What Does a Successful People Team Look Like?

Annie Lin, Chief People Officer at Swiftly, shares key strategies on how People teams can effectively measure their performance, engage employees, and prioritize organizational needs.

 min read
July 7, 2022
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Annie Lin is the incoming Chief People Officer at Swiftly after a successful stint as VP of People at Lever. Prior to working at Lever, Annie spent time at Apple, Uber, General Assembly, HotelTonight, and the Wikimedia foundation. She shares key strategies with us on how People teams can effectively measure their performance, engage employees, and prioritize organizational needs. This guide is an abridged summary from her interview on Execs, our podcast where we interview executives from high-growth companies. 

What are the metrics that define success on People teams? 

Annie: I have some more controversial views, or at least not super conventional views, when it comes to what success looks like in the People space. I think fundamentally, only a couple of metrics really matter. 

One is, on a very high level, is the company doing well? If the business is not doing well, every team, including the People team, is doing something wrong. I think that’s something that People teams forget in the day-to-day: how important their role is to the success of the business. 

Next is employee retention. Are we retaining really good talent? We’re not aiming for zero attrition because sometimes there are people who don’t work out, and that’s okay. But are we retaining high-quality talent as much as we can? 

The last big metric is: are we filling critical roles quickly, and with the right people? To me, these three things are the most important metrics for People teams to look at. 

How do People teams use data to support their operations? 

Annie: Data has become a really big focus for People functions. I think that to make the best decisions possible, you have to look at data and insights at both the qualitative and quantitative level. The way we used data at Lever was to identify how things were going in terms of engagement, performance, organizational health, retention, hiring, etcetera. And there are a lot of topics underneath each of these: diversity, equity, inclusion, compensation, morale, and more. 

Performance reviews are an example of this data. At Level we do a bi-annual 360 performance review process, and the compensation process is directly tied to it and informed by it so that company decisions are based on objective measures. Performance is always going to have a subjective element, but we try to make it as objective as possible. 

I also think employee Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a great source of data but it’s a signal, not an outcome metric. That might be a bit of a contrarian opinion that I have as well, because I think the real outcome metric for employee engagement is actually retention. The two are usually lined up, but not always. Your NPS could be really high and your retention could be low, and vice versa. These can be nuanced situations. 

How can People teams assess community within a company?

Annie: We try to stay really close to the pulse of the organization, and we do that in a couple of ways. One is by being very close to our leaders. At Lever, the People team has biweekly-to-monthly touchpoints with executives and leaders of each team to check in on how things are going. 

The team also does something called “listening tours.” On a regular basis, we have one-on-ones with a representative sample of employees. Historically, surveys might be more common at a lot of companies, but we believe that one-on-ones allow you to ask follow-up questions that get a little deeper into what might actually be happening, and what you can do about it. 

How do you balance listening to employees and doing what’s best for the business? 

Annie: In this war for talent during the great resignation, a lot of companies have gone too far in the direction of trying to appease every single thing their employees want. Yes, companies and People teams have to listen, respond, and address concerns that employees have, but I think taking it too far is not the answer. 

Ultimately, what’s important is finding solutions that are a win-win for both your employees and your business. If, for example, you’re being wasteful in the way you invest money in your employee programs so that the business is not successful, then that will not be good for your employees in the long run. Your company will be in trouble and you’ll have to lay people off or go out of business. 

Balancing employee and organizational needs is one of the biggest challenges and responsibilities of a People team, and I don’t know if I’ve figured out the perfect way to do this. I’ve learned the hard way what not to do, and I’ve also had successes that I’m proud of. 

If employees are giving you negative feedback about things that I would consider foundations of an effective organization — like fair treatment and effective managers — then you should listen to them extremely carefully and take action as quickly as you can to fix them. 

But other things are more of a gray area. A lot of times, during moments of crisis, cost, and change — even if that change is positive, like periods of rapid growth — everybody in the company will have to change too, and some people will be able to adapt more quickly than others. In those moments, you’re going to get a lot of complaints. So as a leader, make a decision about what you think has merit and warrants action, and where you just need to educate people more to help them understand the changes happening. 

What general advice do you have for People leaders?

Annie: In a space like People, there are a near infinite number of things that you can be doing. If you go on LinkedIn, you will see five or more suggestions a day on what else you can or should be doing. Be open to that, listen to that. But you can’t do everything. 

Of course, you have to do the basics of the HR space and you have to get those right. You don’t have a choice in that. But on top of that, there’s millions of optional things. 

There’s going to be a lot of pressure — whether that’s peer pressure, pressure from yourself, or pressure from your company — to do everything. But goal-setting frameworks advise against focusing on too many things at once; you can’t do them all super well. It’s more impactful to pick a handful of things to do in an excellent way. This will set you apart and be particularly impactful for your company.. 

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