Back to Middle Matters

Setting new benchmarks for talent development in Southeast Asian startups

July 6, 2023

We speak to Lorenzo (Head of Talent Acquisition at CloudEats) about how People & Culture professionals can help startups navigate restructuring and build a learning culture aligned with ever-evolving competencies and market shifts.

A career rooted in love for people

Kitty: Tell me a little bit more about your career journey. So how did you end up in the people and culture function? Was it what you expected?

Renzo: I'm Renzo, currently the Talent Acquisition Manager here in Cloud Eats. We're the biggest cloud restaurant group in Southeast Asia. 

Just a quick intro about myself. I've been in HR for almost ten years now. I graduated in June of 2014, and the idea of being in HR always seemed exciting to me. When people ask “What do you want to do after college?” They're like,” I want to be a pilot” or “I want to go into banking”. I never had those answers or ideas in my head. Mine was really, “Hey HR seems pretty exciting”. So out of all the facets of HR, compensation and benefits, labor relations, it was talent acquisition that I really fell in love with. So, almost ten years in the field. 

I joined one of the biggest retail companies here in the Philippines right after graduating, so I recruited for that.  I had experience in technology from Microsoft, and I’d say half of my career was dedicated to headhunting: looking for skilled candidates and matching those candidates with the clients that I have. Right now, here I am in a startup setting leading the TA [talent acquisition] here in Cloud Eats Philippines,  making sure we're paving the way and keeping up with the times when it comes to the trends when it comes to recruitment. 

One thing that I want to highlight is that I always say this: people are the heart of each organization. And I guess I'm put in a position where I find that missing piece, and I get to put that in the puzzle of this big organization and make that well-oiled machine work. 

Kitty: It's great to hear you were drawn to HR from quite early on. It's quite rare to hear that a lot of people we speak to are sort of almost “accidental” HR. They might have been in other functions, and then they just took on HR, and fell in love with it along the way. So it's just so cool to hear that you were interested in people and culture from the beginning.

Renzo: Yes. And I think I’m drawn to people right. Being an extrovert, I guess, helps in a way. If you love talking to people, why not make a living out of it!

On the lack of playbooks or comprehensive frameworks for HR in SEA startups

Kitty: The next question is reflecting on the profession in general. I'm sure you've seen a lot of organizations. You've seen a lot of candidates at different stages of their career when it comes to Southeast Asia startups in particular, what resources or support do you wish there was more of out there?

Renzo: Right now, having that playbook or comprehensive framework. I think you said early on during our conversation that there's a big gap. Thankfully for NewCampus, you guys are out there really paving that industry. And I think number two is having that detailed training program. Right now, whichever startup you talk to, change is inevitable. Having that sense of framework on where HR needs to be in, I think that's what's lacking right now.

Kitty: As in, training and development for the HR function? That's a big irony we've seen as well. L&D is for everyone else except for HR.

Renzo: That's true. We develop how to be the best salesman, or we develop how to code, how to be a fastest coder. But when it comes to really running that system or that scaffolding, there's no framework on how to do it. So we learn by experience. What I know, what my peers know and then that's how we collaborate.

Aligning talent development with business goals and cultivating a learning culture

Kitty: Everyone just makes it up as they go along and hopes it eventually works out. So the next question will be quite interesting, because I’m keen to hear your perspective from TA.

With a lot of the headlines right now about restructuring, there’s a negative narrative saying, oh, startups were overhiring and money was so cheap, so there was not so much discipline or intentionality with hiring, and then now they have to lay off people. But from your view as a TA guy, how can events like a restructuring or transformation help HR be even more strategic with their talent strategy?

Renzo: For the longest time, I think people were saying it was an employer-driven market, but I think it's the other way around. It has always been, and I think it still is, a talent-driven market. Coming from the Great Resignation we've had, that's one of the most talked about topics over the last two years. There's an unlimited pool of candidates, but I agree with you. The question is, what are you going to do with that? 

We need to make sure we're aligning talent development with business goals. So I want to make sure that I'm not just hiring for the sake of hiring.

One, we need to make sure we're aligning talent development with business goals. So I want to make sure that I'm not just hiring for the sake of hiring. I need to make sure that if this is the vision of Cloud Eats, or if this is the vision of your organization, who is the best fit out of the 20 candidates out there? That’s very important because if you work the other way around, if you just keep filling roles, it’ll come back to the cycle of what you said, it'll be  non-ending layoffs and tech layoffs. 

