Learning & Development

Large Organizations vs. Start-Ups: Top Tips for Leading People Operations

People operations and HR programs can look dramatically different from company to company, particularly if you compare larger, established companies with small start-ups. And for leaders, this can mean very different challenges and objectives. This is something I know all too well; over the years, I’ve overseen the rollout of these programs at large entities with employee counts of over 200,000 and smaller start-ups with fewer than 500 employees, and I currently lead people operations at life sciences and clinical trial innovator 4G Clinical.

Our function and purpose have never been more critical, and we are seeing entire industries transforming their workforces, internal programs, and processes. With this being said, I aim to break down how to navigate these two types of organizations and hopefully shine light on how to be a more effective people operations leader, regardless of company size and makeup.

Staying FocusedSpecialization vs. Generalization

There are a few key differences people operations leaders should pay attention to when it comes to hiring and managing talent at larger, established organizations vs. smaller, more agile start-ups. Larger organizations will always have more of a specialization within the people and HR functions. In a lot of cases, this means you are jumping from team to team and organization to organization to collect a broad spectrum of experiences. This also presents a challenge for those looking to make a move into a larger organization without a long list of experience. Within smaller organizations, however, you have an opportunity to touch everything in multiple business areas beyond HR, giving you a strategic view of the business as a whole instead of your small slice in the world.

At a smaller company, this means having a thorough and acute understanding of the entire business. Even if your expertise is in HR, it’s going to be extremely difficult to lead successful programs alongside the leadership team if you are only focused on your function apart from its impact on business goals. At larger organizations, an understanding of the business is critical, but you will need to be hyper-focused on your particular function, which will realistically take up the majority of your time. This also affords you the opportunity to create closer professional relationships with those on your teams, which usually consist of many individuals reporting to you rather than only a few at a start-up.

Clarity is KeyOnboarding in Today’s Remote Reality

Onboarding has become more challenging for companies following the pandemic, as entire programs and processes went completely virtual. One thing I’ve learned in these past 2 years is that a workforce thrives on intentionality. Clear objectives will bring employees a firm sense of purpose and meaning to the work they’re doing and prevent distractions from squeezing the talent and creativity out of them. Get employees up to speed and working as quickly as possible. When employees know what their goals are, how to interact with their teams, and what success explicitly looks like, they can engage with the company mission, and success and job satisfaction will flow quickly.

Another powerful tactic for driving successful onboarding strategies is to integrate new employees with direct managers from the start—a technique I have found to be very successful. In this model, an employee’s direct manager is his or her “onboarding buddy,” working with the person closely from day 1 to get him or her integrated rather than scheduling occasional conversations and irregular levels of interaction. Your team members will feel much more engaged when they know they are closely connected to a decision-maker and have an advocate within the organization.

Of course, all of this takes a bit more work in a virtual setting. For example, we can no longer meet at the coffee machine to catch up on projects and life—something that has been shown to improve culture and engagement. We can, however, intentionally put these virtual “Team Catch-Ups” or “Coffee Conversations” in our calendar. For example, organizations can start online community boards for employees to post their wins and achievements. Managers can also encourage employees to pursue their passions outside of work by setting time during one-on-ones to discuss outside passion projects or long-term goals. Whether at a large or small organization, when done well, these are powerful tools to onboard and retain your workforce.

More Purpose, Less Burnout  

A lot of burnout these days, at both large organizations and smaller companies, stems from ambiguous and inflexible roles. What I mean by this is that if people don’t know what they’re actually trying to accomplish, it’s virtually impossible to feel productive and valued. By the same token, it’s important that employees feel empowered to achieve these goals by working in a way that suits them, in terms of both work and lifestyle. 

So, how can we design a role for which employees work the right number of hours to work toward clear and measurable goals? Burnout doesn’t necessarily stem from working more hours but rather from putting in hours of hard work without a clear finish line in sight and an opportunity to recharge. As an employee, I want to know if I’ve accomplished what I need to accomplish, and that responsibility largely falls in leadership’s hands.

A well-communicated portal of mental health resources will also help nurture a sense of purpose and decrease the chances of burnout. This may be easier to build at larger organizations, where budgets and resources aren’t as tight, but it is equally, if not more, important in smaller, less regulated companies.

Cultivating Inclusivity and Innovation 

Diversity and innovation are ultimately the outcome of fostering an inclusive environment. When employees are encouraged to think not just about what they’re doing today but also about a larger mission and how they want to be involved, this drives active engagement, discussion, and new ideas. This may be easier in a smaller start-up, where employees can be encouraged to leverage their skills in different ways and in different areas.

For larger organizations, this might be more difficult in practice, but there are still multiple ways to drive innovation through inclusivity. For example, you should work toward implementing an “actively learning culture.” This involves an engaged management team offering plenty of opportunities for employees to safely offer feedback on current systems in place and potential alternatives. Your workforce sees and experiences these processes in action, so their voices within these executive-level conversations are crucial for an innovative organization. This can be particularly powerful for individuals who may have traditionally been underrepresented or have had experiences with their voices not being heard. 

In a larger company, there may be a long hierarchy of roles and titles for the simple sake of structure, but there shouldn’t be a hierarchy of thought or importance. It’s about thinking how you, as the people operations/HR leader, can create communication channels through which everybody brings perspectives and ideas to the table. This is where innovation is born. 

At 4G Clinical, we spend significant time intentionally answering the question “What are the roles that we have, and who are the best people to do the job?” The goal is not to create rigid, strict roles but to allow flexibility, with a good base of necessary skills and experiences. This way, when we search for talent, we don’t unintentionally disqualify talented professionals who may not have a traditional background or résumé. 

Looking AheadThe Engineering Approach to People Operations

I am excited about how I expect this industry and field will grow in 2022. People leadership has changed significantly and has been pushed to the forefront of organizational priorities in companies large and small. I predict we are going to see the growth of a more data-driven approach in the coming years. As a former chemist, I like to see this as the “engineering approach to people operations.” For example, I’ve seen that surveys can be an extremely helpful diagnostic tool for HR teams to gauge whether programs are working. This involves putting an emphasis on what is actually producing value and what is purely transactional.

We will also need to honestly evaluate the programs we’re leading. Whether you’re leading the entire function yourself at a burgeoning start-up or building programs alongside a large team at a more established institution, you should be focused on building organizations that people actually want to join. In our new hybrid/virtual/remote reality, it no longer matters whether you are a fast-growing, flexible start-up or a large, multiunit organization. Laszlo Bock’s vision of people operations is coming to light for more traditional HR functions, with a new, data-driven, employee-centered experience now emerging. 

Scott Glenn is the Chief People Officer at 4G Clinical.