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How to earn a senior People role – Part 2: Understand your people, and find your agenda

Looking to take your People career to the next level? Then you’re in the right place. Over the course of this three-part series, we speak to a range of senior People and HR professionals, asking them what it takes to ‘level up’ a career in the People sphere. These are their answers.

In the first instalment of this series, we talked about escaping the trap of ‘Reactive HR’ and moving towards a more long-sighted People Strategy. This was the crucial shift required for professional progress – the ability to rise above the ‘white noise’ of running a small business and deliver the changes that make a real difference.

But knowing exactly where to turn your new focus is not always obvious.

According to the People and HR professionals we interviewed, plotting that route forward often meant going back to first principles. What had drawn them to a career in People in the first place?

For many, the answer lay in a desire to help others to do great work.

“I see my role at Adzuna as being to create an environment where people can do amazing work. That’s how I create the biggest benefits for the company.” Ellie Laycock-Heavens, Head of People at Adzuna.

We heard this sentiment echoed time and time again during our research – it’s a mission statement that serves as a useful ‘north star’ for professionals in this role. Once you have that end goal in mind, your path is much clearer.

But even still – helping others 'do great work’ is a wide, wide remit.

Where do you even begin?

First – find your agenda

Before you can deliver the change your company needs, you need to know what change is required.

“If you want to create a ‘great place to work’, then you need to really understand who you have working at your business. You can’t create the conditions for people to produce amazing work without first understanding them as people. Use a generic, one-size-fits-all approach and you’ll get generic performance." Ellie Laycock-Heavens, Head of People at Adzuna.

Before you can begin your work, you need an agenda – and this process starts with talking to your team.  

“The first thing I did when I joined my company was to have an off-the-record chat with everyone in the organisation. If you run a startup or a company of up to 40-ish people, then take advantage of that – there’s no excuse for not knowing exactly what is going on." Lottie Whyte, Head of People at Hanbury Strategy.
"Once you know the problems you face, then you have an agenda.”

The first step in this process is to put in place a system of regular one-to-ones – the best cadence will depend on the size of your company but once a month is a good place to start.

Remember – these conversations are exploratory, not prescriptive. Use open-ended questions, and you’ll be surprised by what you uncover.

  • ‘What is holding you back at work?’
  • ‘What would make your day-to-day life easier?’

It can be natural for people to feel nervous when discussing work or their colleagues, so start these conversations from a basis of confidentiality. Remind them that you are ultimately here to help them make progress – not trip them up.

And let your agenda find you

Remember – these one to one conversations are the beginning of a process, not the end. The end goal is to incubate a culture where team members are happy to bring you their challenges, rather than you needing to seek them out.

Your role becomes much simpler when this information finds its way to you naturally.

Data is your ally

Talking to your staff is only the beginning. One to one chats will teach you a lot about your people, but it won’t tell you everything. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Anonymous feedback is honest feedback

There will always be feedback that people will prefer to give anonymously – no matter how open you are to difficult conversations.

“A recent staff survey told us that 30% of our employees feel they don’t have a good work/life balance. This was really surprising, and we want to unpack it further. We didn’t think we had a culture of presenteeism at all, so this wasn’t expected.” Anonymous HR Manager, 50 team members.  
  • You need the full picture

One to one conversations are incredibly valuable for the insight they give into your team’s day to day life. But they are also an inherently ‘narrow’ source of data, that doesn’t always present the big picture on a particular issue.

Using data allows you to view People issues in the macro, rather than just the micro.

  • Numbers cut through the noise
“In order to have good conversations with the executive team you need to have data. Everyone has opinions on People issues– but to cut through the perceptions you need numbers. The better your analytics, the easier it is to think of real solutions and make strategically useful decisions." Valerie Mann, Head of People at Mention Me.

People issues are never black and white – and the subjective nature of the challenges you identify can be a real roadblock. Data gives you a way to cut through any debate with cold, hard numbers.

The best metrics for an HR dashboard

So, we know that good People Strategy begins with understanding the problems that your team faces – and we know that the best way to get a handle of those problems is with data. But which what metrics do we include on our HR dashboard? Which numbers can we trust?

  • Employee churn/employee turnover

This is perhaps the most widely known metric in the world of HR, and for good reason – it serves as a great indicator of the ‘health’ of a company’s workforce. Is employee turnover trending upwards over time? If so, that’s a strong sign that you haven’t created a work environment people feel they can thrive in.

  • Revenue per employee

This is an important number for obvious reasons. Look at your company revenue over the financial year, and track it against your current headcount - how does that number stack up against previous years?

If it’s going down, then that could be an indication that something isn’t right.

  • Holidays taken / untaken

If you want your team to do great work, then regular and timely holidays are an important component of that. Having a clear overview of your team’s time off allows you to identify a team member who might be at risk of burning out.

  • Sick days and illness

A pattern of repeat absences can often indicate that all isn’t right with a team member. It might be a sign they are pushing themselves too hard, that things aren’t going well at home – or even an issue with their mental health. Whatever it is, having a clear overview of sick days taken gives you the chance to ask that question and offer support if it is needed.

  • ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score)

A ‘Net Promoter Score’ is a metric traditionally used to measure customer loyalty. It asks customers to rate their likelihood to recommend a product or service to a friend out of ten.

An Employee Net Promoter Score takes the same principle and applies it to the question of employee engagement. To run an ENPS survey, you simply need to ask your employees this question:

How likely are you to recommend this company to a friend as a place to work?”.

There are a variety of software options out there that can run this for you, but even a DIY Typeform could do the trick.

The beauty of an ENPS survey is its simplicity – it gives you a single number that you can track clearly over time, and the brevity of the survey means that it tends to yield a high response rate.

  • Staff engagement surveys

Data on sick days and holidays taken are important, but those numbers really only tell you if someone is in the room or not. They don’t speak to how that person feels about their work, their role or their future at the business.

This is where engagement surveys come into their own. Many different types of HR software now offer features that help you to keep a finger on the pulse of your employee engagement, happiness and loyalty.

An option like Peakon, for example, allows you to collate large amounts of data to help you measure, track and assess how your people are doing at work.

"Peakon gives us access to a huge amount of data about our team, and helps open up lines of communication between team members and managers." Hannah Grinsted, Head of People at Bud.

However, data with that much depth is potentially overwhelming for someone just get started with their HR metrics. In that case, an option like Charlie's own Polls feature might be more useful.

Reading the data

If you can open up a dialogue with your team and start tracking at least a few of these metrics, then you should be able to put together a picture of the challenges your team faces at work.

But always remember… Surveys must be acted on.

“Engagement surveys are great – but the caveat is that if you do a survey then you have to act on it… if you don’t, then morale will just plummet again, and will end up lower than it was beforehand." Matt Hurst-Smith, Head of People at Founders Pledge.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many surveys you run, how many metrics you track or how many one to ones you schedule. The true value of the People function lies in not just identifying problems, but communicating those problems to the wider business and then delivering solutions.

But you can’t deliver these solutions on your own. To do it, you’re going to need buy-in.

You need buy-in from your fellow colleagues and team members. But most importantly, you’re going to need buy-in from the senior leadership team.

In the final instalment of this series, we’ll show you how to get it.

CharlieHR builds software to help small businesses thrive. From tracking time off, running performance reviews or keeping tabs on employee engagement, Charlie provides everything you need to manage your people – all in one place.

You can try it free today by clicking here.