Twenty-five years ago, I attended a dinner party for the department leaders of a top international conglomerate when the host made a joke about Human Resources stating that HR means "Helps Rarely." Everyone laughed and nodded; so did I. For years before I ventured into startups, I saw HR simply as a place that employees would go to obtain benefits forms and to complain to no avail. HR would also run events in which few wanted to partake. Worst of all, no one in HR had a clue about the business in which the company engaged, especially the research and development, so, how could they provide anything, except the party line from the CEO? Yes, HR not only helped rarely, it was useless...so I thought.

And then I started running startups.

I was the 2nd employee in my first startup, as well as the head of the office--the CEO was remote. I hired everyone and I engaged every employee multiple times per day. I hired young people in their first jobs, and in their first management jobs. I was able to communicate my values and approach fairly easily. When I would travel, the employees trusted that when I got back, problems would be solved, and the world would be righted.

Then, we hired the twelfth employee.

I could not keep up. Sharing my insights and giving a piece of myself to the employees no longer worked as the culture-setting and office dynamic cure-all. We needed someone whose job it was to help manage employees. In a startup, there are no pure managers--bosses and department heads are uber-doers. So, the task of managing is easily overlooked. And, even when you want to be a good and empathetic manager, at a certain critical mass, you cannot do it alone.

The lesson I learned was not only to get a good HR person before the critical mass threshold for chaos hit in a startup, but also, get an HR person who shares your values, is a good teacher, and understands your business and technical challenges. Here's five mistakes that I made, which the right HR person helped to fix:

  1. I wasn't managing effectively. My only 3 qualifications as a manager up to that point were having been badly managed in the past, receiving an MBA, and wanting to be a good manager. Being available to all, trying to solve everyone's problems, being disappointed when employees didn't do what I wanted, and getting angry when employees ddn't share my passion or fill obvious voids is not managing. An HR person willing to take me on taught me how to manage--communicate clearly, set objectives, provide feedback, listen, re-direct, during reviews, provide specific examples of behavior that is wanted and valued and behaviors that don't hit the mark. That prescription, combined with a desire to nurture and have a positive impact on the lives of the employees was extremely effective.
  2. The managers of the company were not managing effectively. Our HR head worked with each manager and taught them how to: run a department meeting, run a project meeting, dole-out tasks, audit performance, provide positive and negative reinforcement, and when to be tough and when to show compassion. She also worked with every manager in devising the performance review system so that it was appropriate for our business and technical jobs--they owned, refined it, and actually used it, which is an achievement unto itself.
  3. I was not in the office enough to reinforce the values and role-model the behaviors that I wanted. Having someone whose job it was to make sure that my values and messages were consistently being delivered was crucial. The organization felt less of a void when I wasn't physically present or when I was distracted with other pressing matters. Also, I realized that the way I communicated did not always resonate, so, having another person of authority communicate her way gave us more reach and coverage.
  4. I didn't realize what it takes to establish a gentle culture, as opposed to a gotcha culture. The only way to lead with a soft hand is to have that hand constantly felt guiding and providing positive feedback and taking advantage of the few opportunities that present themselves to drive home a message to employees in a non-threatening and non-punitive manner. Having the HR head, who was a respected manager in her own right, doing this with me provided that omnipresent positive force.
  5. I was encouraging a culture of dependence. Again, unafraid to take me head-on, our HR head explained to me how my style of management encouraged employees to readily approach me in order to solve their problems. She told me that this was not good for the organization--I was not getting my work done, and employees were not developing certain skills, like conflict resolution or creative problem solving. She made me become a little more aloof, and when I did engage with employees in this capacity, to have them offer solutions and then direct them to go try. This worked very well.

In short, I needed a solid HR professional to teach me what I was doing wrong, and help fix the mistakes.

My grandfather once taught me that "the fish stinks from the head." I needed someone to tell me when I stank and to teach me how to deodorize.

If you need that, get a good HR person. I know someone--reasonable finder's fee.