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The evolution of HR in the start-up economy


Derek Koo, talent manager at, answers four questions about changing the HR mindset in the start-up industry

Why would anyone from an established and well-known organisation join a younger, high-growth company? This is the first question I get asked when discussing my transition from Italian luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana to the tech-driven property agency

My answer is quite simple. Naturally, a large, well established company offers in-house expertise, name recognition and scale - unequivocally influential factors in career growth. However, high-growth start-ups are fast paced, innovative and dynamic. The opportunity to learn more and gain visibility from company leaders is far greater in this type of environment.

As transformational changes in technology continue to increase the complexity of business around us, professionals need to be mindful of the unrelenting competition and globalisation that are altering the way we perform our roles. Specifically, the HR profession is in the middle of a shift as companies are redefining what it is, how it’s managed and how valuable it is.

Transitioning my career from more of a traditional HR role into the startup industry, I’ve had to shift my focus to be more strategic in how I influence the company’s bottom line.  Below are the top four questions about HR in the start-up industry and how I’ve had to change my mindset to fit the dynamic economy.

How does the growing start-up scene affect the HR landscape?

Start-ups and SMEs tend to run lean and often one of the first departments to get cut or overlooked is the HR department, mostly because these types of enterprises don’t understand its true value. The HR landscape is facing challenges as these industries continue to grow because of technology adoption and its undertaking in replacing functional admin roles like benefits, payroll and more.

Although these operational aspects may one day be replaced by technology completely, the business aspect of this role will never go away. The HR landscape is shifting from the once “people person” role to more of a businessperson ideology with a focus on optimising the productivity and performance of individuals through technology. These practitioners need to think about how to develop the next generation of leaders and create a culture that attracts the best and most talented of employees.

Do HR professionals need to adapt and adjust their role for these high-growth companies?

Regardless of the industry, size or location, companies face similar challenges that require organisations to adapt and build new capabilities. Rapid change is perhaps the greatest challenge companies face in adjusting and embracing continuous transformation.

HR professionals need to learn quickly and innovate constantly to take on new strategic executions faster and more effectively. The new role for HR will be to act as a strategic partner in defining the architecture of the organisation.

Becoming a strategic partner demands more knowledge about business strategy, markets and even the economy. They must quantify their role in terms of the value they create for the organisation. The effectiveness is measured in terms of business acumen rather than engagement and cultural transformation.

ALSO READ: How to impact your start-up team from the start

Since many start-ups operate in the “new economy”, with new business models and employees who think differently, which HR skills are transferrable?

In the new economy, the most transferrable skills are creativity, analytical skills and a “stakeholder” mindset.

Smaller, fast-growing companies often have the double-edged sword of being more nimble but with more limited resources. They rely on attracting and retaining great talent, in part because they don’t have as well known a brand to lean on.

This means today’s HR professional must think creatively about how to achieve objectives with limited resources. It’s very rewarding to be part of a culture that is willing to take risks and give you the freedom to try your ideas. Resourcefulness is the top determinant of success as a HR practitioner in the new economy.

Analytical skills are also critical to new economy companies, and thus are highly transferable.  Analytics and data have already transformed the world of talent. Companies look to HR practitioners to utilise employee data to make informed people management decisions.

Organisations now understand the value of big data and will work across their administrations to effectively answer important talent questions. For most companies, their human resources departments already own this data so it is up to these HR professionals to identify drivers of actual business outcomes.

HR leaders will also have to answer the “So what?” question asked by CEOs. Senior executives are now looking to them to identify the ROI of people investments and other initiatives.  Start-ups and tech-focused companies have an ingrained culture built around data. This means senior management better appreciates HR professionals who think analytically.

Finally, HR professionals can find great success if they think of themselves as stakeholders, not employees.  Start-up leaders look for this quality in all their people, especially in strategic positions such as talent management.  With great people, great things can be built – that’s what younger companies are aiming for, not incremental growth or simple job security.

What is the current training/development structure like at and how does it compare to your previous roles?

It’s hard to compare considering the industries are so different, but I what I can tell you is that the training and development here is phenomenal. To begin, everyone that joins goes through a two-week onboarding process. This is by far the longest training I have seen in any company I’ve worked with.

Also, what is extremely unique here is the open and collaborative environment. Given the property industry’s reputation of being fiercely competitive and highly individualistic, it’s been a (positive) surprise to see real estate agents not only work together to share information and close their deals, but also work together with the IT department and the marketing team to think of new ideas to help the company and, ultimately, clients. This type of open environment is the recipe for success.

Photo / Provided

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