I never fully understood HR, until I had to do it. I’ve found it’s possibly one of the most complicated hats to wear in business, and with good reason. I’m also a firm believer that the difference between a business thriving, surviving, or failing in its earliest years comes down to its people. It’s the very definition of what you’re building: a company — those you keep around you. Yet, affording people for your people is not always possible.
Wearing the HR hat in your business’s youth means you’ll need to hire, fire, and retain your talent well. It means you’ll need to lead with empathy, yet not let your empathy or softness be mistaken for weakness. It means, at times, you’ll need to make tough decisions—sometimes unapologetically—to podium your values and culture over your relationships. You’ll need to trust that what you’re doing is the right thing with the information you have.
It’s tough to find the balance.
Two years into DSLX, I don’t think I’ve found that balance yet. But, I’m certainly on my way. I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in stepping into HR’s shoes as a founder.
3 Tips for hiring as a founder
I’ve mentioned before that DSLX is an accumulation of freelance and full-time talent. We’ve hired slow and wise, and I’m totally okay with that. When it comes to hiring your first few full-time hires, there are three things I’d suggest.
1. Understand your workforce’s skills and knowledge gaps with staff planning tools & tactics
There are staff planning tools out there that can help you better understand where your current workforce skill sets lie, and flag knowledge gaps that need filling. From an organizational strategy through to the 9-box grid map or contingency planning; initiating these tools and methods and reading into your results will better enable you to see what you’ve got covered and what you haven’t.
With DSLX, there are moments when these gaps are easier to identify than others. For example, I had a clear understanding of the areas I was lacking in and type of mindset I needed for my first hire. But, as you step into hire number two – six, it can be tough to identify where to prioritize your talent, and what talent your business needs to reach the next level. Your first few hires determine the direction and projection of everything.
2. Practice gut health
I’m not sure how many HR’s will agree with me on this one, but it’s evolved from my time on the yoga mat. Earlier in 2023, I qualified as a yoga instructor. The year-long training taught me alot about listening to our bodies and our gut instinct. Our very rational world listens heavily to the left side of our brain (logic and language) while we often quell or devalidate our right sides of the brain (creativity and intuition).
This means we’re shunning a whole half of our brain! If I can say that? I actively encourage my team to listen to their gut more. To not dispel our instinct for logic where we can. We were recently hired at DSLX, and worked our way through 200+ applications for the role. One of the biggest pieces of advice I gave the hiring manager when interviewing was listen to your gut. I truly believe we’ve hired the best person for the role because of that.
3. Streamline your recruitment process with templates and tactics
Building on our recent hiring story, finding ways you can streamline a hefty hiring process can be crucial. Talent is rife, no longer restricted to geo locations, and with AI tapping at our doors the job market is looking thin on the ground for many industries. It means some job openings are getting 10x the number of applicants they would have in the past.
One of the ways we streamline our recruitment process is by applying SEO tactics to our resume reading. With so many candidates now using some pretty stunning resume templates to apply, you’ll need to truly assess the content of their resume. Look for keywords that apply to the role, identify keywords that are a no for the role, and get to scanning those CVs and cover letters.
It pains me to say it, but we had people applying for a writing and editing position using ChatGPT. ChatGPT! For a writing role! Some applications still had “<company name>” in their cover letters. I’ll allow candidates to streamline their application processes with templates, we did the same using email templates when shortlisting that initial 200 pool of applicants down to 35 technical fits. But, if they’re not paying attention to their cover letter, then it was an easy way for us to remove them from the hiring process.
At the same time, candidates that make it to the top ten deserve personalized feedback as to why they didn’t get the role.
In short, know when to use templates and processes to speed up your hiring, giving candidates the same grace, but know when either you or a candidate should be putting in more of a lift.
3 Tips for firing as a founder
Now, firing comes with its own set of pain points that I know many HRs are still haunted with. As a solo agency founder, I suppose I’ve hired well in that I’ve never had to fire a full-time member of the team. I think our mission massively helps DSLX draw good-hearted people to the business and results in people doing their very best in order for the mission to succeed.
However, the same cannot be said for having to fire freelancers. I’ve had to stop working with freelancers for numerous reasons, be it for clients churning through to them underperforming. Here’s what I’d suggest.
1. Know when to apologize
I’ve made many mistakes in launching my business, and admitting when you’ve made them is something you’ll need to do if you hope to retain respect and healthy relationships. Sometimes you’ll need to fire for your mistakes. Perhaps you hired wrong, perhaps you didn’t budget well, maybe you lost a client that you didn’t think was going anywhere. There are times when firing is done because of your errors, so know when to apologize for them and do so accordingly. Here you can find some tips for how to grow your business in a few simple steps.
2. Know when not to apologize
In comparison to the above point, there will be occasions when you should not apologize, and no words around firing should show remorse or regret. This comes at times when someone has abused their position, your trust, and is actively sabotaging your company’s values or team’s efforts.
On the few occasions when I’ve had to fire a freelancer because of the above, I’ve made it clear in our messaging and on-call why we’re not going to continue working with them, and I’ve been conscious about the vocab I’ve used.
These are not the times to “apologize that it didn’t work out.” These are the times when your words light a fire under their feet, and force them to get their act together for their next gig. If you don’t come down firmly and unapologetically then they’ll likely repeat their actions for the next client and you’re doing future employers a disservice.
3. Letting someone go, and someone leaving, doesn’t need to be personal
Lastly, there’s a middle ground to firing. There comes a time when both parties need to go their separate ways, and it’s a mutual understanding. Especially if you’re working with freelance teams, perhaps they end up moving on to a bigger project, a different project, or go full-time somewhere. That’s just the way the world rolls, and what you’re signing up for in working with freelancers.
Someone leaving your business is not a personal attack on you, or your team. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed them in any way, and doesn’t mean you didn’t do your very best to give them the most enjoyable workplace experience. It just means it wasn’t a right fit. That’s okay. Let people go with grace, never burn a bridge, and wish them well on their journey. Who knows when you’ll cross paths again!
Closing out with retention and professional growth
Lastly, I want to close with retention and professional growth for your team. In 10 lessons I learned bootstrapping my content agency, I talk alot about championing your teams. And, I’ll continue to do so now. Retention is the number one most important thing to sustainable growth in your earliest years.
Here are three actions I suggest you take in order to champion your team.
Build knowledge bridges: upskilling and cross-skilling are more financially achievable than trying to hire someone new for the gap. Ask your team if they’re curious in specializing in another knowledge area before you jump to the LinkedIn job boards.
Identify a cross-team collaboration culture: I truly believe that we’re at our best when our teams are diverse. But, that’s useless to everyone if you’re working in silos, or only collaborating on organized calls. Implement a culture and workplace community in which teammates are more than comfortable reaching out and working together—outside of your introductions.
Prioritize growth in benefits: DSLX doesn’t earn a huge amount a year, we’re a small agency and I try not to operate beyond our means. I’ve seen that send many agencies to an early grave. But, one thing I’ll continue to do is put our money back into the professional growth of our team. We have a healthy benefits pack at DSLX, and the largest part of that is tailored to professional growth. Despite your profit margins, you’ll be at your most successful when your team is happy and you’re continuing to deliver on their curiosities.
That’s everything for now. Thank you for reading. I hope you’ve found this article helpful, and please do connect with me on LinkedIn if you think I can help you out more!