Number two, is always to encourage a learning culture. I think that is very important. Whether you are an external candidate or an internal candidate, this plays a role in a startup culture. If you don't have that alignment and you don't embrace that learning culture, it will not add up. You're back to your playbook of what's next. I think those are the two things that are very important when it comes to being strategic and restructuring.

How learning through real-life scenarios and case studies helps build build resilience for startup employees

Kitty: That's literally my next question: the role of learning. If you compare a startup in the Philippines versus, say, oil and gas, both orgs might have huge headcount, but extremely different businesses and probably very different strategic goals. So what is the role of a learning culture in an organization like a startup, where there's no such thing as disruption? Because disruption is literally just what happens every day…

Renzo: I agree, we live by disruption! Are you even a startup if you're not disrupted? I think one question really pops into mind. It's really investing in training, and not just any training, but it's real life case studies on what happens in a startup. Those real world simulations. We're a startup now, two to three weeks from time, anything can be disrupted. If the candidates or employees are not prepared or equipped to handle that sense of resiliency, it will fail and it will fall. Just having that mindset of being resilient and having that training when it comes to real world studies or startup situations, that would be very successful in embracing and embodying that sense of learning culture. 

There's so much content right now on let's say, how to be a better manager, or how to lead the team one-on-one. But there's no real playbook on what happens in real-life scenarios, especially for a startup. And I'm not saying each scenario is the same, but if you have more real life case studies from actual startups, I think that would be crucial and essential to shaping that so-called gap that we were talking about.

There's so much content right now on let's say, how to be a better manager, or how to lead the team one-on-one. But there's no real playbook on what happens in real-life scenarios, especially for a startup.

Kitty: Could you share some stories or anecdotes on what you're doing on the ground in your organization? How do you provide or where do you go to look for these sorts of case studies or examples of what other startups are doing?

Renzo: So, you know how in tech, you have other companies to look to? Like okay, this is what Google is doing, this is what Apple is doing. But right now, for Cloud Eats, we're placed in a very unique position. We're here to disrupt the food and beverage industry, and when it comes to their sense of recruiting, it's very traditional. You have a CV, it's black and white. Okay, you can cook. Will I put you in my kitchen? Yes. 

We want to be that benchmark, wherein if I hire that candidate and they tell me, hey, Renzo, I want to apply in Cloud Eats, we don't do it traditionally. So we have what we call a “cooking test” for them. So we give them our dishes and we make them prepare it their way, without them knowing how to cook it. We just tell them, hey, these are our top three dishes. How would you cook these dishes? If they're able to cook it the way they want to and up to par, then okay, this person thinks out of the box. That's one example. 

In terms of developing and embracing that said learning culture, we take it from our own failures, from what didn't work. Let's say for Q1, what didn't work last year, we take those case studies and we present them to the incoming candidates. So from the early on, we already see which candidate can actually understand what we're doing and where we're going. We're also still in the process of really solidifying our talent development team. 

I think it's only right now that in the Philippines that doors are opening up again. We're back to five days a week. It's funny that we lived on hybrid for the last two years, but here we are coming back. It just really embraces that sense of culture, that sense of being one and all working together. We're here face-to-face, how do we tackle the next problem? So, I think that's how we also change the tone. People were against coming back into the office, right? People were like, hey, we live for two years at home, but why do we need to come back to the office again five days a week? It's just a mindset in changing that framework of, “Hey, there's a reason why we want you here. And if you want to keep growing, if you want to keep accelerating, it's crucial that we get to have that in-person collaboration.” 

So, it's those two things. One is having our own case studies in-house, which is developed from real-life experiences that we've seen. And I think number two is identifying it early on in the interview stage for the candidates.

Getting agile alignment on competencies by regular sync-ups with hiring managers

Kitty: I love that. And one thing that maybe you could comment on too, is since you've started off in acquisition, mapping competencies, how do you even do that for us? Competencies change every week.

Renzo: Every week. I agree. What has been working for us, or how we map what competency. 

We have what we call the non-negotiable competencies for any department. But as we go along, what really works for us is having that weekly alignment with the hiring manager. Of course we're here to service the hiring managers. Talent acquisition is all about managing stakeholders. And it's their KPIs, it's their things, it's their competencies that change on a day-to-day or a weekly basis. So how do we keep up with that? 

One is very important. It's even the most basic thing: having that weekly alignment with them. “Hey, you told me last week candidate A needs to have this, this, and this. And now you're telling me candidate B is lacking this and this. So why is that the case?” Having that weekly sync with hiring managers, having that sense of open communication and channel, I think is what helps mapping out those competencies. 

