Ulrica Falkenberg, who was, until recently, Chief Human Resource Officer at rapidly-scaling FinTech company Trustly, is now embarking on a new phase in her career. In this article she talks to Erevena Partner Dove Dalele about how good people leaders are essential for growth – and why a CEO leading and breathing the company’s values every single day brings higher success to any company.
What was your career path into HR?
I didn’t start out with the intention of going into HR. I did a Master’s degree with marketing as my major, and never thought about HR as a career path. In fact, my working career began in international sales in the fashion industry. Then I spent 10 years as a headhunter/leadership development consultant, helping companies hire for success. During that time, I took on the role of MD for two different Nordic companies within the group I was working for. While I was aiming at a managing director path, I quickly realised that, ultimately, it was all about people. I then had a short period as deputy CEO at Sweden’s biggest wine company where, once again, my belief in the importance of helping companies excel through their people was further cemented.
How did you move into a people leader role?
When Trustly approached me to work on an assignment for them, it was just that – an assignment. They then told me what it would mean for them to have me as their HR director, but I really wasn’t thinking along those lines. However, their vision of what they wanted to build and how they wanted to achieve it was too exciting an opportunity to miss. I really believed in the management team, as well as the products, and felt that I would be able to draw on my previous roles to contribute to Trustly’s ongoing creation. So, I accepted their offer, seeing it as an opportunity to play a part in building a great company, with a great product and great people.
Can you tell us about the growth phase Trustly was in at that time?
It was incredibly exciting. I joined with the remit to help take the company from 80 employees and double the amount of employees year-on-year. Not one day was the same. When you’re rapidly scaling a company, you never know what’s going to happen next. You need to welcome change, be open minded and see problems as both opportunities and interesting challenges.
“When you’re rapidly scaling a company, you never know what’s going to happen next. You need to welcome change, be open minded and see problems as both opportunities and interesting challenges.”
What was the biggest challenge in scaling Trustly?
I was with the company for six years and our biggest challenge in the early days was finding talent – at speed. We needed to rapidly hire tech programmers and other technology profiles to match our growth aspirations but, here in Sweden, that was hard. So, we looked for a new talent hunting ground and solved the problem with a nearshoring model, partnering with a company that had its own talent hub in Portugal.
As well as having good local tech talent, the country also attracts people from Brazil where Portuguese is the most widely spoken language. This expanded our talent pool hugely. Then, after a few years, we set up our own technology hub in Portugal, giving people the option to work either directly for Trustly or as consultants via our resourcing partner. Our choice of Portugal with its warm climate was attractive for people who needed to relocate from our Swedish office, enabling us to train and develop the new hires fast and, at the same time, establish our strong company culture in our new office.
What do you look for when you’re hiring leaders?
First, brain power. Are they able to solve new problems in a new environment? Second, I look at their social abilities. Will they fit into our culture and do we share the same values? Third, I want to see a high degree of ambition because this is essential in a fast-growing company. Finally, a level of maturity is important. It is vital in this shifting environment to maintain a stable mindset and mood in order to ensure mature responses/information sharing with the organisation.
How do you screen for the attributes you’re looking for?
I’m a strong believer of value-based interviewing. It’s a very delicate approach to hiring, in which I spend very little time reading someone’s CV. Rather, I focus on the person behind the paperwork. I want to know about their childhood and journey from there because this shows me the solid foundation of their values and what they are really made of, which is more important to me than only their achievements on paper. This focus on values – in combination with problem solving tests – is why we were so successful at Trustly. Our shared values meant we trusted each other, backed each other up and, most importantly, had lots of fun.
“I focus on the person behind the paperwork. I want to know about their childhood and journey from there because this shows me the solid foundation of their values, which is more important to me than their achievements on paper.”
How do you scale a company at different stages of growth?
It’s important to keep an eye on the long-term goal, not one or two years down the line, but more like ten plus. What type of people do you have today (especially your leaders) to meet your target? Every six months or so, ask whether you’re on track and if the current leaders are still able to deliver on the company’s long-term vision.
Different growth phases may mean the company needs a different strategic direction and input, requiring new leaders or the development of ones that have potential. Perhaps someone in a current leadership role is feeling that they’re not up to the task. As a people leader, you need to have honest conversations and ‘coach’ people into making career choices that might see them leaving the company. There are different approaches to doing this that need to be adapted to each situation. The important thing is that if someone moves on, they should do so with their integrity intact!
What advice would you give to a company’s leadership during tough times?
Handle your people with care. I’ve already said it but it’s worth repeating that this means allowing them to maintain their integrity, even if you are facing the prospect of them leaving the company. It is easy to become anxious yourself so that you come across harshly when you’re letting people go, but you need to stay professional and ‘to the point’. It’s not a case of being soft, but more of being professional and showing empathy in tandem.
Do you have mentors and take advice?
There’s a lot of advice out there, but you don’t have to listen to it all! You have to stay true to what you believe in first. When I reached a point where things became really complicated, I did turn to an external mentor – a fantastic, experienced woman at HR director level. There are times in a company’s growth when you need someone you trust who understands the psychology and sensitivities of your role, but who is independent of your organisation. For example, when we were preparing for an IPO, I had no experience of handling remuneration committees and didn’t know the governance at board level. I was lucky to find someone who could help me both professionally and personally.
“There are times in a company’s growth when you need someone you trust who understands the psychology and sensitivities of your role, but who is independent of your organisation.”
Has there been a shift in the perceived value of HR over the past decade or so?
The traditional view of HR was that it was an administrative function with a soft touch, but that it wasn’t business oriented. Nowadays, professional companies are looking for a combination of business acumen and people skills in these positions. In general, I think that the most successful companies I have seen have CEOs who recognise the true value of people and make the most out of their people’s potential.
A recommendation is that CEOs should talk to other CEOs who have experienced great HR directors and get an understanding of the real impact that both having and not having a strong people leader can have on the company’s growth ambitions and success.
“I think that the most successful companies I have seen have CEOs who recognise the true value of people and make the most out of their people’s potential.”
What advice would you give someone taking on a people leadership role?
For me, it’s not about how to be a leader at work, but how to get work and home life to co-exist. The answer for me was to get help at home early in my career! It doesn’t matter whether that help is a cleaner, a childminder, or someone to do your shopping, if it gives you back some time. As a leader, you need time to focus on your role and your career. This is especially important for women leaders who have a tendency to try and do it all. This doesn’t necessarily make everyone happy, or better at what they’re doing, at home or at work. So, my advice is to stay true to yourself, remain healthy and have fun on the way – and get help to keep you that way.