Jessica Djeziri, people leader and co-founder of HumanizR, the community for HR leaders, talks to Erevena’s Lilian Poilpot about the changing face of HR and why founders should bring Chief People Officers on board as early as possible to help bring their ambitions to life.

How did you get started in HR?

I have a Masters degree in law and initially wanted to be a lawyer. While at the outset I liked the idea of being in the courtroom, in my third year on the course I realised it wasn’t the right path for me. Some of the subjects simply didn’t interest me, so I decided to change course and got into the specifics of employment law. This led to my first steps into HR with three years in recruitment when I worked for a few different companies from 2007–2010.

How did the economic crisis shape your career just as you were getting started?

I’d studied international mobility as part of my Masters, which reflected the market at the time. International mobility was an important part of the recruitment picture, with big remuneration packages for people relocating to different parts of the world. Then, when the economic crisis hit everything at that level stopped. However, I still had a job because recruitment work had to carry on, especially in tech. It was good for me to learn about HR from the ground up.

You advocate starting out in recruitment – why is that?

Even today, some 15+ years later, I recommend recruitment as the entry point into HR. It’s where you learn so much. It’s one of my two ideal roles in HR, with the second being employee relations, which is especially important in France. Getting recruitment right, particularly during a crisis, is incredibly rewarding.

Why and how did you move into a more generalist HR role?

I was always moving towards a generalist role. Then, in 2012, I joined PhotoBox in France, but also working with the founders in the UK. The company operated across 19 different countries and, although it wasn’t technically my first generalist role, this was probably the most structured at that point in my career. I was finally part of a real team of seven or eight in a fast-growing tech company with two plants.

While the tech sector had a happy-go-lucky feel at that time where everything was about retention and providing a great employee experience, for example with free snacks in the kitchen, we were different. It was all about the machines and the industrial issues that came with operating plants. The HR role was sometimes complicated, but it taught me a lot before I moved on to my next role, which was in a tech start-up.

Can you tell us about HR in the start-up world?

I moved back into the start-up ecosystem in 2015 and never got out. I started the HR role from scratch in three successive companies. There was no HR department. No team. No resources. But it’s always easier to do this when you join a company at early stage and can shape their people strategy. So, for example, I joined InterCloud as only its 15th employee and we’d grown the company to 100 by the time I left three years later. I then joined Shift Technology as employee number 150, but the I was the first people leader.

I’ve moved often – every three years – because I get bored easily! That makes the tech ecosystem good for me because it’s possible to create something without having to stay for five years. It’s a bit like ‘dog years’ where seven years in a dog’s life are equivalent to one for a human! For HR leaders who are ‘builders’, as I am, it’s great to be the first one on the ground creating things. Other HR leaders are better at running operations once things get going.

What’s the ideal time for a founder to bring in a people leader and other experienced roles?

Straight away – or, at least as soon as you have the money! However, tech company founders tend to delay hiring experienced people unless pushed by their investors or because they have some issues. So, it’s not always a willing decision and this makes the job tough for people leaders tasked with first joining and then bringing in other business leaders to take a company to the next stage. Fortunately for me, I’ve worked with founders who understood the value of filling all the regular leadership roles you’d expect in a successful company. If you’re scaling, you need to have the team ready to take on big enterprise-size clients so that you have the expertise to meet their requirements for quality, cybersecurity, GDPR, etc.

What about the HR community that you co-created in 2015?

I’d been working in small tech companies and, together with a university friend in a similar situation, we created HumanizR as a community of HR leaders in the French tech space. We’d realised that there was a need for HR professionals to come together for mutual support and knowledge sharing. So, we convinced people to join us and, initially at least, our community was open to everyone and included CFOs and CEOs. However, as the documentation shared between community members became more technical in terms of the HR content, we felt the C-suite members were getting a bit lost. So, we took the decision to restrict membership purely to HR leaders. And, although not our intention when creating this community, as a result of it I was approached with a number of job opportunities that I subsequently took up.

You’re now embarking on a new venture – tell us about it

I had a baby last summer and wasn’t expecting to come back to work so soon. However, the company situation changed, and I felt that I was no longer aligned with the project. At the same time, I’d been talking to an entrepreneur who had successfully launched a staffing company called Bloomays and who convinced me to join them to create my very own HR advisory firm. I am now an entrepreneur myself, and loving every part of it!

