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  • Operator Sessions
  • 14 June 2023
  • 6 min read
  • Words: Laura Clifford

Operator Session: The Ever-Changing Landscape of People Management

Bringing our People Leaders Together

We recently invited our highly valued community of Chief People Officers and Heads of Talent from our portfolio companies for a series of in-person workshops at our office in London.

The workshops focused on the ever-changing landscape of people management, with the intention to shed some light on some of the most common challenges that our portfolio companies are facing and enable the group to share and learn from each other. We had fantastic representation in the room from people leaders at Personio, Ravio, Zopa, Flink, Tier, Trustpilot, Truelayer, Wagestream, Infogrid, Idoven, Yonder Card and Distribusion. 

The topics ranged from“How do we better coach, challenge and support founders in the period ahead” led by Northzone partners Jeppe Zink and Elena Pantazi; “Unlocking a culture of productivity and impact” by Ross Seychell, CPO at Personio and Northzone advisor; and “Designing and developing the right incentivisation strategy”  hosted by leading compensation plaftorm Ravio co-founder Merten Wulfert and CPO at Tier Trecilla Lobo. 

Laura Clifford, Northzone Talent and Portfolio Lead summarised some of the discussion points below:

Has there ever been an ‘easy’ time in people management?

The (poorly named) “talent war” has preoccupied the People role in the last three years, and it seems to be transitioning into an even more challenging scene as valuations drop, teams decrease and retention of top talent is pressingly more complex.

The phrase suggests that there has been some sort of ‘peacetime’ when it comes to the People function. Our group argued that this was not the case, that each period of growth or decline (or often an amalgamation of both) brings another, although not necessarily new, challenge. 

One of the biggest points our group addressed was the ‘knock-on effect’ –  if one challenge is not managed properly before the next comes up, the function becomes increasingly complicated. Maybe that in itself is the reason why the People role seems to be at peak difficulty. As a result, sharing experiences and learnings within the community has become paramount for our People Leads. 

Org design from day one 

The gift of hindsight is often a curse in real time, where the recognition of bad organisation planning (however unintentional) comes too late. Once a company has reached a certain scale, organisational design can become a complex labyrinth of mis-hires, salary discrepancies and over (or under) staffed teams. 


Naturally, there isn’t a formula for exactly how to ‘perfect’ org design, but starting with a reflective and sophisticated people and workplace management approach and prioritising the value of training your People teams across HR specialisms will mean there are fewer roadblocks in the future. 

You can find some practical tips on Designing Organisations that scale in our People Series here.

Long-term investment into your people = long-term investment into your company 

In the past few years, the People function has evolved considerably. Previously the notion was that once you reached 100 employees, it was time to bring in a VP/Head of People, or a C-level if you’re scaling fast. Before this, there may have been lean Talent Acquisition and HR teams, but getting buy-in from founders for a robust People team was difficult. 

Now founders and CEOs have shifted their thinking. The first necessary step in the evolution of the People role is bringing in strong senior People talent earlier. While this movement enables the construction of stronger and more resilient teams, founders are looking for their People leads to having considerable experience, which is often hard to find. 

While not every role or function can be built with industry veterans who have been through economic cycles, putting emphasis on learning and development through effective training will accelerate your team’s capabilities. Running sessions on change management, organisational design, employee incentivisation etc., pulling from the knowledge pools of those who have seen it before, will help your team understand the journey. Often founders and senior leaders will take for granted that others in their team know the journey of a startup, but most will need guidance through it. 

Everything is(n’t) bad 

Something that came up consistently throughout the conversation with our People Leads was the apparent and required openness that the world of work now faces, especially in startups with a younger workforce. This could give the impression that employees are more demanding and more unhappy with their situation than ever before. However, in the past there wasn’t as open a forum for questions, and complaints. On this reflection, we don’t need to immediately jump to the conclusion that everything is getting consistently worse. 

Rather than being disheartened by your team questioning business strategies and management decisions, use it as a tool to reflect on your strategy and as low-hanging fruit to engage and incentivize your team, driving employee engagement and productivity. In the same way that you get feedback from your customers on your product to improve, treat your team feedback as such. 

Bolt out of a clear sky 

Reflecting on recent challenges, the difficult questions teams are asking now weren’t apparent in the past, or even coming up: so sometimes even seasoned leaders don’t know how to address them. 

There is a human instinct to under-communicate during hard times. It’s especially difficult as a founder to be open and not panic the team, but too much under-communication leads to distrust, lower productivity and reduced employee buy-in, especially when your teams can over-predict turbulence. 

It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter to the wider employee base what is happening immediately in the company: not everyone needs to know about near-death experiences. It is important to recognise what is a short-term versus a long-term problem. The team doesn’t need to know if the plan is changing all the time (as is often the case in the startup ecosystem), but they will feel a stronger affinity with the company and the mission if they have access to long-term plans. 

It’s often best to start building trust by being honest and saying we don’t know how long this turmoil will last. However, there does need to be a stronger message next: if you’re not being clear with your team, you’re not setting expectations. Be open about the fact that the game has changed, look at the things you can control, and work with your founders to develop the narrative. 

Give your team tangible areas that they can expect updates on. Don’t fixate the team on one metric but rather on working together and winning together, it’s important to show them that you’re on the ball and keep the balance in the conversation.

Supporting the founder

CEOs and founders can often feel lonely in their role and may sometimes struggle with internal communication during stressful periods. The group shared their experiences on how the People Lead can be immensely valuable here. By being a sparring partner to the founder and as an operator more connected to what is going on behind the scenes, you can act as a great ally to figure out what the right messaging is to the team and when.


Coaching can also play a huge role in supporting the founder, whether this is on a professional level, or it can often go deeper where the personal and professional merge, given the rollercoaster journey. Finding appropriate and relevant coaches is important, especially as some founders will work best with those who have a more holistic approach while others will resonate more with coaches who have an operational background.

Psychological buy-in 

The value at which we hold our jobs in our lives is often underplayed. Beyond the obvious economic drivers for working, most employees who are happy with their jobs (and in turn who are productive) are so because of the positive psychological buy-in that they have with the company, led by the company’s culture, mission, and values. Working productively in any company requires a certain level of psychological safety and recognising it as a key component in employee retention is imperative. 

There has also been a psychological shift in working styles. Some People Leads shared that their teams viewed coming into the office 5 days a week as excessive, especially as travel and the cost of living increases, whereas others shared that lack of face time with teams lead to a significant decrease in communication and effectiveness. The group agreed that culture and values have to come home. Companies placing a focus on a culture where the team feels it’s ‘in it together’, provides opportunity for collaboration, autonomy and empowerment.

Preserving and creating forums where you encourage non-work related conversations is also important, where your employees learn about each other and feel a greater sense of belonging together will too increase the psychological buy-in from your team, especially during challenging times.   


You can find some practical tips on the Future of Work in our People Series here.