From 15+ years in HR at well-structured FMCGs to fast-paced, ever-changing startups
Kitty: Tell me a bit more about your career journey. How did you end up in HR, people and culture and was it what you expected?
Nina: I am Nina Gillego and I’ve been in HR for the last 23 years. The bulk of my career was in the FMCG industry for around 16-17 years and everything I knew about HR, I learned from there. The last 5-6 years were spent with startups so it was actually a major leap for me, moving from a traditional and more structured organisation to a startup. I rose through the ranks as I started as an HR Assistant in a Retail company back in early 2000 (that gives away my age!) and currently working for a FinTech company as VP for People.
The path was not really a straight line. It was bumpy along the way and at some point I even assessed if HR really is what I wanted as a career or as a profession. But as the years go by and opportunities present themselves, you realize that you're starting to learn and love the profession. So you just have to believe in yourself, believe in your capabilities, and regardless of where life takes you, your capabilities as a person will lead towards success.
Kitty: HR really does have an impact on people, not just professionally, but personally, because it touches their livelihoods. It's interesting talking to people who've come from a very structured, established environment with all the processes, and then you join a startup, I guess you’d know what it's like on both sides?
It took me time to accept the ways of working in a startup because it's really different. In a traditional setup, changes are not as constant. But when you’re in a startup, changes occur weekly.
Nina: It took me some time to accept the ways of working in a startup because it's really different. In a traditional setup, changes are not as constant. But when you’re in a startup, changes occur weekly. Implementing a change over six months is already considered a long time. In a startup, you have to be able to keep up with a fast-paced environment. So it was difficult for me to move from that traditional, structured scenario to an entirely different setup.
When it comes to change management, experience is everything (your own and that of employees)
Kitty: In that transition, if you look back and reflect on the five or six years you've been in a startup, what support gaps do you see or what support do you wish you had back then?
Nina: I'm lucky to have had the right experience at the time because I'd been in a structured set up for 15-16 years. When I moved to a startup, I was able to impart the knowledge, skills and competencies I had in the past. The reason why I was hired for that startup was because the leader was young at that time and needed support. That's why it was very enticing for me, because I knew I could make a difference.
Change management is the most complex and toughest role of HR. You don't become a good change manager overnight or by attending a course for it. You need to experience it firsthand.
The best teacher is always experience. Change management is the most complex and toughest role of HR. You don't become a good change manager overnight or by attending a course for it. You need to experience it firsthand. There isn't a single change management approach that is applicable to all organisational changes. It must be customised, tailored based on the company's demographics, target audience, the content of your communication plan and the approach in communicating the change. All of these can’t be acquired overnight, it takes time before you get the skills and the competencies.
At the centre of it all, HR professionals should look into a single question. We need to ask ourselves, how do I make our employees understand and embrace the change? Having that insight isn't something that you acquire overnight. HR needs to be fully immersed in the business to really hear and feel the pulse of the employees. You need to get to the core of it and see which approach shapes the best impact. This will become your compass as you work on implementing a good change management plan.
It's imperative for seasoned HR leaders to consciously and deliberately create that space for budding HR practitioners, because yours may not be sufficient to guide them and navigate the implications of doing change management. Crafting the best change management strategy starts with fully understanding your employees. I guess that's what the HR leaders and the startup organisations should also realise. They have to be there, they have to be present if they want to create a truly effective change management plan for the organisation.
Using restructuring to rebuild the talent strategy, identify change champions and execute a strong talent development plan
Kitty: You mentioned having that understanding and exposure and visibility to the business. I don't know if you've observed the same, but I feel like with startups, they see HR as a support function rather than a strategic function. It's a service provider to the business rather than a strategic partner to help allocate and deploy human capital.
When it comes to a major event like a restructuring or a reorg, how can HR professionals use that as a moment to be more strategic?
Nina: HR must be a major contributor in the change management strategy. HR must understand at the onset, HR’s purpose and the role in rolling out a good plan. There isn't any department in a company that understands their people better than HR, because you have the ability to immediately determine gaps and find solutions to bridge them, while striking a balance between management imperatives and employee preferences.
At the initial stages, HR needs to build a strong talent strategy that will prepare the company and develop the right people capabilities. Sometimes this is missed because HR is left out and are only pulled in at the end. But if we really want to make it effective, HR should be there at the start. Talent development should not be an output of a change management strategy or a plan. It needs to work side-by-side. So HR has to be there at the beginning, at the onset.
Also, leaders are key in ensuring that there is success in change management because they have the largest scope of influence in the company. A well-selected team of change champions should also be in place.These people will definitely help us penetrate through the organisation at different levels.
Implementing a TD plan is a long-term commitment. Employees do not embrace new tasks or new roles or new expectations in a week or two, it takes time. Therefore, HR needs to be mindful of the employee’s headspace and pace; and religiously monitor the employee’s progress, tracking them along the way until the employee is able to adjust well.
The other one is talent development. Execution of a good talent development plan is critical. A good TD plan is worthless if it isn't executed well. Implementing a TD plan is a long-term commitment. Employees do not embrace new tasks or new roles or new expectations in a week or two, it takes time. Therefore, HR needs to be mindful of the employee’s headspace and pace; and religiously monitor the employee’s progress, tracking them along the way until the employee is able to adjust well. It's where we can be more strategic as HR so we’re not just regarded as admin people.
Kitty: There's that misperception.
Nina: That's the misconception about HR. But we are more than that, and we need to be able to prove it to our stakeholders.
Kitty: I guess it's like how finance used to be a support or a back office function, but now you have the CEO, CFO, and (hopefully) CHRO as the holy trinity of an effective organisation.
