The right people policy for startups – Madan Nagaldinne

Internationally-acclaimed HR enthusiast, Madan Nagaldinne, CPO, Blink Health, is passionate about people science. In an exclusive chat with Arindam Goswami of HRKatha, he shares the strategy for what makes companies grow, and his differentiated approach on diversity and inclusion.

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You happen to have worked mostly with large organisations. How different is it working for a startup now?

When you have worked for big companies for many years, there comes a point when you start questioning yourself— ‘What more do I want to do with my career? Do I want to continue in the big organisation or do I wish to build something of my own?’ For me, I chose the second route. Every day I’d wake up and ask myself, ‘Can I build a great place to work?’

The reason for me to join a startup was the eagerness to build something from scratch. It’s not that you can’t do so in big companies, but you can only do it in a limited capacity.

Frankly, access to great talent and organising that talent to work is the only differential companies have today. I realised this five to six years ago, while working at Facebook.

The journey so far has been rewarding in two aspects. First of all, I now have a purpose and can directly impact the lives of the 2000–3000 people here. Second, I also learnt how to build a business. Believe me, this learning is priceless. It’s almost like doing a PhD in business, because you learn every aspect of it.

How are startups in the US different from the ones in India in terms of work culture and practices?

There is something common in all startups—they are all focussed on growth. What I noticed at Amazon and Facebook is that apart from growth, there is an obsession with customer delight. Every day, the conversations would revolve around finding ways to make the customers and users happy.

This is what differentiates two startups – one which has grown exponentially and the other, which is still struggling or may have reached a plateau. In the second case, the focus is on growth for growth’s sake, and not on delighting customers.

For any company, if the focus is on delighting customers, it will continue to grow. The concept is really simple.

The irony is that startups across the world find it difficult to focus on customer delight, because to achieve that one has to trade-off growth in the short term. For instance, one has to be determined that one will not release a half-baked product and go to the market when one is assured that 80 per cent of the customers will be happy and satisfied with the product. If need be one should delay the launch by a few more months. Most startups that are unable to rise over the mark, do not even have a grasp of what the customer journey looks like.

Leaders need to look at their teams as innovation machines.

In every startup, the founding members are as passionate as the founder. The rapport between them makes a cohesive team. However, with growth, the gap between the founding team members and the founder increases, following which many of the founding team members feel left out. How does one accommodate the founding team members especially with many of the startups now bigger than traditionally large companies.

This happens essentially when group members no longer feel like a team and start to feel like workers.

In such a situation, founders need to start thinking about how a structured communication can be created. Communicating the values and beliefs of the organisation becomes critical in such times.

In every company, there is a three-step process towards developing effective communication. The first is to have a weekly Q/A session, which is very important and something most companies do conduct. The problem, though, is that most founders neglect such exercises after barely few months, because they do not get instant gratification. The first process to master is the ‘one-to-many’ communication skill.

The second step is mastering ‘one-to-few’ communication. It is about having monthly meetings with different verticals, such as business, product and engineering, and working on making each of them happy.

The third is ‘one-to-one’ communication. In this process, you have a one-to-one dialogue with your key employees, with your women staff, and also your senior leaders. Founders need to master all three before thinking about increasing the company strength.

Madan Nagaldinne

The reason for me to join a startup was the eagerness to build something from scratch. It’s not that you can’t do so in big companies, but you can only do it in a limited capacity.

These days we see employees protesting against their own companies not for themselves but for causes they care about. Do you believe in this ‘organisational democracy’? Do you think employees have the right to dictate what companies do in terms of business decisions?

If you want talented employees, you will need to manage the level of activism that exists in the company. You cannot be managing through power, title or position. Any company is a mini-country or a mini-ecosystem. You will have some employees strongly agreeing or disagreeing with certain policies of the company. As a smart business person, you will have to factor that in.

Neither one can be an activist company nor a my-way-or-the-highway one. One needs to balance it out. My advice to founder-CEOs is not to think of activism as a drag. Instead, look at it as a tailwind you can appropriately manage to increase employee satisfaction.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for HR today? Is it working along with business, managing a multi-generational workforce, maintaining diversity, creating a leadership pipeline or creating a culture where humans and intelligent machines (robots) can work together?

The biggest challenge I perceive, is organising for greatness.

How you look at having the most intelligent and the most productive and innovative people in the organisation? Do you look at it from a payroll perspective? Or do you look at them as assets?

Leaders need to look at their teams as innovation machines. They need to focus on delighting the customer because only then will the customer reward them. The biggest challenges for companies and their HR are organising people in a way that brings out the best in them, bringing in the right talent and focussing on delighting the customer.

In this over-stressed environment, there is a growing concern of mental health. Do you think organisations should play a significant role or have definitive policies on mental health and wellness of its employees?

Certainly. Invest enthusiastically in making sure your health support is sound and that it takes a holistic view of your employees’ health. Most companies are taking this seriously and are giving their employees access to benefits, such as health professionals, counselling and therapy.

In smaller companies, it is easier to implement this while in larger companies, it may exist like a programme that is just there. HR leaders of big companies should go beyond merely having a programme to looking at the metrics and also making sure people are using it.

I go to most of my meetings asking everyone ‘How are you feeling today?’ rather than a ‘How are you?’ I have found this creates a fundamental difference. People automatically end up sharing if you ask them how they are feeling. Also, in all my meetings, I ensure seven to ten minutes for discussion with no agenda. This opens up a chance for us to talk about anything we like.

Diversity and inclusion programmes are in place in almost all companies today, and on paper they look good. However, employee surveys (BCG) reveal most of these policies are ineffective. There are challenges in recruiting a diverse workforce like sourcing and sensitising at work. How can HR truly be an enabler of diversity?

Diversity is a combination of belongingness, inclusion and equity. It is not enough to be diverse, but people need to feel like they belong to this space.

I have prepared something that I think perfectly sums up my thoughts on this. Diversity is when you are invited for the dance. Inclusion is when you are asked to dance. Belonging is when you can dance however you want. Equity is when you have a say in picking the DJ and the music. That creates diversity and inclusion within a company.

Social media is seen as a taboo in India because of the belief that it eats up productive hours. On the contrary for many functions, it is the tool for communication. Should there be a strict rule on social media usage during office hours or should it be totally free? Also, social listening is important for HR to gauge the pulse of employee mood. So, unless employees are on social media, how does one get the insights?

Internal communication should be driven by social media in an organisation. The existing communications function is too siloed. Emails and newsletters don’t cut it when you need to get your company aligned on the mission, goals and customer journey of the company. Many companies have successfully used this media as a tool for planning product releases and getting feedback from employees. The applications are endless.

When you can effectively use social media, banning it seems utterly foolish. HR leaders need to own this channel end-to-end and help improve the way an organisation communicates. This is essential because it impacts people.

There is something common in all startups—they are all focussed on growth. What I noticed at Amazon and Facebook is that apart from growth, there is an obsession with customer delight. Every day, the conversations would revolve around finding ways to make the customers and users happy.

One persistent HR myth that you wish people would do away with?

The myth for me would be when people think HR professionals choose to be in HR just because they like to be with people. This is a misconception. An HR professional is someone who helps create a workplace where great people decisions are made every day, and this gives firms a strategic advantage, as talent is not a commodity. You want to be in HR because you understand how to win with talent, and that is the foremost thing to focus on.

(This article was first published in HRKatha print magazine.)