Chief Human Resources Officer Fernanda Alonso-Gautrais is based in Paris and talks to Erevena’s Nathalie Pantz and Lilian Poilpot about why working for a mission-driven company is so important to her as she prepares to take the next step on her journey in people leadership.
Where did your career begin?
I didn’t actually start out in HR. I became a legal counsel after qualifying as a lawyer in my home country of Brazil. From the outset, I always had an international mindset and jumped at the opportunity to move to Europe where I could learn French and Italian. I worked for a water and waste-water company in Paris as its International Legal Counsel managing the legal affairs of its international subsidiaries, from Brazil and Mexico to China and Uganda. Its core business was built around a strong mission, which focused on giving people access to clean drinking water, wherever they were.
How did that become a career in HR?
I’d moved to the French firm’s UK subsidiary after spending two years working in legal affairs. Then, in 2008, at around the time of the economic crisis, I was offered the opportunity to join a French start-up specializing in wind energy, only this time with an extended remit. The company’s CEO asked me to take over the HR function alongside a legal role. At the time I questioned whether it would be interesting – was HR sexy enough or was it purely an administrative function? I clearly found it rewarding as I spent five years in this dual role before ultimately switching 100% to people leadership when I took on an HR director position in another start up.
The themes of talent acquisition, team development, culture and an international development have remained constant for me since moving into people leadership. When I took on that first HR role, I networked hard with other HR professionals, read a lot and did an executive MBA in HR to build my knowledge and skills.
Do you still use your legal training in the world of HR?
Yes, very much so. The skills I started out with remain important. For example, my negotiating skills have proved really useful during company restructuring and when we’ve been dealing with work councils. I’m also a commercially-driven CPO and always want to understand the business, so I use my legal mind to assess risks and find solutions to them.
What makes a career in people leadership/HR so interesting?
I’ve mentioned how I initially wondered whether HR would be largely an admin-type role and not strategic enough for me. I was completely wrong! From 2008 when the impact of the financial crisis was being felt, talent management moved from being an operational function to being viewed as a strategic enabler and key to success. This was a dramatic change in the perception of HR and brought about a huge transformation, notably in start-ups and scale-ups.
Fast-forward to COVID, alongside a period of hypergrowth, and the Chief People Officer (CPO) role continued to be vital. The last three years have been intensive for CPOs as we’ve dealt with the operational ramifications of new ways of working, followed by restructuring in the tech world. I think it is the most interesting role in a company as you get to see both people and the company growing due to the HR strategy.
After such an intensive time, will we see an exodus of people leaders from the tech sector?
It’s true that many HR leaders are exhausted and looking at other career possibilities, possibly in advisory capacities. They’ve being doing so much, from strategy to operational delivery and reimagining the future of work. I’m currently taking a couple of months off before picking up the reins in another exciting role. The break is an opportunity for me to recharge my batteries and I’m seeing a similar sentiment amongst a number of my peers.
How can companies show that they value the role of people leader and stop the exodus?
A lot depends on the strategy of the company. After a period of growth and the pandemic, we’re back to restructuring and the people team needs to feel recognised during this time. It’s not just the companies but the HR leaders too who must reset how people leadership is viewed. Founders and CEOs in start-ups and scale-ups need to recognise that CPOs cannot be left on their own. While the HR function supports the company, it too needs support. And for the CPOs themselves, I’d urge them (myself included) to tap into the incredible energy of the wider HR team and be motivated by what the company wants to achieve – and how you can help it realise that ambition.
How important is the relationship between Founder and CPO?
It is a hugely important relationship and the CPO needs to be inspired by the Founder. But equally important is how you impact and draw on the company culture. As the CPO, you are representing the company internally, so as well as working closely with the Founder, you’ve got to align with the strategy and the overarching culture, which may differ depending on the industry you’re in.
You’ve worked in several countries – does the role of a people leader change in each?
While the country might change a company’s culture, I’ve typically joined when companies are going international. So, from my perspective, the role aligns more with their international ambitions. It’s not unusual for French companies to expand globally nowadays as we have a strong start-up and scale-up environment with an international development scope.
What’s driven the success of the French tech sector?
It’s been fostered to a large extent by the government and companies have seized the opportunity presented by a wave of investment. Another factor that I’ve been hearing about from private equity funds is that the complexity of the market post-Brexit has meant it has become easier to invest in a local French company than one that operates in both the EU and the UK.
How easy is it to hire good HR professionals?
It depends on where you set the bar, but I’d say it can be hard to find ‘A’ players able to make an impact from day one. While some functions are maturing, it is still difficult to recruit strong HR operational leaders. Having said that, there is a growing professionalism and where HR was once simply a ‘module’ on a university course, there is now a plethora of HR courses on their own right.
What next on your career journey?
I’ve always wanted to work for mission-driven companies that make an impact, whether on how people work, how they live, or how they learn. For example, OpenClassrooms where I was most recently CPO, had a real sense of purpose and strong mission. It’s also been important for me to work for companies committed to their employees. So, my next step is all about the mission. I am super excited about it and the impact the company I’m joining makes on the world – watch this space for when I’m able to tell you more!