Article: After a startup gets funding, the focus needs to shift - to talent, says Moloco CHRO Brendan Browne

Funding & Investment

After a startup gets funding, the focus needs to shift - to talent, says Moloco CHRO Brendan Browne

Once the funding rolls in, startups need to look at how they can adjust their structure and talent strategy to support the next phase of growth. Moloco CHRO Brendan Browne talks about how to achieve that.
After a startup gets funding, the focus needs to shift - to talent, says Moloco CHRO Brendan Browne

This is how the story goes for many startups: they drive ahead full speed, pouring the energy and resources of a young business into finding the one product, service, or strategy that will bring them success. Then their efforts pay off, and they draw the support of an investor. Only to realise that they now urgently need to lay down a foundation for the next stage of growth – whether in terms of internal structure and processes, or in people management capabilities, or in the entire question of how they manage talent.

How do startups move into that next phase and build the solid base that they need to continue growing and expanding? To get some perspectives on that question, People Matters met up with Brendan Browne, the Chief Human Resource Officer of machine learning solutions provider Moloco, on his recent visit to Singapore. Prior to joining Moloco late in 2022, Browne was with tech startup accelerator Y Combinator, and before that, he spent over a decade heading talent acquisition for LinkedIn, scaling its workforce by a factor of 20x in his tenure there.

Here's what he shared from his experience.

This story was originally published in the March 2023 issue of People Matters Digital Magazine.

As someone who's been closely involved in the process of startup scaling, what does hiring look like for a company in that particular growth stage? What do talent acquisition professionals for these companies need to focus on?

From the venture capitalist point of view first, at Y Combinator the bulk of the work was helping companies think about when to hire certain types of people. You don't want to hire someone too senior if you don't really need that person. You also don't want to hire someone too junior. You don't want to hire too aggressively and scale up quickly before you have a product that's market fit – and a lot of companies think their product is market fit before it actually is. So there's a lot of advising companies about where they really stand and what their real needs are, how to create the right structure for the organisation, how to identify the culture and values – that's a huge part of it – and even how to interview and assess talent.

When it comes to actually finding that talent, you need to keep in mind that startup life is a very particular type of life. There's something different literally every hour and every minute of every day, nothing like working in a big company. And you need to find someone who's both motivated to work at that pace and has the experience to solve those types of problems.

The important thing to understand is that a startup does not need a big recruiting team until a certain point in the company's life, where it has a certain amount of momentum.

A lot of work goes into gauging those organisations: do they have product market fit? Are they truly ready to scale? What happens if they don't hire this person? It's a lot of close monitoring and continuous analysis of where the company is, because hiring 20 is different from hiring 200 is different from hiring 2,000.

What would you say are some things that give these startups an advantage in competing for talent?

Culture matters a tremendous amount. So at Moloco for example, we just have gone through a refresher on our values, and how to articulate these and weave them into our recruiting process, how we use these to assess and promote. We want to find people that are aligned with those things that we care about, and if you can do that, I think you're more than halfway there.

Then another thing is mentorship and management. And one of our big guiding principles around our HR strategy is that talent is what differentiates us, and one of the top statements to support that is that everyone deserves a great manager. We want to let the employees of the company know that if they don't have a great manager, then we will work with the manager, provide them with training or support – we have a really robust leadership and management training programme – or sometimes we might even find that that manager should be doing individual contributor work. That's how serious we are about people deserving great managers to help grow their careers.

And part of that is supporting people's development, where it's sort of a guarantee that if you do well, if you are supported, if you have a great manager, your career will evolve and transform.

And the final part is just about hard problems. The types of people we want to attract thrive on solving very hard technical problems. And our machine learning work offers really, really tough problems for them to solve.

Tech startups historically have a problem with 'bro culture' and lack of diversity. What are some ways of averting these issues?

A strong culture, rooted in psychological safety, is very necessary. Survey your employees – get some signals, some data, on whether they feel comfortable and welcome, make sure their experience is measuring up to the kind of culture you want to have.

And measure diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Diversity is about having a diverse set of backgrounds, something you can quantitatively measure and be transparent about, and it's necessary for building better products and being more innovative. Inclusion is about making sure that for example, people are included in meetings and discussions, that their voices are heard. And belonging means that people can be their authentic selves wherever they are, and they can feel comfortable and psychologically safe. Because when people are not comfortable and don't speak out and are reluctant to share their ideas because they don't feel like they belong, nobody benefits.

I actually think a lot of people in tech today are very sensitised to the dangers of 'bro culture'. Their eyes are wide open to it and they don't want to be around it.

How do you strike a balance between building talent internally, and bringing in people from outside who have the needed skills and experience?

Internally, you want to make sure that people can truly look at their career ahead and see a clear path to go from junior individual contributor to senior, to becoming a manager, and then maybe a director somewhere down the road. You want them to have the confidence that they can get there.

At the same time, you need to bring in other folks that can really teach and mentor. At Moloco, I think we've found a nice balance there – we bring in someone who's a very experienced director, who brings depth of expertise around management and technical leadership capability, who can manage and train. And while we're doing that, we still keep a path open for people that want to become a manager.

You've been in the tech industry for years. Have you seen an evolution in the kind of leadership that works for these companies?

I think, in my personal opinion, the best leaders lead with humility. That was actually a huge part of my attraction to Moloco, because being the head of HR is a hard job. There are very few CEOs that I want to do that work with because it is so hard. And you want to make sure that you are working with someone you are sufficiently comfortably with, that they can call you on Sunday at 10 o'clock at night, and you're okay with taking the call.

So going back to the belonging piece from earlier, I think authentic, vulnerable leaders are the ones that can foster people in different types of environment. Where employees can look at these leaders and see they are being open about the fact that they're they've made a mistake. This is a much more trusting environment than the style of leadership you had maybe 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. That's the biggest difference I've seen.

And I think it's because today, the voice of the employee is being heard so clearly and they want to make sure they're getting the type of leadership that they feel they deserve.

So that dynamic is different, and it's something that leaders need to understand and adjust to. If they're used to a command and control style, and they're working in a company that values authenticity and vulnerability, the employees are going to speak up and say, this does not align with who we are.

We've been talking a lot about what talent is a good fit for startups. But the typical startup conversation is about funding, and never about people. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, valuations are buzzy and get a bunch of attention.

But I would actually challenge some of the big tech publications to put out the message that startups should probably spend more time worrying about culture, values, and talent – because you don't make products without that.

Personally, my own goal is to create the most mind blowing positive and memorable experiences anyone's had in their career. I want people to look back in two, three, five, ten years down the road and feel like they've been part of one of those iconic generational journeys. And doing that requires having a strong people strategy, having a plan, having a vision, and executing that plan with a lot of intention.

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Topics: Funding & Investment, Talent Acquisition, Talent Management, Culture

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