most popular topics to date. There’s a lot of interest in it. Like all things pandemic-related, the consequences can be both good and bad. There’s higher stress levels being created by remote work simply because people are working more time. It’s much more difficult to set boundaries, and even though there’s no commute, zoom fatigue has become its own beast.

People are sick. People have lost loved ones. Kids are not yet fully back to normal school. There’s a lot going on.

On the bright side, employee mental health is getting a lot of attention. The real question is, how relevant will that ultimately be?

Once we get through the pandemic, there’ll be a transition into a new normal. Kids will go back to school, illness and the need for social distancing will decrease, but in a remote and distributed environment, the mental health aspect will at least remain, though it didn’t make Andrew’s top 3 list.

The New Workforce

Companies still need to attract and retain good workers, and there are some tremendous advantages to this new distributed world. Employers, instead of looking down the block or within an hour commute of their office, can look around the world for workers.

For workers, it’s no longer expected to move/live in a high-cost, high-tax, small quarters, high density city to get a good job. You can stay in your little hometown, close to your parents or community, and continue to receive help in raising your family. You can live a completely different life than you could before.

Andrew predicts that there will be a decentralization away from cities, and employers will need to decide if forcing people back into the office is worth losing good talent. The candidates, or employees, have more power than the employers today.

To make sure communication is evolving with new work situations, there’ll be more attention on performance management and productivity feedback.

For quality consultation services on fast growing start-ups, scaling people, and rapidly evolving companies, you can learn more about Andrew, his team, and their resources on their Series B Consulting website.

Recently, he’s collaborated with Brad Harris on a guide book (Scaling for Success) for leaders looking to scale, while still retaining all of the necessary, fundamental parts of their organization.

For more content like this, check out The Jeff Bullas Show for interviews with other experts in the industry.

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