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Tom Jewell on pivoting to HR, bad advice, and the power of words

Tom Jewell on pivoting to HR, bad advice, and the power of words

Headshot of Tom Jewell on red background with HelloFresh and Unleashed logos

There are plenty of opinions flying around the HR/People space these days, some as fundamental as whether it even makes sense to use the term “HR” anymore  – after all, are humans “resources”?

But one thing is for certain: We can all learn something from the leaders who are pushing People teams across industries to be better for their employees. One of those leaders is Tom Jewell, the former Head of People at HelloFresh and current People & Culture Partner at Unleashed, a collective of senior People leaders who support fast-growth startups to grow and scale through People and Culture.

We recently sat down with Tom to discuss his pivot from Sales & Marketing to People & Culture, the worst HR advice he’s ever received, which EX changes from COVID-19 should stick around, and much more. Read on for highlights of our interview, and check back on the blog for Tom’s top lessons learned about People experience (coming soon).

Pivoting from sales & marketing to HR

Not everyone works their way up within the People ranks, and in some cases, skills acquired elsewhere are highly valuable as a People leader.

The majority of Tom’s career journey happened within sales and marketing, until the CEO of HelloFresh proposed that he pivot and take over the People role.

“I jumped at the opportunity to experiment with doing something new and quickly realized that the skill set that I was using in my sales role was actually super similar to working in a People & talent role,” Tom says. “It was thinking about how to motivate a group of people that worked in my team, using those micro-levers to get them engaged and have the right skills, but also using macro-levers to think about their incentives and the market we were in.”

What’s the key difference with an external-facing commercial role and working on a People team? “Rather than thinking about customers, we were thinking about our internal ‘customers’, our people in the HelloFresh team.”

“I found that when you really describe what ‘People and Culture’ is, and you use that terminology, you get a lot more interest from people.”

Experiencing a People role for the first time also got Tom thinking about the power of words and the ongoing HR vs. People conversation. “I found that when you really describe what ‘People and Culture’ is, and you use that terminology, you get a lot more interest from people and, in many cases, it was them sharing that this approach did not exist in their company.” It was exciting for Tom to realize companies like his were using a more “strategic, commercial, modern, open-minded approach” to the way they enable people to succeed in business.

Even just that small change in language could make a huge difference, as was the case when Tom was sent to Canada to help turn around a struggling People team. 

“It was amazing, really, to see how powerful that semantic was because as a new team, we had to disassociate ourselves with what the old ‘HR team’ had been to that organization which had felt like a negative presence.” They took the organization through a journey of building a new foundation for their People team. “Renaming our team enabled us to quickly build trust within the organization in a way that we couldn’t have done without just those simple words. So yeah, words are powerful.”

Worst HR advice 

There’s plenty of bad advice out there, and since he was coming from a different background, Tom got to experience poor People advice with fresh eyes.

So what was the worst piece of HR advice Tom ever received?

“For me, it was something like ‘This is the process/policy that we need to follow.’ What I heard from that type of phrasing was ‘Somebody already designed the way to solve this problem, and this is just what you need to do.’ But coming from a commercial role, which I had been doing all my life, that’s never true, right? What’s always true is you use your problem-solving abilities, your listening skills, your collaboration with others, to find solutions to problems and to adapt and experiment and try things out.”

“You can’t look back on the way that other organizations tell you to do things. You actually need to look at things from a first principles perspective and design solutions that have the impact that you want them to have.”

According to Tom, this is really bad advice in any role – including HR. He’s seeing a lot of the younger generation in People Operations that are pushing back on this and being more creative, a trend the pandemic has accelerated as well. “You can’t look back on the way that other organizations tell you to do things. You actually need to look at things from a first principles perspective and design solutions that have the impact that you want them to have.”

Tom advocates for building things based on principles, without having anything too concrete (i.e. a framework) that boxes people into certain decisions they have to make. “Human beings are very nuanced. There are various people with different emotions and needs and wants and drivers day to day. So the idea of being able to create something that is incredibly structured, and to use that to drive successful results across a whole body of people, every day of the year, seems totally mad to me.” 

People Experience: Lessons learned, COVID-19, and more

At Back, we’re all about the employee experience, or EX. We’re also seeing it become top-of-mind for many People leaders, especially considering current trends like “The Great Resignation” – and it’s certainly a priority for Tom.

“What makes ‘People Experience’ and the framing and mindset of that so much more impactful than ‘engagement’ is that it’s easier to look at it as a collaborative effort alongside the people who are experiencing it.” In Tom’s view, “engagement” can be very “us and them”,  whereas with People Experience it’s saying “together, let’s craft amazing experiences, moments, and practices across our organization, that allow the people that work here to thrive and have a good time and feel at one with with the place in which they work.”

Some of Tom’s top lessons learned in this space center on the later stages of the employee journey – even all the way through exiting the company. (Stay tuned for an in-depth look at Tom’s top EX lessons in a future blog.)

So what about the changes that have come about during the pandemic? Which of these EX updates are worth keeping around?

For starters, Tom has seen People teams have a much bigger voice in their organizations than before. Many founders have started to realize how much they need the support of People leaders to refresh things – whether taking a company fully remote, hybrid, or making some other transition. “Founders are saying ‘Oh, this is really important. And I need great people to help me to solve problems and take the organization on this journey with me. Let’s do this together. Let’s be creative. Let’s design things.”

“We’re seeing more and more founders backing the office, and maybe not quite appreciating the value of flexibility.”

According to Tom, one shift that may be going back in the wrong direction is flexibility. “We’re seeing more and more founders backing the office, and maybe not quite appreciating the value of flexibility… And I also love working in an office with people, so I’m not necessarily challenging that idea. It’s more down to this: why can we not have just a much more flexible approach to work?” Companies dropping off this trend may not fully appreciate the value their employees gained from the flexibility they were given over the past few years. “Flexibility is actually a huge way for you to attract and retain people, for them to be happier, for us all to have a better work-life balance. And I fear that people are connecting the value of flexibility to something that was only for the pandemic time.”

Driving People teams forward with Unleashed

We learned a lot from our conversation with Tom, and we hope these insights are helpful to other People leaders as well. 

There’s plenty more to learn from Tom and the collective he’s a part of – Unleashed.

“At Unleashed, we’re essentially a collective of senior People folks, all of whom have worked at fast-growth tech and consumer startups ourselves, and have now come together to unite our experience in supporting fast-growth startups to grow and scale through People and Culture.”

A key part of their mission? “To make amazing People practices and strong human cultures much more a part of what the criteria for great looks like.” In the view of Unleashed, being “People-first” is not just the right thing to do – it’s the commercially correct thing to do. “We’re essentially a People-as-a-Service business. So, we have a team of partners who have been in these kinds of roles, and we embed our partners inside our clients’ businesses. Their job is to help to build the right People machine that the business needs to be able to scale successfully through their People and Culture.”

Unleashed approaches all of this through their own version of design thinking. “It’s about working from first principles, and working hard to find the right balance for us to be able to co-design with our clients rather than design things for them.”

To learn more about Unleashed and their unique approach to People & Culture, check out www.unleashed.company, and stay tuned for our next piece on Tom’s top EX lessons learned.

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