Strategic HR

Strategic by Design with Maja Ninkovic Shapera

For this Expert Series interview, we caught up with Maja Ninkovic  Shapera, PhD, who is currently heading the People function in a fast-growing global communications company Mitto. Her small, but powerful People Team provides both operational and strategic support to the CEO, the Leadership Team and 230 employees across 19+ locations worldwide.

In this issue of HR World, we’ll explore what it takes to run a successful global people function in a dynamic industry and an increasingly unpredictable world. 

What is it that got you into this profession and what keeps you motivated about working as Head of People in Mitto?

I come to this role from a long background in People Analytics, and to People Analytics from a long background in psychology. It all seemed like a natural progression to me. As it turns out, both skill sets are immensely helpful in setting and executing good people strategies. 

What keeps me motivated? The fact that Mitto has succeeded in creating this entrepreneurial playground for its employees – an environment that’s high on freedom, flexibility and trust. It’s unique and many scale-ups fail at this very thing as they grow. But then, we’re only 230 people right now, so it’s an ongoing challenge to keep and nurture this authentic feel. It’s something we talk about a lot with my team.

That’s a good topic, and something we explore in more detail in this issue of HR World. Can you tell us more about how you see the role of HR in building or maintaining the company culture?

I am always a little amused when I think of building a culture – I picture some heavy machinery and hard, sweaty work. The truth is, authentic culture is already there, it’s a lived experience that people share and reinvent daily and it’s actually remarkably resilient.

In the early stages of a start-up, company culture is heavily influenced by the founders. They lay down the first principles, often without much conscious intent, and the initial employees form a nucleus around that. From an academic perspective, there are various theories on the transmission of culture, but the basis of it nearly always involves bits of information – be it values, beliefs, attitudes, practices, memes.

Everything in an organization carries information about the culture (“the way we do things around here”); from the systems we use, the meeting etiquette, the way people talk to each other, who is rewarded, who is demoted, what people laugh about, get upset about, and so forth. 

What became clear to many companies during the pandemic is that all human contexts – virtual or real – are filled with culture-rich information. This is why we see this unexpected success with remote onboarding – face-to-face is certainly richer in some aspects, but human beings have this wonderful capacity to extract the maximum amount of information out of any contextual cues.

From an organizational or People Ops perspective, once you fully embrace this point, you can start to intentionally design the desired elements of culture. For instance, if you want to nurture agility, you won’t burden your candidates or employees with tons of procedures, signatures, approvals. Instead of 3000 words, you’d try to communicate your strategy in 300 or even 30.

This role of HR as designers – designers of experiences, and therefore culture – is a very powerful and exciting new way to think about HR and its impact on business. 

Do you think that companies that place more emphasis on creating positive organizational cultures also perform better financially?

Yes, I do. There’s lots of research that supports this relationship. Although, of course, many factors enter into the financial success equation. But take for instance Glassdoor research – they run annual Best Places to Work awards. When they analyzed the real-world stock market performance of the BPTW winners, they found that they consistently outperformed the rest of the market for 10 years in a row. 

Now, it’s hard to disentangle the exact causation here – strong culture leads to market success or success results in a stronger culture which then loops back into attracting more customers, but all market forces being equal, I think it’s just common sense to assume that employees who are more engaged, satisfied or have stellar employment experience will also have higher performance.

HR as designers is an interesting concept – how do you translate this into practice? Can you describe how some of these practices are implemented in Mitto?

When it comes to employee experience and the design of employee-facing processes, we work in lots of iterations, but it usually starts with research. Like with all design, first you need to know who you’re designing for. We spend a lot of time understanding our employee base – what they need to be successful, what are their pain points, how they’re dealing with remote work, their upward feedback, and a host of other things. 

We use several surveys that are placed at key points along the employee’s journey, but we also do qualitative data collection, like individual and team interviews, check-ins, open questions. We rely a lot on our People Pulse surveys where we track eSAT (overall satisfaction) and eNPS (employee net promoter) scores, with additional deep-dive questions on relevant topics (remote work, process improvement, D&I, etc.).

We set ambitious goals around these metrics, for instance, keeping eSat over 8.5 and eNPS over 50, and I’m happy to say that Mitto has done a great job at reaching these targets company-wide. 

Based on the data, we then determine if what we’re seeing are isolated cases or patterns that could benefit from company-wide initiatives. Sometimes, however, an isolated case makes us re-think the whole process – for instance, we had several developers who were onboarding remotely and completed their first-week tasks in two days.

