Sarah Wasif

LandTech Chief People Officer Sarah Wasif

Sarah WasifChief People Officer

Joining us on Talk Talent To Me today is Sarah Wasif, Chief People Officer at LandTech. Today Sarah outlines what scaling looks like for the company and how she plans on executing growth. Next, she outlines the important things to be considered when a company grows and how you can be adaptable to things that may not work on a larger scale. Sarah then tells us how and what elements of a business should be localized when moving into different areas and what should remain as is. Sarah discusses some of the tricks she has found helpful when trying to keep original employees happy and maintain the company’s original value system before telling us how she ensures that new employees align with those values and are a good fit. Lastly, Sarah discusses how the world has changed to incorporate an emphasis on personal behavior in the workplace. Tune in to find out how to expand a company globally and stay true to its values.

Episode Transcript


[00:00:05] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent To Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontlines of modern recruitment.

[00:00:12] SPEAKER 1: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life. We want to understand how they make decisions. Where they’re willing to take risks? And what it looks like when they fail.

[00:00:22] RS: No holds barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews, with directors of recruitment, VPS of global talent, CHROs and everyone in between.

[00:00:31] SPEAKER 2: Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.

[00:00:39] SPEAKER 3: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career, you are trusted by the organization, you get to work with the C-suite, and the security at the front desk, and everybody in between, and everybody knows you.

[00:00:52] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz. Talk Talent To Me.


[00:00:59] RS: Here with me today on Talk Talent To Me is the Chief People Officer over at LandTech, Sarah Wasif. Sarah, welcome to the podcast. How are you?

[00:01:06] SW: I’m good. Thank you, Rob. Nice to join you today.

[00:01:09] RS: Really pleased to have you. From where are you joining me?

[00:01:12] SW: If you know London or the Kent side, I am over in Kent in the UK.

[00:01:17] RS: Got it. Okay. How is Kent? Is it foggy, rainy, sunny, nice?

[00:01:22] SW: At the moment, unfortunately, even though it’s April, and it should be spring, it is a very foggy day. But nevertheless, I think we’re predicting 19 degrees this week, so something to look forward to.

[00:01:31] RS: Oh, that’s nice. It’s also rainy and cold here in Denver, Colorado. But it’s good weather to put both of your hands around your cup of tea and stare off through the window into the middle distance, which is how I like to pass my time when I’m not podcasting.

[00:01:44] SW: I like your cup of tea actually.

[00:01:46] RS: Thank you. So glad to have you here. There’s so much I want to speak with you about, Sarah. Before we get too deep in the weeds, would you mind sharing a little bit about your background and kind of how you wound up in your current role at LandTech?

[00:01:56] SW: Yeah. Sure. I essentially graduated in Business Management, what seems like a lifetime ago. It was really generic. It gave me lots of insights about how businesses organizations work, as well as psychology of people, and behaviors, and marketing and all sorts. From there, I joined my first organization being in care organization. That was my first role, as HR administrator. Then just worked my way up and through, so administrator to assistant, to coordinator, advisor, and manager and so forth. I initially started out in the marketing sector, so I’m working for organizations such as Tag, Omnicom and so forth. Then I entered some of the large corporates such as the BBC. That really gave me strong governance into how well structured and well large organizations operate in all the various disciplines and infrastructure.

Then, I eventually entered the tech sectors, sort of six years ago, a company called SwiftKey. Basically, that really gave me foundations into how to apply that infrastructure and large governance of organizations that I’ve worked in before, married with really fast intrapreneurial innovative organizations in the tech sector. That was sort of my kind of entry point into tech. From there onwards, I’ve worked in a few startups. I joined LandTech four years ago, and been with the company ever since. We’re now [inaudible 00:03:12] 200 people, and when I joined, we’re 30. It’s been an interesting and incredible growth journey. My role is now Chief People Officer and really looking at the future of the organization, and how we scale infrastructure, and basically to hyper-growth.

[00:03:27] RS: Got it. What is the state of things? You’ve basically 10x the company in the last few years. Are you looking at similar growth moving forward? What is scaling look like for you in the next few years?

[00:03:36] SW: Yeah. We’re very much on hyper scaling trajectory. We’re currently, as I kind of mentioned, in the near 200s actually. The next sort of 12 months looks the same. Another sort of near double in size, in terms of headcount. We’re also about to launch in the US. Watch out, Rob, we can be coming your way really soon, but essentially, really scaling in the US and really expediting our growth there as well.

[00:03:59] RS: When you are hearing these highfalutin growth goals of the company, I’m sure your CEO can spin a beautiful vision, there’s influx of money, what have you. How do you approach kind of translating that into what it’s going to mean for you and your team and how to actually turns into people working at the company, and not just like a vision, but actual an execution?