Hiring a permanent senior person, such as a compensation expert, can take up to six months, and the task in hand might not even merit a permanent role. So, bringing in someone with the skills and seniority to take on a project and deliver it quickly makes sense. These are senior HR people who’ve experienced change, scaling, restructuring and more, and can bring that experience to the table. That’s the premise of what Bloomays are doing and I will be taking on the position of chief operating officer in the company.

How does this differ from bringing in expertise from the consulting firms?

These are high impact projects that need the right people with the right level of seniority. They don’t need graduates who’ve come out of business schools and can provide you with lots of slides and good advice, but who have no operational experience and offer processes that aren’t actionable. They want senior HR leaders who’ve been in their shoes – who’ve done it before. And there are a lot of great CPOs out there looking for this type of role as freelancers, rather than taking on a full-time position.

Do you sense disillusionment amongst CPOs that’s stopping them taking up permanent positions?

Yes, especially amongst those CPOs who’ve already put in 10 or 15 years in HR. We’ve been through a lot over the past two years, with Covid and the race for talent acquisition that’s been so crazy. There was so much money at one stage and a demand to hire very quickly, but this was impossible to scale. Now, with the financial crisis, we still need to hire but it’s a struggle. In my case – and perhaps other CPOs feel the same – I don’t want to be the company Cassandra who can see what the future holds, but who nobody believes. That’s why I’m sure many CPOs are taking on these project-based roles, rather than permanent positions.

In fact, I saw this myself a few years ago when I took on a mentoring role alongside my day-to-day job. As a mentor, my advice was listened to and acted on far more readily than when I was in my regular job and that’s a nice feeling!

How can companies re-engage with CPOs?

While I do think that companies understand the importance of the role, there’s a different attitude towards an internal HR director and someone coming in from outside to deliver a specific project. For example, if you’re paying for an external HR specialist, you’ll certainly listen to them rather than take them for granted! Sometimes it takes an external HR director to understand what the HR director is supposed to do. They also have more freedom in their discussions about what leeway they’ll be given to do it.

So, my advice for founders and CEOs bringing on board a permanent CPO is to sit down with them and establish the full scope of the role and what they need to get the best out of their new people leader. This isn’t just about soft skills and ‘mutual fit’ but about the hard skills needed to drive the company’s people strategy. This might be the ability to hire A-players or to plan, organize and meet deadlines. Or to be a strategic thinker with the expertise to identify opportunities and threats through a comprehensive analysis of current and future trends. I can’t recommend enough the value of a scorecard, both for the potential people leader and for the founders.

Can you expand on this idea of a scorecard?

I’d advise everyone looking to hire a senior role to use a scorecard. It’s a well-known method and good practice, regardless of the position. It’s not just about the role, but the output of that role too – what should they be achieving in the first six months? And what will their posture be when it comes to things like feedback and radical candour when working with the exec committee and others?

One company that I interviewed for – and subsequently joined – sent me a three-page document with everything that they were expecting in terms of attitude. I was impressed. Nobody had ever taken the time to do something like that. And there were things that could have been a deal breaker, but I recognised myself in what they were looking for. It spoke to me about the founders wanting me to act like a leader and to take ownership of everything. While this might have scared some people, it convinced me that this was the right opportunity for me.

What advice would you give to a founder after making a senior hire?

Listen to them. When you hire a senior person, you need to make sure that you use their skills and tap into their previous experience. This can be hard to accept, especially (I’ve noticed) with young entrepreneurs who don’t mind being given the advice but don’t always want to apply it. This is frustrating for the senior exec who’s been brought in to head up a team – and is why many are going freelance.

What’s next for you?

I will continue to mentor younger HR professionals moving from recruitment into more generalist roles and, of course, HumanizR will carry on connecting and supporting HR leaders. My next big step is joining Bloomays. It’s a company that’s already incredibly successful and I’m joining forces with them to create a community of senior HR freelancers. With our support these HR leaders won’t have to think about contracts and business, and invoicing, etc. because we’ll take care of all of that for them. They’ll have the flexibility to choose their projects. So, my role will be one of building the business and HR community. This is something I’ve done for free over the past eight years at HumanizR but now I’m engaging with the freelance community as the COO of this company.

This step matches what I’ve wanted to do in terms of posture and distance for some time. By distance, I mean creating space between the demands of my job and my family life. Too often as a CPO you’re attending meeting after meeting, accepting calls at weekends and even on holiday, and constantly being sought out for opinions that you don’t really need to give. That’s not what I want anymore. I heard the expression ‘available brain time’ used by the CEO of a French media company a number of years ago and it resonated with me. That’s what this next stage in my career will give me – available brain time for me and for my baby!

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Lilian Poilpot, Partner

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

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