What it takes to be and hire a Chief People Officer in a fast-growth startup

An interview with Shanyn Payne, CPO at Finder
Dan Spencer
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December 9, 2021

Shanyn has 20 years of experience working with big brands, most recently joining Finder with the goal of doubling their growth in the next two years. This interview touches on all things a CPO and founders looking to hire a CPO would need to know. 

Founders -- expect to see what to look for and what to avoid in a CPO and how to cultivate that all-important relationship. Aspiring and current CPOs -- discover what new skills will give you a competitive edge and how to become a valued and successful CPO in today’s market.  


D: Let’s start with your background and the secret sauce to your success.

S: I spent the first half of my career in retail, operational type roles in supermarkets and pharmacy mostly. I moved into my first tech role in 2010 at Seek. I very deliberately targeted tech because I wanted to work in fast paced, dynamic cultures. My first startup was an online education services business. I was literally employee number one and grew that business to a $500 million valued business over an eight year period. I was on the executive team of that business. 

To expand my horizons and work for a listed, global business, I moved to become the global Head of HR at AfterPay. We grew from 400 to 900 employees, went from four countries to seven and went from an under the radar ASX 200 business to being in the ASX top 20. That was a wild crazy ride which I’d do all over again just because of the learnings and excitement. 

I was pretty tired after that and took some time off my career, with a big list of things to do. I was also picky about my next role and I eventually ended up as Chief People Officer at Finder. 

My secret sauce is being pragmatic. When you're working in fast growth organisations, you need to be finding solutions that are really practical and can be executed with speed. I’ve got a knack for listening and understanding what people in that business want and what drives them. I don't really even see myself as a HR leader. 

I see myself as a business leader with a people lens. 


D: What's your view around what the role of a CPO is and what skills do they ought to have today? 

S: If you boil everything down to what the role of the CPO is, it's about performance. 

So, how do you create the right environment and elements to unleash the mastery of your people? How do you make sure they’re motivated and get the business to outperform? There are a few new skills which have come to the fore that are super important for the fast-growth tech businesses. The CPO has to have solid compensation and benefits skills, especially global. It’s important for Aussie startups targeting the global market to get those frameworks right at the beginning, otherwise you’re in for a world of pain. 

Talent acquisition has been a hot topic recently, especially with recruitment and acquisition strategy. Specifically, the skills around talent acquisition and all the data that goes into sourcing candidates is a new skill with diversity, equity and inclusion. We've actually got candidates asking about the diversity make-up of the team before they even come to an interview and if there is not sufficient diversity,  then they won’t even come to the interview. So, it’s becoming more and more important to create that type of environment.


D: In your experience, how important is it to establish a people foundation and when should you think about it in a startup business? 

S: First person, ideally. Or by 50, definitely by 100. If you’re planning to scale, you need to have those basic foundational elements in place so you can scale quickly to avoid scrambling later on.


D: I couldn't agree more. So, if you're making the case to a founder around bringing in a strategic CPO, what would it look like? 

Well, a great idea that you want to take to the world is only that, an idea -  unless you have the people to execute on it. People do everything and without them you'll never get your idea off the ground. It’s the number one foundational element, to support that, providing clarity to employees, so they really understand what they need to do to execute on your vision. 

Break your strategy down into actionable goals and metrics or OKRs, whatever you want to call them. Your people can align and know what they need to work on. So, you're getting that high performance, everyone's aligned, they're been working on the right things. 

Underpin that with systems that help you achieve that. What I love about startups, especially tech startups, is the majority have great cultures due to great co-founders and the vision they have for their teams from the beginning. A CPO is critical because they are the custodian of that culture, they help founders and the executive team evolve and grow that culture as the business grows from 100 to 500 and beyond.

"It’s not something you can let happen organically, you need to be deliberate about how it grows to create an environment where your people feel included and valued. That’s the cornerstone for them being able to create a diverse culture. And we all know that diversity breeds true innovation."


D: What kind of advice would you give to a founder who's looking to hire a CPO for the first time?

S: I would advise to hire someone: 

  • Who is a business leader focused person or a leader with ‘the people lens’.
  • With values that align to the business. 
  • Who’s unique, creative, pragmatic and values driven, and can work at speed in a startup. 

The struggles I see startups go through is when they hire someone who: 

  • Will introduce frameworks and force the business to fit into them rather than observing what the business needs and applying a unique strategy. 
  • Is extremely strategic, but not operational enough or vice versa. Finding someone to fit in the middle, happy to roll up their sleeves and write a policy on-the-fly because that’s what needs to happen. 


D: Great advice. How important is the relationship between the founder and the CPO and what are the ingredients for a successful one? 

S: The very first interview should be with the founders. You'll get great people on paper, but if there's not that right chemistry with the founders it's not going to work. You need to be able to trust that person with your baby, that they know what they’re doing and that they’ll grow your business as you envisaged it. 


D: Speaking of working with founders, you've joined Finder and you're working with three founders. How do you manage three relationships?

S: One of the first things I asked when I started the interview process was, how does it work between the three of you - who makes decisions? I was worried about having to deal with three different brains and being pulled in different directions. I got a lot of comfort in the interview process. 

Quite a bit of magic happens with the three co-founders. They are very different personalities, but they're also very open to executive coaching and have been coached so they're very self aware. They know their strengths and spikey bits. 

My favourite value at Finder is called ‘Be Straight Up’. It’s just being direct and honest with each other. I feel I’m in a safe environment working with the three co-founders and the rest of the executive team because everyone is straight up. 


D: There's a real crunch on talent domestically right now. What advice do you have for fast growth businesses and the potential effect of the ‘great resignation’?

S: "If you have done the right thing by your people in the last two years and you have created a great environment and culture, then it really should be about the great attraction for you."

You should be in a really great position right now to be scooping up the talents that are leaving the businesses that have not valued or looked after their people in the last two years. 

If you haven’t done all that in the last two years, it’s probably too late to try and start putting things in place now. If you don't have the underlying culture where people feel valued, included and like they belong then you’re not going to retain them. It’s become a truly people-first values- led culture now.

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Dan Spencer is Think & Grow's Partner in Executive Search, placing Chief People Officers's across ASX settings and fast-growth technology businesses.

If you’re on the hunt for a CPO or you’re an aspiring CPO looking to make your next move, we’d love to hear from you.

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This article gives you a human element and insight into the data and findings for our Australian Startup Salary Survey Guide 2021-2022 in partnership with KPMG High Growth Ventures, Tech Council, HiBob and 20+ Australian VC's.

Want to check out insights and remuneration benchmarks for leading Chief People Officers in Australian based startups? Download the Guide here.

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