Number two, we take what's working. If we know this framework of competencies is already working, whether it's agility, innovation, etc, we know that these are our benchmark, how do we make sure we integrate it to a fourth or fifth competency?

It's still challenging. I don't have the right formula or solution yet. I think everyone is still finding out what really works. But if we do it together, we have conversations like this, we open up that conversation, and  people can learn from one another.

Baking in succession planning from the very start of the employee journey

Kitty: Competency is very specific, and it's early on in the candidate's career. If we zoom out a little bit and look a bit higher, 10,000 foot level at succession planning. What are your thoughts or experiences so far on succession planning in startups? Does it even work?

Renzo: There was an ongoing joke that if you are in a startup for five years, it's like you're ancient. I don't know if you've heard that already, but for my case, how to address succession planning is not by hiring above the line, it's hiring below the line. That's why I believe that if you're looking for a manager, you don't necessarily look for someone who is ten years, or necessarily someone who's been working for 15 years. It's someone who may be a graduate with 1-2 years experience. That's how you develop succession planning and culture. I've always believed that culture starts at the very bottom of the process. If you don't identify the right candidate at the start, the culture will change . 

I've always believed that culture starts at the very bottom of the process. If you don't identify the right candidate at the start, the culture will change. 

I noticed that in my previous work, bringing in managers who are 15 years in the field, 30, 20 years. I have nothing against them, but it changes the tone of the way you want the company to run. If you start early on, let's say I bring in an officer and I develop him for the next 5-10 years. If my senior manager resigns, I know I'll be fine, because I have this very competent, well-trained, understands-the-culture-of-the business type of mindset. So that's how I’d address succession planning when it comes to a startup, having that sense of training and development at the first part of the process, and having that competency scale. Linking competencies, linking that framework of who we are as a company, you match that. That's your path to having that sense of succession planning. 

Rather than, hey, the senior manager resigns tomorrow, what am I going to do? Or my Head of Tech resigns tomorrow, what's going to happen next? If I have my product guy who's very skilled, who understands where we're going, who knows the vision of the company, who knows the goals of the company, I'd rather look internally than look externally.

Kitty: That's very powerful coming from talent acquisition.

Renzo: Yeah. We're at a point where talent acquisition plays an important role right now, not just for startups, but for any organization. We want to make sure we are not put in a position anymore where whenever there's an opening, I need to fill it. Rather hey, there is an opening, now how can we work together? I think it's having that sense of collaboration right now, and the agility to work alongside the ever changing culture as a startup.

Ambitions on setting new benchmarks for talent acquisition in Southeast Asia

Kitty: Okay. So the last question is just a chance, a space for you to reflect, for you personally. We're halfway through the year now, so what's in store for you in the year ahead, and how would you like to grow, professionally or personally right now?

Renzo: One, for me personally there’s lots of improvement to grow. I always believed in learning and unlearning new things. And for me, if I embrace that mindset, I get to build my career. As I go along here in Cloud Eats, I think number one is really, being that benchmark of what the talent acquisition team is, in terms of the industry. For the longest time, it was how does Google hire? What are the questions that Google asks? And that was the framework for a lot of tech companies. Not saying that we want to be the next Google, but for me personally, I want to be that benchmark of “this is how Cloud Eats is doing recruitment”, or this is how Renzo does his interviews. That's going to play a crucial part in really helping address the gap. 

If you look at my CV, it's really one-sided, focused on talent acquisition and a little bit of branding and engagement. One of the things that’s beautiful about startups is I get to do both. I get to be exposed to talent acquisition and at the same time, pave that way of what culture looks like in an organization.

Number two, what's next for me is being more exposed to culture or employee engagement. That’s one of the long term plans that I have. If you look at my CV, it's really one-sided, focused on talent acquisition and a little bit of branding and engagement. One of the things that’s beautiful about startups is I get to do both. I get to be exposed to talent acquisition and at the same time, pave that way of what culture looks like in an organization. And I'll be able to do that with the basic frameworks that we talked about. So I guess it's those two things. 

It's having that long term career, I still want to be here in the field of HR. And Southeast Asia is just getting there. If you were to look at the US, if you were to look at Europe, a lot of the startups there are super established already. But here in Southeast Asia and in Singapore (which is becoming like the venture capital hub) the majority of the startups, we're just headed there. Yes, that's what's next for me. 

Personally, it's just  starting conversations like this. Really engaging more, learning what's next for TA, what's next for HR, what the playbook will be for 2024. I know we're halfway through the year, but I think you can attest to this. 2024 is just around the corner, especially in startup world, right? So that's one of the playbooks that I have and what's next for me throughout the year.

Continue reading