Sophie Theen: “Learn to grow when you really need to”

Sophie Teen is a culture and talent guardian at 11FS, a London based start up in the Fintech sector. Currently her company is growing headcount at 300% a year globally. Before this, she was the head of HR at Revolut where within the year the headcount went up by 500%. You might say she knows a thing or two about recruiting in hyper growth, the subject she will be addressing at Talent Acquisition Live this year.

Sophie, I don’t think many of us can imagine recruiting for organisations growing at rates above 100% a year. Tell us, what do you do on a day to day base?

“The reality is as the first HR person, you end up doing everything working with the founders on almost everything about their people and culture. And as the company grew, so did my team. They specialize in their areas leaving me to have the headspace to plan for our future, which normally includes reviewing objectives for the business, the teams and myself. Looking at strategic workforce planning because we’re bootstrapped, everything needs to be accounted for financially, which kind of makes you do the 3rd, 4th, 5th degree thinking before you make a decision to hire. Although this might sound like you’re wasting a lot of time especially in a really fast paced startup, but you think: if I don’t do things strategically, then what makes us different? How do we know we’re doing better than others? I really enjoy that part of my day. The rest is when I spend time with leadership to work on human challenges, because let’s face it, there isn’t a one size fits all manual created to help HR professionals solve every problem in an organization. You’ve got to approach, think, resolve, learn, then bake it back into your current process. It’s all about learning constantly, never stop reflecting.”

So you will be talking about recruiting in hyper growth. How do you describe hyper growth and tell us a little about your experience with it. What numbers are we talking about?

“Hypergrowth is a common ask from founders when I get to meet them. We all live in the myth that hyper growth means hiring a bulkload of people, because it makes us look a lot more superior that our competitors. Well, that’s a lie I’ll tell you. Hypergrowth is when you double, triple your headcount but people are still happy working there albeit the new hires shifting your culture as they go. You can only do this by removing yourself from the idea of “grow grow grow at any expense” and finally learn to “grow when you REALLY need to”. It will force you to think about skill mapping, strategically mapping your workforce based on cost, workload, deliverables before any hiring managers say “I want to hire someone”. My hyper growth experience comes from running medium to XL sized headcount companies, but again, this is not a numbers competition. Hiring 200 people and losing 100 at the same time means you’re not doing it right.”

So you are doing insane numbers with a very small team. How do you manage that?

“Strategy and your people. I know, I sound like a flashy consultant about strategies, but there’s a reason why. I used to have a team of 11 hiring 200 people, now I have a team of 2 and we hired 120 people last year. It’s not magic, and there’s no secret sauce to it. Leading a strongly charged organization to hire so many people in a short period of time meant two things: strategically planning for gaps to fill (means asking questions you normally don’t dare to, because they tell you that HR’s role is just to hire when asked) and optimizing your internal resources. Ask yourself, who are your best ambassadors of the brand, and who knows more people than you do? The people in your company. Our biggest source of hires come from word of mouth which means, someone in the company already know them to refer them to us.”

You call yourself a culture guardian. What do you mean with that and how do you handle that part of your role?

“It means I take the word “culture” very seriously. It means that when one of our staff is in despair, or having a challenge, I drop everything and go to them. They are my first and utmost priority. But this doesn’t mean just being a listener, because I’m not that. My role to guard the culture to is keep our people happy by solving their problems. Of course from time to time, there are exceptions when they’re out of my control. But all in all, I know what our company principles are and I bake them into every process, conversations, trainings, and wherever I see gaps.”

Last question: can you tell us something about you most people won’t know?

“I spent a huge chunk of my life living near the beach and so while I’m in the UK, I use the Calm app for beach waves sounds for sleep all the time! I’m one of those people who you call beach bums, because I can be there for hours and hours on end.”