Putting values at the heart of a company [Q&A]

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This is the second of two articles on recruitment and HR. The first was on the theoretical side of getting people into your business and retaining them, and the second is a look at a startup putting these ideas into practice.

When Robin Farnworth moved to Kenya she was looking for “a place for leaders”.

She’d come from a company with an intense company culture where there was a way of talking, a way of interacting with people, a way of getting work done, and it had worked.

When she began talking to Sanergy, a company building organic composting toilets for poor communities in Kenya, she realised she’d found it. She joined as their talent manager.

The startup, which has created a sanitation value chain from toilets right through to waste treatment and reuse, was only three years old but with a strongly defined set of organisational values and a focus on finding and keeping talented people.

How they did it is not rocket science, it just takes time - it took Sanergy a year to establish the fundamentals of how they wanted the company culture to look - and commitment.

Wamda: How did the Sanergy founders create and articulate the values they wanted for the company?

Farnworth: We have five core organisational values of building value for stakeholders, authenticity, pragmatic innovation, collaboration and teamwork, and pursuing excellence. The founder went through this process, which probably took about a year and was very consultative with the employees, and defined those values. They divided the five values into five levels from aware to advanced and defined what they mean: if you're entry level staff, what does it mean to be authentic? Respect all your colleagues, it means if you see something going wrong, say something.

My job was to help people learn how to do it. It's one thing to say respect all your colleagues, but if people don't have basic conflict management skills, how do they translate that? So building the skills behind the values, and that's been the foundation for our learning and development (L&D) program.

One of the things the founders got right was talking and thinking about values, and talking and thinking about culture and investing in the staff. The L&D budget last year was the second biggest budget in the company. It became more like the culture budget, for events, putting our quotes up on the walls, all to bring the culture into the workplace.

Wamda: I imagine the market for talent is as tough in Kenya as it is in the Middle East. How do you keep your best people?

Farnworth: What we strive to do is have a very clear value proposition for our employees as we can't compete on compensation. We never will, that's not what we value. We're not awful on compensation but we're mid, sometimes below market depending on the role.

But there are other values that we bring to employees that we really try to emphasise.

We do offer a lot of independence and responsibility, and I think people crave that, they don't know they crave it until they don't have it. It’s all merit based and I think people really like that they're getting to do work well beyond their qualifications. We put a lot of trust in people. They can work from home, work flexible hours, and this isn't all that common in a traditional Kenyan company.

We also have a great team already, which helps to be able to say you're going to work with these people who other people enjoy working with, and we have a reputation in social enterprise world of growing, of being stable.

Wamda: What is the most important conversation for you while recruiting?

Farnworth: I guess alignment on values. The most important one would be a focus on impact. If you don't have the passion, well, you might do good work but it's not good enough for us.

Wamda: How do you assess that, especially if someone really wants the job?

Farnworth: Actually the opposite often happens. We'll have people who come in and you find out later they weren't really aligned on the impact, but six months in they're like 'oh my god, I just realised how important this organisation is'.

Wamda:  How difficult is it to find good people, especially for a sanitation company?

Farnworth: We have very distinct employee groups, managers, entry level office staff, and field staff. Field staff recruitment is very easy. There are not a lot of jobs available to people who only have secondary education.

Entry level is still fairly easy, employers have the advantage with a lot of people coming out of university. We have an extensive internship program. There are two things that we hope from that, one is to get value out of the intern, and the second is to find our good people. So that works really well for us and it also works well for the interns who get interesting experience, a good reference letter, and they can move on if it's not working out. A lot of our entry level office jobs come through as internal promotions from our field staff.

And then the managers is where it gets really hard. That's where the fight for talent is the biggest in Nairobi and it's skewed for a long time by the NGO sector and the UN. You have all these managers with these amazing resumes and you get them in your organisation and it's all on paper. They're often a cog in the wheel of a bigger machine. For a startup you don't want someone who is a cog in the wheel, you want someone who will own their work and who can see something from start to finish.

Wamda: So for higher level staff, what’s your process for finding and screening candidates?

Farnworth: They go through a basic process, it's three steps: application, a phone screening, and then usually do interviews. The phone screening is just to make sure the person understands what they're getting themselves into.

In person [during the interview] we take them to our offices. We have two, one in a nicer part of town called Kilimani which is our headquarters, and one where the real action happens in the slums where we have a big office. It's the centre of the manufacturing facility, it's our warehouse, our lab.

It's an experience and we make sure they get out there so they can actually see this workplace. You're sitting on plastic chairs, it's not glamorous. To get to this place you've got to come through the slums so people really get a good idea of what this organisation is about and what they're getting themselves into. And we take our time explaining the role and meeting the team.

Feature image via Sanergy.

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