That meant we’ve hired some amazing people, but also that we had a few cracks in our system. This prompted us to initiate the redesign of the whole remote developer onboarding journey.  

To keep this focus on projects – and not be so consumed by lots of transactional work – we also needed to make some organizational changes in the People Team. Every person in a People role, from recruiters to business partners, is required to own one or more strategic initiatives that will improve some aspect of candidate or employee experience.

To keep us all focused, we have a dedicated People Ops Project Manager who is coordinating these projects across sub-teams and acting as a champion for the project-based work. Organizationally, using an OKR system is also critical for focusing us on major accomplishments we’d like to achieve in a given quarter. 

The world of work has massively changed in the past year. How has your company adjusted to the new normal?

At least in the technology sector, I think that working through the pandemic has resulted in some positive changes to the world of work. First, it has brought flexibility to even the most rigid organizational systems – flexible work will become the norm, rather than the exception. Second, it brought about unprecedented creativity in organizational problem solving, as well as lots of empathy and understanding for people’s unique personal circumstances. 

In Mitto, we are transitioning into a remote-first mode of working. Primarily, what this means for us is reconceptualizing the physical space in our offices around the world. We kicked off a project called #mittohub, which transforms our traditional offices into social collaboration hubs. These global hubs will serve the needs of 25-30% of our employees who opted for permanent office space, but hubs are also imagined as collaborative spaces where social interactions, learning, and knowledge-sharing take place. 

From a social perspective, we’ve kicked off a series of initiatives under the #mittoconnections umbrella – so for instance, we’re growing our Buddy program to include both team-based and social buddies. Social buddies are randomly chosen from the global employee pool, allowing people to create social ties with distant parts of the organization. Also, we are adding a cool mentorship feature to our Learning Journeys, where employees will be able to get learning credits from participating in a mentor-mentee relationship.

We try to include a social element in all our initiatives – for instance, if teams have gone through a conference or training, we ask them to organize at least one open Lunch & Learn session where other people in the organization get to connect and hear something new. We also offer our teams a monthly social activity budget that they can use to get together informally – in the virtual or hopefully soon again in the real world. 

Essentially, the key challenge in a remote-first environment is to increase the social cohesiveness, this feeling of togetherness, even though we’re apart from each other. These kinds of initiatives tend to increase employee ‘embeddedness’, a neat concept that captures different types of linkages between an individual and the organization – both in terms of work-related activities as well as social relationships with one’s colleagues. 

What are some of the more challenging aspects of your role as Head of People in a fast-growing environment such as Mitto?

For me personally, when you step into a leadership role, you’re always with one foot in the future. What’s different now I guess is that volatility and unpredictability have come in full force. But fast-growing organizations are inherently very unpredictable and you’re always building something that will potentially be completely transformed in 12 months when you’ve doubled your growth or market conditions change. But this dynamic nature of the industry is also what makes it exciting – it seems like every day there’s a new territory to be charted.

As the Head of People reports directly to the CEO, what are some ways to make that relationship a success?

This question relates to the strategic HR conversation – what makes HR or a People leader a strategic partner to the CEO, or, in fact, to the whole leadership team. Initially, it’s all about building credibility and building relationships. And credibility is a complex thing: it’s not just about industry knowledge or business acumen or being data-driven. It’s more nuanced than that – it requires deciding not only what’s the right thing to do, but also when and how to do it.

That takes some experience, maturity, and ability to hold, at all times, both micro and macro views of situations. And even then, you’ll get blindsided by something you never saw coming. But over time, both vulnerability and credibility build trust, and without this mutual trust, none of the successes we’ve achieved would be possible.

What has been immensely helpful – and I’d say essential to this relationship – is also to be honest with yourself about whether the vision of the CEO for the organization resonates with you. The relationship might not be successful without this basic alignment on core issues. This isn’t to say that you should agree on everything with your CEO and that not every major issue should be an uphill battle. 

What does a day in your working life look like?

That’s a tough question because most days don’t look alike!

I’m a super early bird, and I love quiet mornings before the kids get up. This is the time when I can truly devote myself to thinking about the big picture items, like how well are we supporting the larger business strategy, how are we positioning externally on the market, scanning the organizational landscape for blind spots, stuff like that.

As a team, we start each morning with a daily meeting, and that time is critical for both tactical and strategic alignment, really making sure that we’re always on the same page. As we’re still building out our team, my day can often get pretty operational, working on different initiatives, providing direction and feedback or partnering with the members of our leadership team on different issues. I’m a data person, so whenever I can, I devote time to running analyses or gathering insights – I love to roll up my sleeves with those kinds of tasks!

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