Diane Rivière, Chief Human Capital Officer at private equity firm Creadev, moved from an operational position into an advisory, influencing role after 20+ years in HR. She talks to Erevena’s Lilian Poilpot about the value of people leaders in supporting companies in hypergrowth – and why CPOs should do their due diligence before taking on a new position.

How did you start your HR career journey?

When I was a student at business school, I had to choose between marketing and finance. My intuition was that dealing with people and intangible assets would probably lead to a more complex and adventurous career. I was eager to make an impact through human capital, rather than through product, finance or economics, although I was far from knowing what profession I would follow at that stage. I have never been disappointed by my choice. In fact, it’s been a fantastic journey from the beginning.

What is your background in the tech sector?

I was lucky enough to start out in an American tech company. This meant that, from the outset, while still based in France, I was working for a non-French organization with global reach. This shaped me and helped me embrace the challenge of global company culture. I didn’t have much awareness of the tech industry at the time, but it became a pattern that has remained throughout my career. I was inspired by what working in tech or an organisation’s engineering function could drive in terms of people management challenges.

What sort of challenges are you talking about?

It’s all about managing people’s career development expectations and how you utilise knowledge and core competencies as a company asset. I recognised that you could put your business at risk if you didn’t care about how you onboarded people and ensured they grasped the specific skill sets of the company’s innovation capacity. These people aspects of your business demand high standards and the belief in the value of sharing core competencies with colleagues and new joiners. This drives the way you shape your people and development policies.

How did your career progress after this early introduction to the tech sector?

I’ve had several roles in tech since, including head of HR for Schneider Electric, as well as at Amazon and later AXA where I built the big data capacity and expanded its use within the business. Most recently before joining Creadev I was Chief People Officer at health tech company Alan. Another aspect of my career has been my exposure to global or international operations and this remains constant today. I’ve also been lucky throughout my career to be offered roles that were new for the organisation. This might be creating a wholly new function or becoming a company’s first ever HR leader.

What has it been like creating new functions or roles?

Being in positions where I’ve had to shape the function has been a real driver for me. It’s meant that I haven’t had to take someone else’s legacy. Instead, I have been able to think about and design the way people management should be led for a specific organization. One example of this is when I took the role of HR leader for Amazon in France. It was 15 years ago and essentially like being in a start-up. I was their first HR leader and it was a fascinating journey.

What inspires you in your people leadership role?

I have found the diversity of company cultures fascinating across the different firms I’ve worked for. For example, after eight years working for Schneider Electric, I joined Amazon and quickly realised that it was total turnaround in terms of how I handled my role as an HR leader simply because of the company culture. I’ve been extremely impressed by how much a strong company culture can drive performance and employee engagement. It can be extremely powerful and drive immense focus and energy across your workforce. It’s why my ambition, after leaving Amazon, was to join another tech company, probably a European one – a company whose purpose could inspire me.

Tell us about that company – healthcare tech firm Alan

When I joined, I was extremely impressed by the founders and how much focus and importance they dedicated to shaping the Alan culture. It is definitely one of the most inspiring company’s culture-wise on the French tech scene at the moment. From the very beginning, these guys invested their time and energy in shaping the culture as much as they invested time and energy in shaping the product offer. They and the team around them questioned how they wanted to work together. How did they want to share their knowledge? How did they want to handle relationship with their stakeholders, including their shareholders, candidates, clients, and partners in the health industry? The choices they were making were cutting edge and disruptive and they were putting a mark in the ground for others in the market to follow.

Can you give us an example of how Alan’s approach was different?

When you are a small organisation and a new player, you need to attract the best people and they may want to negotiate their package. But well before the current French regulations about transparency and compensation, Alan adopted a transparent approach that meant salaries, equity grades, share options and the like were out in the public domain. This culture of radical transformation made it difficult for candidates to negotiate and was unusual at the time. However, Alan’s founders were adamant that if people saw the value in the journey they were building, then they would be happy with this rigid adherence to transparency.

Tell us more about this ‘radical transparency’ at Alan

By the time I joined Alan, I had perhaps become tired of the same HR leadership role and responsibilities that I’d experienced over the years. So, it was exciting to come across a different culture. It felt so much more fun to be an HR leader in a company that was disrupting the way in which HR could shape policies, not just around compensation but in other areas, such as performance management. The radical transparency that is part of the culture at Alan drives behaviours and translates into how decisions are made every day about people management. For example, it governs decisions on who is promoted – and who isn’t – and how people should be rewarded.

Why did you make the move from a start-up to a fund?

I had been thinking that Alan might be my last chief people officer role. Then I began to think about the impact I could have on guiding entrepreneurs and founders in how to set their cultures for success. One of the founders at Alan, Jean Charles Samuelian, was often asked to help other companies and I had the opportunity to join him and offer advice on building the first steps of an organisation and its people policies. I was sharing my experience of what worked and what failed and how to avoid making certain mistakes when building a company. And I realised I wanted to do more of this.

I wanted to be in a position to really share my experience of growth and why it’s been so fascinating to help companies like Amazon and Alan manage hypergrowth. I wanted to help them answer key questions: What does it take to shape your organization towards a larger company? What is required at each step and every stage of maturity? What do you need to start shaping your international presence? And with some companies growing through acquisition, how can they put in place a structure across entities to drive fairness and consistency? One route into doing more of this was via the venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) funders investing in growing companies.

How did you decide where to go?

I knew where I didn’t want to go! It is often the investment director who is in the driving seat of a VC company. They make decisions to invest or to change a company CEO based on economic factors, rather than considering what’s at stakes in terms of human capital assets. I didn’t want to be the ‘hire and fire’ woman in a company like that when an investment had become a disaster. So, I took my due diligence seriously, not just with Creadev who I ultimately joined but with a few other finance organisations. I wanted to make sure that I would have a voice upstream at the investment committee level and that human capital assets would be a driver for decisions, rather than a consequence of them.

