Meet Rotem: three-time VP HR, global startup consultant, mentor at AKT Labs, and Head of People at Pitango VC. She is sharing her valuable insight as part of Hibob’s HR People Leader of the Month series. Rotem is a seasoned HR Evangelist, skilled in deconstructing and rebuilding HR fundamentals, using her 15 years of experience in working closely with entrepreneurs and executives on building their companies to scale.
Rotem recently joined Pitango Venture Capital as Head of People, supporting portfolio companies with everything related to people and culture. She actively leads external HR initiatives for Pitango, enhancing its relations with the local and global HR and entrepreneurial communities.
Hey, Rotem! Thanks for taking the time to talk today. I’d like to dive right in and learn more about your background. How did you get started in HR?
My entry into the world of HR was not typical. When I began my BA in Psychology and Business Administration, I wasn’t even aware that HR was a viable profession. As it turned out, Psychology and Business Admin was the perfect mix of concentrations to pursue when I eventually settled on a Human Resources trajectory.
My first real job was in investment banking. I had steadily moved up the corporate ladder for about five years, during which I pursued an MBA with a focus on Organizational Development. During my MBA studies, I discovered the world of HR. I tried to incorporate HR best practices in my workplace, but it wasn’t accepted at a place where money is the primary vision. I knew my heart was in HR, and that I needed to make a bold switch, even if it meant starting my career from scratch. I was lucky to land an HR role at Perion, a company where I had performed technical support as a student, and it served as a jumping board towards the career I dreamed of. I’ve been working in the startup world ever since, for 13 years now. It began as a whirlwind romance and now it’s somewhat of a long term love affair!
Looking at my career, you’ll notice that I have been alternating between freelance work and internal HR roles for the past 10 years. It all started in 2008 when the market forced many people out of their jobs, and I lost mine, as well. Social Media recruiting had just emerged, and I was one of the few pioneers to embrace its use case, helping my unemployed friends find new jobs. Soon afterward, I turned it into a career. I began recruiting for Kenshoo and SupportSpace as a freelancer, and helped out a few other startups, too. Flying solo felt weird initially, but independent work soon became an inevitable move for me, as I noticed there was a real need for recruitment. It was one year later that Kenshoo offered me the role of VP HR, and it was obvious that I landed exactly where I had been aiming.
You compared your long-standing presence in the startup world with a “love affair.” What is it about the industry that you feel so affectionately towards?
Well, I really enjoy building companies to scale. I like being in smaller, more intimate environments where you know everyone personally and can build things from scratch rather than just fix. Taking part in an early stage startup also allows me to work with exciting, talented, and sometimes crazy people, and allows me to learn from experience. Working at a promising startup that closed after 18 months was also, ultimately, a good experience for me to have. Yes, closing a company is unfortunate, but it also teaches you to be humble. Scaling is a privilege that is often taken for granted, but it requires so much hard work, and always a bit of luck. Most startups don’t get there. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some of the most successful startups and see them beat the odds, but it truly is hard work. It’s both fascinating and inspiring to me, and I love helping them avoid some of these obvious (and not so obvious) mistakes.
Through my experiences with various companies and at different stages, I’m often asked to share my lessons learned and overall outlook on what meaningful HR looks like. For the past 7 to 8 years I’ve been lecturing at conferences and meetups, teaching different HR courses, and writing about various HR issues. The goal of raising HR standards drives me to be active in many related initiatives outside my formal roles, and I love it!
It’s amazing how drive and passion collided when you decided to devote your time entirely to HR. What are some skills required for a great head of people?
For starters, I think it’s crucial for any HR professional to think strategically and understand the business. You can’t really be an “HR Business Partner” if you don’t understand how your role impacts the business. You need to speak the language, understand the different forces, and be involved. It’s important to remember that we’re here to support a company, its leaders, and the employees, and provide it with valuable insights and common sense.
Two more great assets to possess as an HR Leader are curiosity and boldness; to learn, to expand, and to go beyond “what everyone else does.” To not be afraid of new technology and thinking paradigms, and embrace changing the rules. To find what is right for the company, and not necessarily what we’re used to. Searching for the perfect HR professional can be a challenge, so recognizing these skills or qualities is key.
