Nina Grandin is Chief People Officer at DataGuard, the data privacy and information security company. She talks to Erevena Partner Dove Dalele about her journey from the legal profession into HR and why sticking to your personal values is a mantra all people leaders should adopt.

What’s your professional background?

I’m a lawyer by training and when I started out I found myself drawn to labour and commercial law more than any other field. Throughout my studies, I have done several internships at law firms, but also with a consulting and executive search firm that eventually asked me if I wanted to have my first post-graduating job in New York on 5th Avenue. Who would say no to that? Although I think my father would have preferred me to be a judge and get a job in a law firm! Initially my focus was on legal and investment banking and my first real mandate was to support a study into the ceiling for females in investment banking. This was unusual at the time, but I spoke to hundreds of MDs and leaders in investment banking who wanted to talk about the topic. This also gave me a good network that I was able to draw on in all the projects I worked on after that.

Then the Co-Head of Investment Banking of a large bank we were consulting for told me that if I really wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to see a corporation from the inside. I took that advise and went to the Otto Group and worked there for around 13 years, covering multiple areas but strong focus on HR in the corporation. It was a solid grounding in commercial, legal and people areas.

What prompted your move to DataGuard in 2021?

I wasn’t looking to move company at the time, as I was really happy in my global role at a FinTech but was interested enough when I was approached by a Headhunter to go for an interview. I became convinced by several factors. First, their mission to protect the people behind the data resonated with me. In our digital age, with all the data being collected, you can find out everything about a person if you want to search for it. So, having some grasp on the privacy of that data is more important than ever. Second, the product itself is great – and it could scale. I’ve been involved with a number of fast-growing companies and wouldn’t ‘join one if I didn’t think it would be successful all the way to Unicorn and IPO. And third, it’s all about the founders. Do you believe in their potential to not only dream big, but execute upon. Are they the one you want to go to war with and trust in them. I equally believed in the company’s mission and both Co-Founders.

What excites you about working in the scale-up world?

It’s about having an impact. Being able to shape the future of a company through its operations and people strategy, including building up young talent. Every single day you get to take bold decisions that you can execute on. This ability to action ideas and follow through with innovation energises me. I really love my role and I am passionate about it.

How is it different working with a founder?

It’s very different. Perhaps the biggest difference is that it’s always a founder’s “baby”. Founders typically take a lot more personally, especially at early stages, whereas an external CEO is less likely to feel it that way. Founders have a particular passion that means it will never be just a job. They’ll constantly want to improve, find the best solution, and will always go that extra mile, which sets the pace for those working closely with them. People leaders are integral to the culture and growth in such companies. At DataGuard, as the CPO, I’ve worked with the co-founders to find a way in which we can work smoothly together, professionally, and also personally. If you spend so much time together those aspects blend.  We are all very energetic strong-minded individuals, so discussions can be quite passionate and straight forward but due to the trust we established over the last years, we enjoy those moments, as we are highly productive and always act with a company first mindset.

Who are your mentors and what shapes your people leadership approach?

My great mentor is my family. I’m lucky to have a family, where the individuals are very successful and will always give radical feedback when I ask them, which is very helpful, because they know my strength and weakness. Equally, I have a mantra that guides how I work, which is to be true to yourself and your values. I will not act against my values. I can give you an example of this. During a time of restructuring layoffs for a company I was working with, a young female employee was part of the layoffs. However, she’d only just transitioned with her husband and her young child to Germany. Her husband couldn’t work as he didn’t speak the language and the child was tiny. I knew she would fall into nothing if we laid her off and hadn’t been in Germany long enough for state support. I refused execute this layoff but insisted instead that we found a way to help her thrive and make a career and she did.

This reflects something I’d advise all people leaders to do. Take a step back and think as a human being. If you have inner gravitas and are predictable in your approach, people will trust you. I’m hard in execution, but fair and caring about the individual.

Take a step back and think as a human being. If you have inner gravitas and are predictable in your approach, people will trust you.

How has HR changed over the past decade or so?

There is an evolution in the role of HR that’s taking it beyond purely a support function. This is being driven largely by the fact that companies have a better understanding of the talent shortage and of the part people play in business success. You might have a great tech solution that sells itself, but if you don’t have the right culture and performing workforce behind you, you’re lost. I know some business leaders might say that they can always hire someone else if a key employee leaves but, in reality, it takes time for a new hire to become productive and for the company to derive an ROI from them. And it’s not only onboarding people setting them up for success, offboarding is equally important where HR plays an important role. After all, it’s an employee’s lasting impression of the company and you want it to be a good one!

How do you screen for the right people to ensure your ‘A team’ functions?

