Lindsay Ross joined Bitpanda in 2021 as their CHRO. She talks to Erevena Partner Dove Dalele about the value brought by People leaders in companies experiencing hypergrowth and how a different mindset is required when jumping from big corporates to the fast-paced world of tech start-ups.
How did your career in HR begin?
It wasn’t intentional. I’d been planning to go to law school, but after studying abroad in Germany for a semester, I moved to the Netherlands and somehow found myself working for Nike at their European headquarters. It was a new role embracing talent management, acquisition and development, and I got a crash course into the world of “HR” — a function I absolutely fell in love with!
What did your move to Tommy Hilfiger (/PVH Europe) add to your professional development?
I joined the global headquarters of Tommy Hilfiger here in Amsterdam, and at the time we were still primarily a single-brand operation. My journey started in the Learning & Development function and I quickly grew within the broader talent space. After about 4 years in HR, I ended up jumping over to marketing and communications where I ran global internal communications and employee branding while also getting some exposure to the consumer side of the business. As an HR person, I can only say it was fantastic to be on the “other side of the house” — really experiencing what HR is like for employees. I am a huge fan of HR folks gaining this experience and strongly encourage them to take the jump.
What happened when you made the move from fashion to tech?
I joined the FinTech company Adyen at its pre-IPO stage when it had around 550 people globally – it’s since grown to more than 3,000 people. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced in the corporate world, and I ultimately had to unlearn everything I’d ever learned. Tech is just a totally different monster — it’s about speed, delivery and performance. And when I say it’s “fast”, it’s fast. After around two years at Adyen in both pre-IPO and post-IPO stages, I moved to the founder-led CPaaS company, MessageBird, before eventually coming to Bitpanda.
What does it mean to be a People leader in companies experiencing hypergrowth?
When you’re in tech, it’s always fast-paced because if you don’t make the move, somebody else will. And when you’re navigating hypergrowth, the speed is even more intense. You’re hiring and onboarding high volumes of folks on a monthly basis and still building all the processes and tools to make this effective and scalable. As a People leader, it’s your “job” to ensure that you’re hiring the right people in the right areas within a scalable structure (up and down). There’s always pressure to hire more and hire faster — but as we can see based on the latest market activities, this is never a good thing. Be calculated in where and how you grow your teams, and never compromise on the bar you’ve set for how you all work together. This is the foundation of your culture and the thing you should protect above all else.
What essential skills do companies need in this fast-paced world?
Resilience, first and foremost. What people thought they were going to do today is likely not going to happen. And that great idea a team has worked on for a substantial period of time might not come to fruition – yet. Yes, it’s still a great idea, but it just might not be the right time right now. Folks have to be OK with this level of constant change. Next to this, there’s a need for the people you hire to be able to scale — moving from being a generalist into a more specialised role as the company grows. This requires a scope change: they might have had a broader remit in the smaller organisation and now they’ve got a smaller, more focused remit in the bigger organisation. Can they adopt the skills necessary to cope with this… and check their ego at the door? And what if the company has to scale down? Can they adapt and go back to a more generalist scope? Ultimately in tech, it’s not about hierarchical moves; it’s really about making sure that the people you bring on board have a broad enough skill set that they can be used in various positions or in changing remits.
How do you measure for these attributes when you’re hiring?
If they haven’t seen hypergrowth, I want to know what they have seen. If they’re coming from a big organisation, have they gone through a massive restructuring, global expansion, or M&A activity? How did they cope with the impact of things that really shook up the business? It’s also worth echoing the well-known mantra that “friends don’t let friends hire or promote friends!” At Bitpanda, we leverage diverse panels to guide our hiring decisions. We make collective “go / no-go” decisions and if one person says “no”, then we don’t hire. This ensures that we’re always hiring for the best of the company — not just a team, a manager or division. Like a lot of other companies, we also have a bespoke Bar Raising program, and ours focuses on our Bitpanda DNA which is the foundation of how we work together. Why? Because the way we work might not be the right fit for everyone and that’s ok but it’s critical to our success, so we safeguard it.
How has the perception and impact of HR changed over the years?
A lot of HR people will be familiar with the old idea of HR being seen as a necessary evil – the “HR police”. However, things have moved on from that and we are at a different level where HR leaders are viewed as strategic business partners, and this shift to a more strategic play really accelerated during the pandemic. It was the first moment where suddenly HR was needed to navigate and build something none of us had seen before. The whole world of work shifted (and it still is) — moving from in-office to working from home back to a (potentially) new hybrid way of working — all the while people’s mental health and physical well-being suddenly came to the forefront for the first time. It was our HR folks together with other business executives, founders and the broader organisation that have successfully navigated these enormous shifts — as partners.
How do you manage this shift in ways of working?
I’m not sure any of us have this 100% right! We’ve gone from in-office to working from home (or anywhere!) to a new hybrid model (for many). It has been and will continue to be an iterative process. What’s most important is that you find the right solution for your organisation. As an HR leader, you have to recognise that you will never satisfy everyone. Not every employee is going to be happy with your flexible working arrangements or amount of time (and even days) they’re expected to be in the office. So our job is to work with the business to find the best way to make sure we have the most effective, productive and connected organisation which means it might look different in the future and that’s OK. Just be really transparent — internally and externally — about how you work and what people are signing up for. It’s not fair to give false expectations; instead, level-set expectations and acknowledge that things will likely be different tomorrow.
What’s the most exciting thing about what you do?
