“During uncertain times transparency and communication is key to retaining top talent”: Interview with Ethan Partners’ founder and CEO Ann-Christine Roope

It’s no secret that the corona virus pandemic is provoking extreme changes for startup teams, on both ends of the spectrum. For startups experiencing unprecedented growth, such as in the gaming or food delivery sectors, hiring fast and maintaining company culture are the name of the game. On the flip side, startups currently experiencing a lull in activity are putting a temporary freeze on hiring, reducing staff hours, and re-assigning staff internally. But how can founders manage the current climate, whilst ensuring the quality, productivity and efficiency of their workforce?

We caught up with Ann-Christine Roope, CEO and founder of Ethan Partners, an executive search company that which has placed over 3000+ outstanding startup team candidates across 50+ countries and worked with startups and scaleups like Deliveroo, Uber and Airbnb. We spoke about how to think about company culture, her thoughts on the ‘trend’ of remote working and how to assess new candidates remotely, and her tips to ensure your top team members stay with you as your venture grows.

Hi Ann-Christine, thank you for joining us. Let’s start with a question about your insights, as you’re placing top talent in companies and startups across 50+ markets. What have been your observations during the corona virus pandemic?

Thanks for having me!

Initially, a lot of companies froze all hiring, as a response to the pandemic. Many companies have also, unfortunately, had to reduce their number of employees. However, letting go of employees and hiring freezes are not necessarily a sign of a business in trouble. A lot of digital focussed companies have not been as affected by the pandemic as brick and mortar companies. Their business models are not necessarily affected directly, but they work with reduced costs due to fear of potential lack of access to future funding and in general try to reduce the overall operating costs in the business due to uncertain times.

We’re curious, have the number of fully or partly remote positions (not just because of social distancing) increasing? Do you think this will become a trend or is it just talk?

Before COVID-19, remote positions were already increasing but the current pandemic has made the transition even quicker. A lot of companies were forced to have their employees working from home – and perhaps they saw that the output of their employees was the same, or maybe even better. I think this will make companies a lot more open to these types of positions going forward.

I am certain we will see more remote positions and more flexibility in relation to employees living in a different city or abroad, and then frequently visiting HQ. The future office and work environment will be more fluid and tailored to suit employees needs and preferences.

Many startups and their teams are going through some tough times. Do you have any advice on retaining top talent at a time like this?

During uncertain times transparency and communication is key to retaining top talent. If employees feel insecure about the future of a company or their position, they will start looking for other opportunities. Be sure to inform the team and make them feel calm and secure about their workplace.

It is understandable that companies are struggling, so there is no need to hide the fact that we are in challenging times, but be proactive and talk about what the company will do to get through the situation and hopefully be able to change things around in the future and the importance of their role. It is important employees feel valued and included.

For teams that are looking to hire, do you have any tips on choosing the right fit at this time, especially when face-to-face interviews are a no-go?

Since face-to-face interviews are a no-go these days, many of our clients do more video-interviews with more rounds than usual and have introduced more tests such as personality tests and case studies. It is really important to take your time to really get to know the candidates, before making your decision.

Having grown your own team, what has been your biggest challenge as a founder, and how did you overcome it?

Our biggest challenge when starting Ethan Partners was to find top talent that would like to join the company, despite the fact that you are an unknown name and brand. Also in our case, we did not have any funding so couldn’t offer high salaries which makes it even harder to convince top talent to join the company.

I overcame this by giving a lot of responsibility and being transparent, so people can be part of the journey of the company. Furthermore, we strive to give our employees a lot of training and learning experience, so there is a lot of professional and personal development. Our employees also get to work with different high-profile clients from the whole world and the hottest new startups which are also attractive.

Many people are looking to use the free time they have at home nowadays to brush up on their skills. Do you have any insights on what are the most desired competencies across the board, or in fast-growing sectors?

I think what’s important here is that you focus on something that is relevant to your current role, or something you are passionate about or would like to move into.

Skills that are in high demand right now are areas such as coding, development, UX, UI, Digital Marketing, etc. and in startups it can be beneficial both for those working hands on with the skill and managers and business leaders to get a better understanding through continuous learning.

But again it’s important to assess if those skills are relevant for your profile and future career, and something you want to work with, so you don’t just learn a competency because it is popular.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about ‘company culture’ and how to manage it as your startup grows fast. Do you have any advice for fast-growing teams?

My best advice for fast-growing teams is that it really pays off to focus on company culture at an early stage. Startups should spend time defining their company culture and hire people that are aligned with the culture that the company is trying to achieve and furthermore make sure they share the same beliefs. That being said, company culture is not something you just decide and implement – it is the byproduct of consistent behavior.

Focusing on company culture early on and hiring people with the same vision makes a great team from the beginning and saves time in the long run.

Defining the culture before hiring, is especially important when you are growing quickly. If you have not defined your company culture, you will make a lot of mistakes hiring profiles that don’t fit in, are demotivated or affect the culture negatively.

Finally, what do you think will be the biggest trends in the HR tech sector, in the next 5-10 years?

Some of the trends I think will be the biggest in the HR tech sector are:

  • AI-Assisted Recruitment

I’m not sure AI will be good enough to assess profiles in the coming years, but it can definitely be used to automatize and speed up the hiring process.

  • Improving the job applicant experience

If the recruitment process is too complicated and lengthy, you will miss great talent. Making the recruitment process streamlined and more efficient will be good both for your HR department and for your applicants. I think that we will see more and better HR solutions to simplify and speed up the administrative process of recruitment and free more time for the interview and onboarding experience.

  • Reskilling and continuous learning

Employers will provide more and more opportunities for reskilling and learning in the workplace in order to have the most highly skilled employees possible.

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