I like to spend face-to-face time with potential ‘A team’ hires, even if I have to travel somewhere to meet them. During the interview, I’ll touch base on topics that are unrelated to the job. What drives them? What are their core values? Their family life. Anything that sparks a conversation – even the art in the room we’re in. I already know that they have the experience and skills we’re looking for, so this is more about building up a personal relationship from the outset to really understand if the candidate is someone who will fit with us and stand the heat of a fast moving company.

Of course, it’s not a one-way street and the candidate must feel this is a place they want to come to. At DataGuard, we need really smart people, so I challenge them on multiple ways, e.g., by moving the conversation on at speed and observing how quickly they jump between topics. I want more than pre-prepared interview answers! And, naturally, we run case studies and conduct a lot of reference calls.

How do you hire for diversity and ensure you don’t hire the image of yourself?

If you can see that your values are reflected in each individual (such as DataGuard’s strong fundamentals) you have a baseline to play off. We have 38 different nationalities at DataGuard, something of which I am proud. When hiring, we consider a candidate’s potential and ceiling more than their skills and experience. And we don’t want political people, rather those who are passionate and self-driven but not in competition with each other.

The best HR leaders get this right. This isn’t something new. There have always been incredibly powerful HR leaders going back 20 years or more. It is about how they fulfil their role and influence business decisions. Smart people leaders go into each department and understand the different KPIs that drive success. If you don’t do this, you’ll will always be an outsider. You need to be knowledgeable about what’s going on in the company to be taken seriously and support growth.

Smart people leaders go into each department and understand the different KPIs that drive success … You need to be knowledgeable about what’s going on in the company to support growth.

How have candidates’ expectations changed?

It feels as if there is less resilience in the younger generation, or perhaps less willingness to hang in there as a company builds. When I hear someone in their twenties saying they’ve changed their job to have a better work life balance, I want to tell that this is the time of their life when they should be hungry. They need to be out there growing and trying new things. That’s not to say we don’t give people time when they need it, but in performance terms we are a high performing company and I look at resilience, potential and the eagerness to grow. You can’t carry someone to chase.

What’s been your career defining moments?

I’d cite two moments of which I’m proud. The first was when we entered the US market and, as part of Deposit Solutions (now Raisin) leadership team, I had to hit the ground running. There was no designated legal team, so I was involved in everything from enabling the CEO who we’d just hired, to incorporating the Limited Liability Company (LLC), ramping up the team, setting up an office and establishing a 401(k)-retirement savings plan. My signature was on countless authorities’ paperwork! In a sense we were building a company from scratch. When we went live with the platform in New York, we had a huge company call and the US CEO thanked me personally as being integral to opening up in the US.

The second moment has to be earlier this year (last year in 2022) when we raised our 61M USD Series B funding at DataGuard. We’d been working hard and even though the markets were frozen, we did it. It wasn’t my first fundraising but this time I was highly involved in due diligence because legal also reports into me. I faced a panel of several lawyers, and we just nailed it. It was a great moment when Kivanc, one of our both Co-Founder sneaked into my office after signing and pulled out the ice-cold bottle under his jacket – we didn’t want the team to know yet. A moment of pride, relief and the consciousness to deliver even more.

2022 was a rollercoaster year – what advice would you give HR leaders at such times?

First of all, make up your mind about what needs to be done. In stormy times, people look at what the leaders are signalling. How you enter the office. Do you smile? You need to convey that while it feels tough, it will pass as every cycle does. Only if you feel comfortable in the situation, will you be able to comfort your teams. Give them confidence that you will steer the ship through the storm.

Second, you should sit down and get a clear analysis of the situation. Understand that it is a proper change process. Know what the end game is. How you communicate this and involve the team in the process is vital. You must take them along the road with you. There will be a shock moment when team members are told they have to go, but people will follow you if they believe in you and your judgement for safeguarding the company. We planned the year consciously therefore we didn’t have to go through those hard rounds of layoffs as many other in the market had to execute.

How can HR leaders ease people changes in difficult times?

Terminating someone’s contract can be traumatic for the people involved. I’ve had to do this many times in my career but, with few exceptions, I’ve been able to sit down and talk it through with the affected person. I take their fears and grief seriously. I always explain that it is not the human being we’re terminating, it is the skillset that no longer matches the company’s needs, or the structural changes make the role redundant. This is especially so in a scaling company where different skillsets are needed at different growth stages. My advice is always to ensure they save face. Be respectful and gentle. Stay truthful and centred and keep calm. I’m still in good contact with people I had to lay-off or who were affected by reorgs I had to drive and supported their future career paths where help was asked for. You always see each other twice in life, so don’t burn bridges.

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