VP of People – The First 100 days: Using a Design Process for Planning

Earlier this year I was asked by Slava Kremerman, CEO at Zen Educate to be their new and first VP of People. I hadn’t been looking for a permanent role. I was enjoying running my consultancy business with school leadership teams in the UK and overseas, and being an Adviser with the team at Zen.

A few people have asked, ‘Why are you giving up your consultancy business to be employed again?’ That’s easy:

  • I love the mission – without the team at Zen, children wait in classrooms with no one to teach them, teachers and teaching assistants who want to work flexibly don’t get the opportunity as the process is too time costly and cumbersome. Without us and the smart tech on our platform, schools are overcharged (by traditional agencies) and staff are underpaid.
  • And, I love the team. I see the humility to learn, the willingness to solve new problems, the shared joy at successes and the laughter when things are just funny!

When I began as an Adviser with Zen there were 20 staff, 2.5 years later we have well over 100 with many more contractors (and of course 1000s of school supply staff as we now work in England and the US). So where do you begin in a rapidly growing startup as the first and new VP of people?

I chose a design thinking model to help me find my way in (see The Art of Innovation)

  • Discover
  • Define
  • Design
  • Deliver

Much of the last 3 months have been focussed on Discovery. This doesn’t stop of course – Andy Grove talks about ‘information gathering’ as being a foundational leadership activity. In the early stages of a new role the majority of your time is on discovery activities. An early identified priority is team leadership support and development as their reach is extensive. I held three focus groups for team leaders exploring what was going well, the challenges, and what, if it was going better, would make a really positive impact. Our leadership development programme is in the design stages following those meetings and the data produced.

New joiners have a wealth of insight from their perspectives including why they applied to join Zen, what it’s like joining the team, what went well with onboarding and what we could do better. Feedback from the new joiner sessions is already enabling us to improve the experience of those joining us now.

Early discussions with our hiring manager explored new roles to fill, length of time to hire, retention and exit interview data, and how we continue to share what we’re learning about successful hiring.

And, there have been lots of informal discussions in corridors, online, in cafes, stairwells and the kitchen. It all helps!

My reading list shifted into Startup texts a couple of years ago (see Five Books I Wish I’d Read Before Leading Teams and also recommended texts at the end of the post.)

Several team members wanted to know if this now meant we had ‘HR’?

Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of Google’s People Operations, started the trend of ‘People’ rather than HR. He explains in his book the rebrand was done to back away from HR’s “administrative and bureaucratic” connotations. The new label signaled “some actual ability to get things done.” A little harsh perhaps? I’ll unpack this. In broad terms, HR activities exist within People Operations and move beyond regarding employees as ‘resources’ to identifying and implementing action plans that help raise team productivity through strategy, leadership and management that adds value.

How? By providing teams with all the necessary tools and resources to thrive. This can include:

  • Enabling team engagement and retention
  • Building and sustaining a positive culture as the company scales
  • Raising the company’s image
  • Reducing time to hire into new roles

Early findings? There’s lots to play for. Pulse surveys give us team feedback including:

  • ‘Great autonomy and learning opportunities’
  • ‘Zen is a great place to learn. Teams are given clear deliverables which eases prioritising competing work’
  • ‘Amazing team doing amazing things, great energy in the office, learn from different people’
  • ‘Because the work culture is fab and we are doing good work in the world’
  • ‘Been here for 2 weeks! Love the working environment, mission and the people!’
  • ‘Great people, great culture and great purpose’

Of course we have our challenges:

  • How do we continue to recruit at pace and grow our culture?
  • How can we have great people data to help us make the best business decisions?
  • How do we ensure the feedback we’re giving and getting is the best it can be?
  • How do we scale our learning and development across different geographical sites?
  • What career progression opportunities are open to team members?

In April we held a ‘Lunch and Learn’ to share with the team what we’re discovering and early plans about where we’re going. One of the marketing team keen on photography curated photos of the team at work to include in the presentation – I wanted to share what I’m seeing. A team working hard, attentive, enjoying their work and developing their careers in the company. This is important – it’s easy not to notice what we see everyday and to take for granted what we treasure. Our company culture is a treasure we recognise, value, practice and take care of every day.

Moving into the early moments of Define, we have a People Vision at Zen:

Building together a world class team doing the best work of our careers with:

  • A clear sense of purpose and belonging
  • Relationships that endure
  • A culture of learning and personal growth

Making a huge and positive difference to children, schools, teachers and teaching assistants.’

And we now have three defined work streams:

  • Talent acquisition
  • People experience
  • Learning, career development and impact

The hiring team is growing fast to enable us to hire at the pace we need to support our growth targets. We’re reviewing and developing onboarding to enable the best experience for new joiners. Developing an in-house Leadership Academy for all our leaders to participate in is underway to enable our leaders to learn and develop effectively in their roles.

And, team members are coming forward with ideas and aspirations of how they can contribute to the company development as we scale and grow which is great to see.

If you’re looking for a new challenge and team to join, to check out our open roles here https://www.zeneducate.com/careers and send in your CV – we’ll be glad to hear from you!

Recommended Reading

Block, Lazlo (22015) Work Rules! That will Transform How you Live and Lead. John Murray Publishers.

Horowitz, Ben. (2014) The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Building a Business Where there are No Easy Answers. Harper Business

Scott, Kim (2017) Radical Candor, How to Get What you Want by Saying What you Mean. Pan.

Sieler, Alan (2003) Coaching to the Human Soul, Ontological Coaching and Deep Change. Newfield Institute

Kelley, Tom (2001) The Art of Innovation Profile Books Ltd