When should you hire a CHRO?

People will make or break your startup’s success. And attracting, developing and retaining talent has never been more critical – nor more challenging. Knowing this all too well, Babu Vittal recently joined RTP Global as the firm’s first People and HR Practice Leader to help our portfolio companies navigate these tricky times. 

Given his wealth of experience, and having been recently recognized as one of the Top 10 Chief Human Resources Officers (CHRO) in the Economic Times, we caught up with Babu to hear his advice for founders as they think about their People strategies, hiring their first CHRO, and the future of work. 

Babu, tell us about you and your career highlights

I have been working in HR and People teams for just over 22 years now, and have spent the majority of my career in various ‘Head of’ and senior HR roles at tech startups. To date, I’ve been part of three billion dollar journeys – at Flipkart, Shopclues and Vedantu – which is something I’m incredibly proud of and has helped me become the HR leader I am today. In each of these companies, I played an integral role in building teams, developing leaders and shaping the culture. 

Prior to joining RTP Global, I was the CHRO at Ula, an e-commerce startup with Series B funding, based in Southeast Asia. Suffice to say, I have a lot of experience with working with founding teams at early stage startups and enjoy drawing upon those experiences to advise other leaders on their People strategies. 

What do you consider to be the top three HR challenges startups face today?

The top three challenges I see founding teams come up against today are: 

  1. Job security. There is an underlying fear among employees, at all levels, as layoffs happen across the tech industry and are widely reported in the news. 
  2. Inconsistencies in working environments. Since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, startups are having to consider whether they adopt a remote-first or office-first approach for their staff. Or if they opt for a hybrid approach. Each approach has its benefits and flaws, but by exhibiting a strong preference towards one specific way of working and not providing clarity on those specifics can quickly lead to discomfort among employees. 
  3. Change without communication. Frequent changes in employee policies and practices with minimal communication on ‘why’ the changes are happening lead to a speedy decline of trust index. 

Failure to address these challenges will see founders and their leaders struggling to retain talent, as employees start looking elsewhere.

So how do you propose leaders overcome those challenges? 

I think the most important thing is to be transparent with what’s happening within the organization. Articulate changes to working environments with clarity. And listen to your employees – either via regular employee surveys, appraisals and reviews, and by providing easy and regular feedback loops between managers and their direct reports.

Founders often ask “when should I hire a CHRO or a Chief People Officer?”. What are your thoughts?

It’s a tricky question. But there are signs we can look for, such as: 

  • When the founding team starts to include non-founding members
  • When employees within the startup reach their 1+ year tenure
  • When the goals become audacious and the founders’ time becomes scarce
  • When the People agenda becomes part of the company’s top three business priorities
  • When the next round of funding is imminent 
  • When people governance takes the center stage

Employee headcount is just a number so I wouldn’t recommend drawing the line based on the headcount. Instead, a combination of one or more of the factors above is probably the right time to look for a senior hire in the HR function. 

How do you think HR will change in the next few years?

Ultimately, the fundamentals will remain the same: listening, clarifying, responding and being transparent. This will not change. But there are a few things founders and leaders can do to set themselves up for success in the future.

Firstly, have the HR team reporting into the founder who can send the right message across the organization. Knowing what’s happening on the ground is a time tested methodology to maneuver any challenges in the business. 

Secondly, think about how a leaner HR team with greater focus on meaningful engagement would start evolving. Consider what you can outsource to achieve this leaner team. 

Lastly, update your tech stack. Adopt technologies that can reduce your manual workload. As a leader, your most important resource is ‘time’. Find the right technologies that enable you to analyze employee behaviors and help you spend more time communicating with, and listening to, your employees. 

Finally, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give to founding teams as they think about their HR strategy?

Clarify the vision of the organization to every member of the team. Vision binds everyone together and clarity keeps them going.