One of the reasons that HR in Israel still has much to aspire to is because of a common mistake that many first-time CEOs make; they realize soon after a funding round that they need someone to help them recruit talent. They can’t afford (or don’t see the point in) hiring an experienced HR function so they “promote” their Admin function to HR, giving them all of the responsibility (and a nice new title), but no proper professional training or support. This is usually bound to deliver mediocre results at best, causing the company to lose precious time and money, and maintaining a negative cycle around the HR function. If a full-time HR professional isn’t feasible for a growing startup, I highly recommend either hiring someone experienced for a part-time position or a consultant who can give proper guidance very early on. It will definitely pay off in the long run.
It’s exciting when a CEO finally finds the best people leader for their company. What do you think are the biggest challenges those talent pros face today?
I think the most visible challenge all HR leaders currently face is hiring the right people for the roles their companies need to staff. But, much has been said about in that regard, so I’ll take the opportunity to spotlight another important challenge; building a strong management team as the company grows. HR executives need to support the CEO in creating a team that collaborates effectively throughout the company’s challenges. Differences in experience, personal style, and culture can cause a lot of tension within executive teams, and it’s one of the areas where startup CEOs need the most help.
Many companies recognize that as it grows there is a slight change in skill set needed from its leaders, and the magic created early on by super-dedicated people is no longer working as the organization scales. New leadership is required; this is difficult to swallow, and the wisdom here resides in how to either find new ways to employ past amazing skills that served a company well at its inception or to sever ties before the business is damaged. Recognizing and handling these sensitive situations is one of the HR professional’s greatest challenges to date.
Creating a dynamic, successful, and desirable place to work is another tricky challenge. As we all know, it begins with having a great culture. HR professionals should be asking themselves, as well as their employees, “What do people need to stay motivated?” People want to be seen and understood. They want to be able to grow personally and professionally and to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Once the company is set up and you begin hiring, it’s time to look at what makes your company special. What is the ideal company culture that keeps people around?
A great culture is made out of so many different ingredients, which can change dramatically from one company to another. There isn’t a secret recipe, and it mostly depends on the leader. I always say that a company is a reflection of its CEO. I’ve seen some very different startups create very attractive cultures, and no two are the same. Culture is not the value we place on our website. It’s the everyday decisions, actions, and reactions that we demonstrate.
If you ask me for the fundamentals of any great culture, I would say #1: Trust, where people feel safe to ask questions, say what’s on their minds, and be vulnerable. #2: A culture where everyone understands the vision and how to get there. #3: A culture that fosters teamwork and collaboration. But, it all starts with leading by example; if a CEO doesn’t practice what they preach, it automatically diminishes their original nice words.
The role of HR, together with the CEO and the executive team, is to create trust in cahoots with vulnerability. Vulnerability may be a buzzword, but it fosters innovation, enhances productivity and engagement, and ultimately leads to better business results.
You mention vulnerability as a buzzword. Are there any other trends you expect will shape HR departments in the next few years?
The ability to adopt new technologies will be tested big time! Future trends and the evolution of HR will be all about being open to automation and new technology, and HR professionals have to lead the way in shaping the new world of work. We must look beyond our local landscape and be more open to what global companies can teach us.
A more positive trend that I’m seeing great improvement within, is the way in which the HR function is more highly regarded. Nowadays, more entrepreneurs are looking for an HR executive to join the management table and are realizing the function’s true value in various business processes.
Do you have any advice for HR professionals looking to have a lasting, industry “love affair” of their own?
When I mentor HR executives I offer two main pieces of advice. First, understand the business, and speak the executive language. Use data to back up your agenda. Understanding the business and its technology will help gain you a seat at the management table and with hiring. You won’t always know everything, but you can know as much as possible.
Second, don’t just copy and paste best practices. If you’re looking to create a system for your company, define the goals first, then look for the solutions out there (beyond your local premise), or create something new, based on what’s right for your company. We sometimes lose sight of the end goal, out of lack of time or energy, to invest in finding the best solution. Asking yourself, “What are we trying to achieve, and is this the way to get there?” will surely keep you on track.