How intentional L&D post-restructuring helps reshape the culture and mould employees in new roles
Kitty: It's interesting that you mentioned talent development as the third pillar. So just to double click on people development, where do you see the role of learning for a startup? In a mature organisation, disruption is the thing that happens every now and then, but in a startup, disruption is every week, every month. It's like the baseline state of existence for a startup. What is the role of learning in all that?
When you work for a startup, it’s inevitable you’re expected to perform tasks which might be beyond what you know or can do. There are a lot of opportunities to learn in a startup organisation, and it’s where HR, particularly learning and development, may be vital.
Nina: When you work for a startup, it’s inevitable you’re expected to perform tasks which might be beyond what you know or can do. There are a lot of opportunities to learn in a startup organisation, and it’s where HR, particularly learning and development, may be vital. L&D has the opportunity to build a culture of learning by encouraging startup employees to acquire the necessary skills and competencies to perform the job better and remain competitive. I see that employees in a startup organisation are like sponges. They’ll excitedly take in anything new (as long as they are given the proper guidance and support in all areas). May it be in talent development, in total rewards, or probably just management support. So L&D should take this as an opportunity because this is our chance to really mould our employees.
Kitty: L&D would look different for organisations of different shapes or sizes or geographies. So for a HR leader who's starting out and is not sure how to allocate resources, where do you see the bang for buck or the impact if they're deciding where to put their money when it comes to learning?
Nina: First, Start-ups may prioritize investing on their Leaders first. In my observation, most startup companies look at the softskills vs number of work experience in determining the Leaders of their organization. But it is important that Management/ Executives have a good mix of experts and young Leaders to create a balance between traditions and innovation.
Our Leaders are the drivers of any organization, hence, shaping them into effective People Managers must be a major part of our People Agenda. Learning Partners like New Campus is the best option as they target the most critical competencies that start-up leaders should possess.
Second, we know that employees in a startup tend to overproduce. When you are on hypergrowth, people development is usually sidetracked because employees are on their toes busy delivering their output. In order to mitigate this, Startup companies may want to invest in a good LMS that has a wide-range of training courses which the employees may access anytime, anywhere, at their own pace and time. HR or L&D could even leverage on these available courses by tailor-fitting the modules based on the needs of the people.
HR’s critical role in removing biases and adding objectivity to identifying high performers
Kitty: Do you have any stories to share about how to identify high potentials or high performers or some rules of thumb when it comes to where new HR leaders can invest in training?
Nina: Our Talent Management Roadmap and Talent Strategy must be clear at the beginning. Technically, we always start with a talent or competency assessment. We work closely together with the Leaders in identifying who are our high potentials in the organization by using a framework suitable for the organization, like maybe a 9-box matrix. For startups, assessing your talents should be a conscious and deliberate effort because there is a tendency that this activity is de-prioritized over revenue- and operations- related tasks. Especially for Companies that are heavily regulated by different government agencies, we need to have a strong succession pipeline because aside from enabling us to develop our talents, this also ensures business continuity.
Kitty: That's always a bit of an art and a science, is it the likeable person with more visibility who gets attention? There could be the quiet performers as well, but then they're overlooked.
Nina: That’s a core role in HR because we need to also dismiss and remove all the biases. Leaders have a tendency to identify high performance based on biases. So it's the role of HR to ensure there are no biases when we identify performers and high potential employees.
Leaders have a tendency to identify high performance based on biases. So it's the role of HR to ensure there are no biases when we identify performers and high potential employees.
A personal mission to help startup organisations achieve unicorn status
Kitty: I love that. Making sure the right people have the right access to the opportunities they need. So to take a step back from all this, it's halfway through the year. I can't believe it's nearly the end of June now! What's in store for you for the year ahead? Or maybe next year? How would you like to grow professionally?
Nina: I'm lucky to be directly reporting to a very supportive boss, because she’s been paving the way for my success. I love working with her because in the next six months to one year, there are several milestones that we want to achieve. Hence, it's important that a healthy relationship is intact because it motivates you to do more. At this point, I know there are still a lot of things we need to do as HR, but with the help of my immediate superior and also the people working with me, I know we'd be able to make a difference.
When I started moving to a startup, I had a personal mission of actually helping startup organisations ultimately gain unicorn status. Prior to where I am now, I used to work for an e-wallet app in the Philippines. When we were starting, not many people were familiar with the app, now it's actually the largest and most used e-wallet in the Philippines. I can proudly say that I was part of the HR Team that made organizational contributions in the exponential growth of the company; and with the combined effort of all the employees, it made us the first Filipino startup with a "double unicorn" status in the country. I want to replicate that same feeling, it's satisfying that you are able to help and become the HR backbone of that organization.
Kitty: That is so encouraging to hear. That's the best thing I could hear on a Tuesday afternoon. We suspect that HR leaders in SEA who are working at Future Unicorns need help, but what can we do? But it's just so encouraging to hear people like yourself who see the same needs. You have the expertise more than we do to help people. So yeah, that's why we want to build a community. We want to connect you with other HR leaders, like senior leaders as well. It's not just you giving, but it's you getting that support. Just fun people to talk to.
Nina: It's exciting to know that I am sharing the same mission with New Campus, that is-- preparing start-up organizations for scale by allowing them to become future-ready as they continue to adapt and remain resilient despite the ever-changing landscape of the industry. I may have a robust experience in HR but I'd still say that there remains to be plenty of things to learn when it comes to FinTech and Start-ups. I am glad that communities and companies, like New Campus, exist to provide Leaders with the support and boost they need. It would be a pleasure to share with other HR Leaders everything that I know but I'd be equally happy to learn more from them, too.