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Insights, advice and mentorship from people leaders to help navigate the challenging & rewarding "messy middle" between Product-Market Fit & IPO

How to Build a People Function That Scales With the Company

Leslie Kurkjian Crowe didn’t set out for a career in people leadership. At Dropbox in 2014, she actually worked on the sales team. But the company was growing rapidly and there was a hole on the talent side. She got tapped on the shoulder to help fill it. Next thing she knew she fell in love with the work.

“The beauty of the function is there’s so much diversity in the work,” she says. “It’s very difficult to get bored.”

Since then, she’s led hiring at companies that have doubled or tripled in size over one to two years. When she joined MuleSoft in 2016, the company had about 650 employees. By the time Salesforce acquired it two years later, headcount had ballooned to almost 1,500. Later at TripActions, Crowe helped grow the company from 400 to 1,200 employees—within 13 months.

“You’re changing the DNA of the company every few months, sometimes more frequently, with how many people you’re hiring,” she says.

Today, she shares her principles for success as a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, where she counsels portfolio companies on building out their companies to scale.

She acknowledges the journey for growth-stage companies is not easy. The pace is already dizzying. Add in recruitment and onboarding, and scaling can seem like pure chaos. Where Crowe comes in is building structure into the People function and company more broadly, creating a framework whereby employees old and new can thrive, and implementing crucial new processes that can scale along with a company.

Her philosophy is to create a model that stretches and expands, like a set of lungs, every time the company grows and changes.

Putting Systems to Work

Research suggests that implementing high-performance human resources systems can enhance organizational performance. Unfortunately, CEOs rank human resources as only the eighth or ninth most important function at a company, according to McKinsey and the Conference Board.

Fortunately, Crowe had buy-in. MuleSoft’s executive team paved a runway for her to implement the necessary structure and systems before hiring waves of new people. So she spent the first year building org charts and divisions, while simultaneously staffing a recruitment team that could hire for 1,000 new roles across operations, analytics, L&D, and many more. By the time MuleSoft was acquired by Salesforce two years later, her recruiting team alone had over 60 people.

But she knew it couldn’t just be about getting bodies in chairs. “You have to be thoughtful. A bad deal isn’t going to hurt you like a bad hire will,” she says.

Drawing strategy from her sales background, she designed a system of recruiter scorecards to motivate her team. For example, the engineering recruiters might have a goal to hire five engineers per quarter, and no more than 20% could be agency hires. The rest of the scorecard relied on qualitative measures: hiring manager feedback, quality of candidate, etc. The system honored the human nature of the people function, granting flexibility to recruiters.

Further, Crowe’s recruiters had to change their profile of who best to hire during hypergrowth—no less mission-driven but perhaps someone less risk-seeking, a person who wants to be on a bigger team and is less eager to build from scratch than they had sought out when they were smaller.

“You hire a different profile of person at 600 than you would at 1,500,” she says. “You’re not hiring as many firsts of something.”

Timing (and Developing) Your Talent

Hitting growth stage means hiring specialists—and hopefully lots of them.

The most common talent questions she hears from founders and CEOs revolve around timing. When do I hire the right person? When do I hire a leader vs. an individual contributor? Crowe admits the answer requires a bit of future vision.

“You want to be able to have foresight to hire someone whose job you can scope out for the next 1 ½ to 2 years,” she says. But to try and predict the perfect hire, who will be able to grow with the company to 1,000 people? “Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself.”

Instead, put more energy into leadership development. Managers are the key to successfully scaling, says Crowe. “If you have great managers, then you’ll hire great people.”

As a leader herself, she’s mostly made peace with the challenging pace and workload that comes in her line of work, especially during COVID-19 and a new era of remote work. Part of scaling herself as a leader means letting go of perfection and getting comfortable with the chaos of hypergrowth.

“I’ll admit I’ve never been in that spot where I’ve thought, ‘We’re good. We’ve arrived. We’re ahead of everything,’” says Crowe. “You’re never going to feel you’re completely on top of it, ahead of the game.”

The bright side is you’ll never wake up doing the exact same thing as the day before, she says. And ultimately, that’s very human.


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