We might live in the age of artificial intelligence, blockchain and the Internet of Things, but even the most innovative start-ups need an amazing team behind them. Yet, despite the importance of talented, engaged people when you’re scaling up, HR often takes a back seat in early stage businesses, with its reputation for process, paperwork and red tape.
But a new people and culture consultancy, Unleashed, is here to change that, bringing its own brand of ‘Agile HR’ to early-stage start-ups, helping them build the structures and knowledge they need to scale. Here, Unleashed founder, Anouk Agussol fills us in on all the details, kicking off a series of blogs looking at the biggest people challenges that all start-ups face.
What is Unleashed and how did the idea come about?
Unleashed is a new kind of player, coach consultancy. Our vision is to create successful businesses, with better than world-class employee experiences and fulfilled work lives. Our mission (what we do) is "Gear early stage start-ups up for speedy scalable and sustainable success through People & Culture".
I founded Unleashed in mid-2017 as I was tired of seeing "HR" being thought of as a reactive support function and only being introduced into the business when there were people problems to fix. I decided that I wanted to work with businesses in their early days to really help to mitigate the inevitable people problems that arise as businesses try to scale.
When founders need to take their eyes of client growth and turn inwards, growth in many businesses can really slow down. Using Unleashed means that founders can maintain focus on growth and ensure it is sustainable by building a highly engaged, high performing and driven team. Turns out (fortunately for my business success) that there has been a real gap in the market for genuine active down-to-earth support for businesses with between two and 30 people (although we work with businesses up to c.100).
What problems is Unleashed helping start-ups to solve?
There are three main problems:
1. How do you attract the best people without a brand.
Getting your first few hires right can be critical to success, and that means you need to be seen in the right places, with a strong motivating vision. The smaller you are the greater the ability of any one person to impact your business, so you need to ensure that it’s a positive, not negative, impact.
2. Getting people high performing and productive.
From how you onboard and integrate people into the business, setting clear expectations, building team norms, providing VERY regular and useful feedback, prioritisation, focus, goals and so on. All too often teams aren’t focusing on the right thing, and if they are, they don't always know what great looks like. Getting people to be super productive early on isn't always easy. Even if they have the skills to do the work, your culture, people and the new context of your business generally will turn things on their heads.
3. Going from executors to leaders.
Many founders are brilliant problem solvers and doers. After all that is how they got where they are. Not all are great managers (or have even managed someone previously) and then all of a sudden they have teams that they need to lead (not just manage). The skill set of a leader is very foreign to that of an 'executor'.
At Unleashed, we help founders and managers hone these management and leadership skills, as quickly as possible. While f---ing up a line of code can be fixed easily enough, f---ing up with people is a whole different ball game. Your mistake is on the back of someone else - so it is really important to learn quickly.
You talk about Agile HR - how is that different to traditional HR?
I hate the term HR.
Firstly, I don't see people as resources, but secondly it conjures up imagery for me that relates to transactional, process and policy driven attitudes.
Reactivity is a word that springs to mind frequently when I think traditional HR. Agile HR (or People & Culture preferably) is about being able to move fast, in line with business goals. It is the ability to create something that is flexible and can evolve along with the needs of the business. It is about being outcome driven and finding the best process to get there, rather than saying no. It is about being public with the People roadmap and taking input and opinions.
Transparency enables proactivity. It is about knowing "why". Working on the problems that will make a real and deep difference to the people in the business and therefore the business now and longer term.
When someone asks me "what is best practice in X area?", the only word I can hear is "standard". Although things are changing, there has been so little creativity and innovation with how we design exceptional People practices.
Unleashed is changing that. We want to help businesses be exceptional (not just adhere to standard practice).
As a founder yourself, what is your biggest challenge you're facing right now?
Well, it’s no longer just me which is great! I've had the amazing Hannah Keal join my team, and now I'm looking for another progressive person to join us.
I'm in such a fortunate position that business is booming. However, it is also a little scary. Being able to get it all done when there aren't enough days in the week it tough! Growing my team is the only way, but with turnover that flexes and being bootstrapped, it is hard to know just when to bring someone on!
Where will Unleashed be in five years’ time?
Ooh 5 years! People dread that as an interview question too! Honestly, I don't know. That isn't because I'm not aspirational but because I want to do the best I can with every moment and everything that I have now.
If Unleashed performs well, then more and more opportunities will come our way. I've not had to do any business development so far, as it’s all been word of mouth so, so far so good. I hope that carries on. Assuming that it does, well then maybe we will be a team of 30-50 people known for being a significant factor in helping early stage start-ups to scale. Maybe we’ll be international. Who knows. Right now I'm focussed on being the best that I can be for my incredibly passionate clients.
What one piece of advice would you give to somebody starting a business?
Do it. Jump. Take the risk. It isn't easy but it is worth every minute. If you know what problem you are trying to solve, if you are passionate and believe in it, then do it. Take feedback along the way and evolve yourself and your business. You don't have to have it all worked out before you start. Just jump in and ride the wave. In fact, my business cards have two quotes on them which I fully believe:
"You'll miss 100% of the shots that you don't take"
"You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf."
Do you have any life or work hacks?
Work hack - My calendar it completely colour coordinated. I'm a visual person and seeing everything coloured (each client has a colour) makes things far easier. Also, anything that I need to do either gets done immediately or I stick it into my calendar to get done. I don't trust my head to store anything!
Best life hack (although not a hack really) is to only work with businesses and founders that inspire you and whose values align to your own. That way, every day, no matter how long or how hard feels sensationally productive. You feel like you are adding value and making a difference. That feels good - so every day is good.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be hearing more from Anouk and Unleashed, as part of a series on ‘Agile HR’. Topics will include building high performing teams, achieving ROI from your people and transitioning from executor to leader. So stay tuned for more insights and advice!
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