The unpredictability of it all! I love that one day, things can be calm and you’re able to “get stuff done”, and then the next it’s all blown up because there’s the next big push! I also genuinely believe we’ve built something fantastic here at Bitpanda. Our founders have achieved something incredible, both from a product perspective and from a culture perspective – I haven’t seen too many organisations like this. So, for me, what I love is getting up and working every day in one of the most innovative sectors with the incredible Pandas across our Bitpanda dens!
How does the relationship between People leaders differ with a founder and a “career CEO”?
It depends on the founder! For some, there’s always a question of whether they can let go and empower teams and leaders to run and further develop what they’ve built. It’s important to acknowledge that the company is a result of their idea, hard work and absolute determination. And let’s be honest: they often know more about the industry, product, business operations and global regulations than most. As the company grows, stepping out of the day-to-day operational minutia can be a challenge for many.
Meanwhile, a “career CEO” has a different knowledge base and skillset. They’ve done the leadership training. They’ve been coached on how to be “great leaders” and inspirational presenters. They’ve gone through the personal growth journey of climbing corporate ladders. But they are not always as able to adapt to the uncertainties that come along or see their own blindspots. And because they’re not a founder, they’re possibly less precious about certain decisions. So, there is a nuance in terms of the relationship with the People leader’s relationship, although again, it depends on the person.
How can People leaders best manage the relationship with founders?
As a People leader, you have to be able to speak up and have real conversations with the founders about the business in connection to your people, culture and workplaces. Talking “HR” topics without connecting to what you’re doing as a company just won’t land. This is one of the HR roles that has made a huge shift, with HR leaders now becoming more strategic sparring partners. Ultimately, founders and HR leaders need to work together to build the right solutions to ensure it’s a great workplace.
Who do you turn to for advice and what advice do you hold on to?
I will learn from anyone I possibly can! I’m lucky to be surrounded by truly some of the best of the best at Bitpanda, and there is always a well to draw from because the more information and context that I can get from others, the better able I am to refine my ideas and decisions. One of the most impactful things I’ve had to learn during my career is that it’s OK not to have the answer. Of course, that’s hard but this is where another valuable lesson comes in: sometimes you just have to let go. You don’t need to try and force stuff through if the time isn’t right. Instead, you have to be able to recognise when to put a pin in something and come back to it when the company is ready.
What lessons can you share from working for a company in hypergrowth?
Firstly, you can never do hypergrowth well! That’s something all of us in the tech industry have learned. When you’re hiring and onboarding so quickly, there’s an inevitability that things are always going to drop off, whether it’s from a cultural perspective, a specific skill set, or effective ramping time which means your productivity drops or your organisational structure goes awry. Also, if a restructuring is needed to counter changing market dynamics, leaders need to remember that they have had time to process and adjust to the news before anything is announced to the team — for them, the information is something new. So, you need to lead with empathy and recognise the organisation will need a bit of time to land. Give the time, space, and support — then you can return to being mission-focused.
Has the market downturn changed the way companies and investors see hypergrowth?
I genuinely believe that a large number of organisations will have learned big lessons from this past year that the industry has never had to before. It’s almost the first time when tech companies aren’t driven by headcount growth and scale — but instead need to focus on the key questions: what is the right strategy for now and the long term? What’s the right and scalable organisational structure and talent profile for us? How can we be much more efficient? How can we make sure that people really feel they’re delivering against the things that matter in order to drive the company forward? Leaders are now acknowledging that inefficiencies such as hiring for the sake of hiring and not for the sake of value-add, in turn, has had a huge impact on the efficiency and productivity of the organisation. And that’s also not good for your people, because people like to make an impact. So, moving forward, for the world of tech and any fast-paced growing organisation, I think we’re going to see a “slow down to speed up” mentality coming to the fore.
Have your hiring principles changed in light of the changing market dynamics?
Yes, and no! We still look for the best of the best and for those people who are hungry and ambitious. And we still look for people who like working in startups, because working in a startup tech company is a very different space compared to working in more established organisations. However, as employers, we are now stressing on getting both our potential Pandas and current ones to ask themselves the question: “is this the right fit for me?” We want to know if someone is signing up for the right reasons. Do they really love this industry? Are they really into FinTech? Do they really want to work with us and like the way we work? In the end it’s the people who really love what they do and are making that impact that will still be with you through the ups and downs, so these are the ones we’re chasing.
Has the difficult time in the cryptocurrency space impacted your hiring?
We haven’t actually seen a huge impact on hiring. We are absolutely more intentional in our hiring plans, ensuring that our organisational structure remains scalable, efficient and is aligned to our business strategy rather than the endless hiring you see during hypergrowth. But two great examples of how the belief in the industry and trust in us as a company are our recent C-suite team members who joined in the midst of the Bear market. They joined because they like the challenge. They like the dynamics and believe in the industry. They like the company and what we’re doing to change the world of finance.
Ultimately when it comes down to it, folks have to have that intrinsic belief in the industry itself to want to be a part of this journey. So, while the crypto market challenges haven’t stopped people from wanting to join, I’d say both sides are much more calculated about who they partner up with. With the recent collapse of FTX, we’re starting to see the industry wake up and recognise the bad actors who operate within the industry. But there are many companies, like Bitpanda, who have done the right things the right way from the beginning — not the easy way. Our founders have done it in a way that’s regulated and safe, which is how you earn trust and continue to thrive, no matter what the market throws at you.