Tell us more about this human capital perspective on the part of funders

I am at an evergreen private equity organisation and am privileged to have the luxury of shareholders who are willing to consider the longer term. And when you look at the long term, you can’t ignore the human capital. If you don’t take care of this asset, you will never get the long-term return on investment you’re looking for. There is a high level of awareness for this within the organisation and now it is my task to help turn that awareness into practical application and make it happen among the investment teams. This is super fun for me right now.

Has this move reinvigorated you at a time when other chief people officers say it is hard for them and are leaving the profession?

Yes, there has been an exodus of people leaders. In fact, it’s why I switched from being an operational CPO to a role where I am able to influence things, to advise, to share my experience and to help anticipate what’s next. I want to really understand and articulate what’s at stake for a company in terms of human capital. All too often, when investment teams prepare to talk to the investment committee or board about human capital, it’s all about C-levels. They never look beyond whether they’ve got the right CEO, CFO, etc, and whether the senior team gets on well, is well educated and works efficiently together. What they should also care about is the company culture, how they attract and onboard talent, how fast they want to scale and whether they are actually equipped to scale. It’s failing to consider these aspects that has made it so hard for CPOs in high growth, fast paced companies because they’re always behind the curve.

How are you changing this?

One area that I’m trying to help companies in Creadev’s portfolio with is what I call ‘HR for HR’. I want to help HR leaders have the conversation about the means and budget available to them for anticipating the company’s needs. I enjoy the role so much because I am able to influence the decisions at C- and board level, so that they appreciate how human capital management is an enabler (or a de-railer) of their business plan. I’ve been there myself as an HR leader and know how important this is for the overall growth of a company across geographies. I was lucky during my time at Alan to have a fantastic C-level team around me who were super aware of what it takes and why it is so important to invest in the skillset and capacity of the people organisation.

Can you illustrate the role of human capital management in a company’s growth?

I joined Alan right after their series C fundraise and helped lead series D and series E. It was incredibly demanding, so I know what it takes to invest in a company’s talent. I am in contact with many HR leaders who haven’t had the same level of understanding or a CEO who welcomes the input of the CPO. For example, when a company is making an acquisition, it’s like being hit by a tsunami. You have to integrate a brand new organisation in multiple countries and think through how you’re gong to harmonise your people policies, the way you pay people and the different employment contracts. It can be extremely complex and isn’t necessarily about the size of the employee base but the growth stage at which the company is at. For the CPO, it can be exhausting, so I am not surprised we are seeing operational people leaders move in new directions, just as I did.

How can founders make people leaders really ‘want’ to stay on the operational side?

My advice for entrepreneurs and business leaders who are unsure about how to adapt their HR capacity for growth is for them to gain an understanding of why they need to hire and in which capacity. And allow your HR leader to shape the selection process in terms of who you’re going to hire.

I am currently experimenting this journey with one of the companies in our portfolio. At 1,400 people and operating in eight countries, it is already quite a size, but the organization wasn’t aware of what to expect from an HR leader. Of course, they knew they wanted things like a seamless payroll, to be able to attract people, and to work on the employer brand. But they only saw pieces of the jigsaw rather than the big picture of what an employee experience was at every stage. So, I’m working on educating the leaders on the importance of shaping a company culture and how that company culture will translate into how people decisions are made. I urge founders and CEOs to work with their HR leader to ensure that people are joining them for the right reason and for the right stage of their organisation’s growth.

Can you expand on the importance of the employee experience and employer brand?

With the right employee experience at every stage of the employee lifecycle, your people will become long-term ambassadors for your employer brand. A company should be extremely descriptive about the employee experience it wants to deliver and raise awareness about what it takes for the HR team to deliver it, from recruitment and onboarding through to termination. And on this latter point, companies often ignore how a company parts ways with an employee as part of the end-to-end experience, but this is just as important in shaping your employer brand as the onboarding! Your brand is not simply marketing puff and being highly visible, but is really about the experience you are creating for your people at every moment of their employment.

What advice would you give to someone interviewing for the CPO role?

Do your due diligence! It’s what I did before joining Creadev and ensured it was absolutely the right move for me. Assess their readiness for welcoming an HR leader. I have noticed in some of the portfolio companies I’m advising that this readiness is not there yet and I believe this will make the appointment of a CPO at this stage a failure. I personally would advise the organisation to hire an interim HR leader for three or six months who can audit the people processes, fix the basics, and ensure all the transactional processes are working. Only then would I advise hiring an HR leader who is expecting to make an impact at a strategic level.

What does this due diligence look like?

For the HR leader looking for this strategic move, an important pre-requisite should be to assess the founder/CEO and people in other C-suite roles to gauge their level of awareness of what’s expected in terms of the CPO role and what you will achieve in a specific timeframe. Dare to turn down a job offer if this prerequisite of awareness is not met. Of course, you also need to have both a business and a financial conversation before joining to build your knowledge of the company’s business drivers and financial position. You should be on par with the chief financial officer to negotiate on the capacity you need to achieve the business plan.

Ask questions about the budget and challenge it if needs be. I also always ask if there is an HR information system because if there isn’t, it suggests that the company isn’t yet ready to invest in the HR function. Believe me when I say that if your life is going to be about managing. Excel spreadsheets everywhere all over the place to just deliver a payroll, don’t go there?

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Lilian Poilpot, Partner

Specialisms: CEO succession planning, GTM, Tech & Product across Europe & MEA

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