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Interview: Caoimhe Keogan, VP People, SoundCloud

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24th Jul 2013
Editor HRZone
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1. You’ve mentioned before the importance of onboarding at start-ups. Can you elaborate on this? How does onboarding differ between big companies and small companies?

For SoundCloud, onboarding begins when we have that first contact with a candidate. Even before we’ve decided whether there is a match, we are already ensuring that our recruitment process gives potential employees an insight into SoundCloud’s culture and ways of working. Of course, the more structured onboarding begins as soon as someone has accepted an offer to join us. All new SoundClouders come to Berlin to attend onboarding, even if they are hired for our other offices (Sofia, London, San Francisco, New York City). As a growing company, it doesn’t make sense for us to replicate onboarding procedures in our other offices across the globe yet, so we have everyone start in Berlin and then return to their working location. It’s a great way for new hires to get a feel for where the company started and why we are headquartered here.

There is not much of a difference between onboarding in either a small or large company, as it’s all about making sure that you give someone the best possible introduction. New hires need to understand how their role fits into the bigger picture and we need to ensure that they are given the tools and resources they need to quickly immerse themselves into their new positions. We are growing very quickly so we need our new employees to be fully contributing to their teams in a very short space of time, which is why we invest heavily in our onboarding program.

2. Attracting top talent is a big challenge for all companies, particularly start-ups that need to grow quickly. How do you tackle this?

We view recruiting as a core capability of the company, and through our in-house hiring process we continue to attract top talent to the business. One of our hiring processes requires that most of our employees participate in interviewing on a regular basis, and those who turn out to be particularly well calibrated and good predictors of success become ‘bar keepers’. They play a particular role in our process where they sit on interview panels for teams outside their own area and act as the ‘conscience’ of the company, ensuring that immediate resourcing needs in a team don’t override the need to maintain a high bar, strong cultural and value-base for SoundCloud. We also have a clearly defined process that we follow, which involves assessing candidates against four areas:

  • technical or domain skills
  • relevant experience
  • behavioural competencies
  • fit with our culture and values

We also have an employee referral program, as great people want to work with brilliant people, and whilst that in itself is a strong reason for most team members to refer a friend or ex-colleague, it’s also helpful to provide a financial incentive.

3.What are the top three HR lessons you learnt from your time at Google?

The three key lessons that I learned whilst at Google were:

  1. The importance of trusting people and giving employees the freedom to innovate at work
  2. Having open and transparent processes for key “people programs” such as promotion, salary reviews etc.
  3. How to use data to effectively inform decision-making in the HR space

4. Is the role of the HR function evolving? What’s changed in the past five years?

The HR function is always evolving. The biggest trend is the need to ensure that we don’t remain trapped in a service-mentality. It’s easy to build trust with the company by taking a very service-orientated approach to business partnering, however we actually need to be cautious that we don’t do the company a disservice as a result. The HR leader is in a unique and privileged position. He or She has a perspective on the business that can be much more holistic than other functional leaders, around the table, and this means that we should and can be a source of input to all major strategic business decisions.

It’s no longer about being at the table in service mode, to hear the decision and then execute in people-terms, but actually informing those business decisions based on a deep understanding of the health of the organisation and what it is capable of delivering, both now and in the future. This means that a HR leader needs to not only challenge the finance leader or the engineering leader on a decision related to their part of the business, but those challenges are  actually critical to achieving a healthy organisation.

5.What are the biggest recruitment mistakes HR continues to make?

At SoundCloud, we are focused on hiring people with very in-demand skills, there is a constant line to balance between experience, technical skill-set, cultural fit and team suitability. We’ve all seen those scenarios where a company hires a ‘rockstar’ engineer who has amazing technical skills, but who turns out to be difficult to work with, or sports teams who ‘win’ more often without their superstar players on the field. These scenarios highlight the importance of weighting attitude and culture/team fit on at least an equal par with technical skills.

6. SoundCloud has a lot of competitors. How do you make sure the people who work for you help the company retain a competitive advantage?

We focus on finding remarkable people through our hiring process and by continuing helping them to grow by providing structured and non-structured learning opportunities and keeping them focused by providing a clear sense of purpose and a remarkable work environment.  We have ‘organisational health’ as one of the four key performance indicators that drive our business, and we believe that by focusing on employee happiness and wellbeing we can build the sort of flexible and resilient organisation that can respond to whatever demands the competitive environment throws at us.

7.Engagement is a hot topic at the moment. How do you ensure your employees remain engaged and what unique engagement challenges do you face as a tech startup?

I’m not sure if the average employee really relates to concept of ‘engagement’ and so we’ve tried to simplify it by focusing on ‘happiness’.  It’s broadly the same concept, but asking someone ‘are you happy?’ seems more intuitive. Of course employee happiness is more than just how happy they are at work, and with this in mind we have just started working with Nic Marks and his ‘Happiness Works’ company to really understand the dynamic nature of what contributes to overall individual happiness and how we can impact/influence that at SoundCloud.

As a tech startup, one of our biggest challenges is the impact that fast growth has on people. If you joined a company when it had 20 employees, the fact that a couple of years later it's now 200 people can be pretty overwhelming. For an early employee it can be difficult adjusting to the rapid growth as you are used to being able to get things done, mainly because you knew everything and everyone,  but as the company scales they may not know who these new faces are and where responsibilities now lie, and this can be really tough for the individual. Maintaining engagement and happiness through this type of growth is the unique challenge of a start-up. Keeping those earliest employees, who are often the strongest representation of the culture and values of a business is extremely important.

8.You mention the importance of keeping leaders visible. Tell us more about this. What type of leadership styles work for SoundCloud?

Leadership is very personal and every leader here has their own unique style. It’s important that people are authentic and true to themselves and in that sense we don’t have a model for the ‘perfect’ leader at SoundCloud. At our company, both leaders and employees, are open and have a clear sense of purpose. We believe it’s important to celebrate success. At times, we are so focused on improvement that we can be overly self-critical and forget about all the great things that we have achieved so far as a company. It’s therefore nice to have a core value around this which reminds us to ask ourselves - what are we celebrating today?

We are fortunate in having our founders still in the business. Our CEO and CTO founded this company in 2007 and they are very involved in the day-to-day at SoundCloud. Neither of them sit in private office space, but out on the floor with everyone else, which makes them visible. Our CEO hosts breakfast with all new employees twice a month, so everyone gets to meet him in-person early on and therefore hopefully feels that they can reach out and communicate directly with him. We also have twice monthly all-hands meetings which are hosted by the founders. 

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