[00:04:20] SW: For example, our goal is obviously financial. It’s X revenue by X point in time. Obviously, working backwards, that gives us, okay, to get to X revenue, what’s the staff population? What is that made up of? What are the skill sets? What are the training programs we need to have for those individuals that we really want to retain as well as those that we really want to optimize? What are the benefits programmed to attract and retain the right individuals? What should our culture look and feel like insofar as the way we treat each other, the way we behave, the way that we make decisions? How do those values resonate in global and international infrastructures? How do we make decisions now that we’re not just 30 people around the office and around the table? How do we actually then communicate those decisions? Who forms those decisions? Because the legacy, initial employees, they’re now different. There are more kind of niche remits and so forth. How do we make and communicate those decisions? How do we live the values real authentically as we’ve grown, and we’ve hired very quickly? How do we test and qualify candidates? Because we are interviewing thoroughly. How to use competency through that?

It’s literally, to get to that revenue number working backwards in all of those kinds of sort of strategic projects to build infrastructures in the new regions. Which ones of those are going to be centralized? What do we take from the UK? What do we still run? What all of the people, mechanisms? Which performance reviews? Do we take the UK ones? Do we build the new infrastructures for the new entities? Do we actually even set up entities or do we do different ways of kind of payrolling those providers? Do we hire local talent and HR people or do we work with agencies? I’s all of those kinds of decisions strategies that I think about. Yeah, basically, try to –

[00:06:11] RS: A million questions.

[00:06:13] SW: That’s just some of that.

[00:06:15] RS: A million questions you have to ask as you go into new territories or scale. Yeah, it makes sense. Million questions for you to ask it sounds like as you start really thinking about the boots on the ground of scaling. I’m also really interested in the processes of scaling, meaning which ones will work, which ones will scale up. It’s not quite as simple as just slamming your foot on the gas, right? I suppose at LandTech, not as simple as slamming your foot on the petrol. Things that work at 30 people, at 200 people might not work at thousand. How are you kind of trying to indulge a process at a larger size to see if it would still work? How do you even into it, which ones wouldn’t, wouldn’t work as you grow?

[00:06:50] SW: I think, for example, within people’s strategies, there are probably four key pillars. Some people think about it five, I think about it as four. You are basically thinking about the way you attract. All of those, basically, how you think about your brand, the assessment process, the organizational structure of who you need to hire, and the skill sets and so forth. That’s for me, give or take is the first pillar.

The second pillar is, okay, now that you’ve attracted them, how do you retain them? How do you think about training, succession plans, rewards, incentives, all of those things to really retain and kind of engagement strategies? Then the third pillar really for me is around sustainability, so all of that compliance, legality, employee relations, kind of restructures and all of those sorts of governance that it takes to really operate. I suppose to answer your question, thinking about the processes, it’s kind of looking at all of those pillars and thinking, A, is that a UK must, is there a legal reason, is there a practical reason, is there a time difference, etc.? Does it need to process that scale? For example, performance reviews, that probably does need to sustain and be able to scale. But there might be some bespoke elements, such as the number of questions, the types of questions, how i actually works within that structure and framework.

It’s just looking at all of those pillars, deciding which ones definitely are scalable, which ones need to be bespoke, which ones need to be slightly tailored, which ones are not relevant anymore even for the UK and just kind of going through those lenses. Does that answer your question?

[00:08:19] RS: Yeah. There’s also this interesting notion of like what will and won’t work based on the geography. You are expanding the United States, could you give an example of something you’re worried might have to be localized if you are moving to the United States or when you’re going to United States that may not work based on its UK origin?

[00:08:36] SW: Yeah. I mean there are a couple of things top of my head. The US culture is really rich and it’s quite unique. Actually, it’s quite obvious that there is some cultural connotations and differences. The competency framework that for example we have put. That looks and feels like basically technical and operational behaviors, communication styles, decision making styles, and more of those intangible things, the way people operate and think. There could be elements that that cultural difference has impacted.

For example, in the UK, there might be a competency that everyone is, it’s quite natural, it’s inherent because of the cultural connotations. But in the US, that might not. We need to think about the competency is different, know how to score, or rate them, or add new ones, and so forth. That’s just an example where a framework might definitely scale, but there’ll be elements of needing to think about it different. For us, actually, there are other things. Benefits might not scale aligned on knowing the US. Share options is kind of – there’s a lot more emphasis and focus, for example, compared to the UK, which might be more life assurance, and health assurance or enhanced pensions. There are differences there and it’s just understanding that yes, we’re going to have benefits in both. But actually, maybe there’s bespoke elements that really cater to that local market, for example.

[00:09:53] RS: I didn’t know that Americans index more on like equity in a company. Why do you think that is?

[00:09:57] SW: So far, what kind of insights is telling us and from my experience, basically because, I suppose in the UK, there is more focus on the other benefits. Like I said, life insurance, health insurance, and [inaudible 00:10:10] hospitality. Maybe their notion of startups or successful startups and the actual return on their share options are not as felt or as experienced as much in the UK. I think those are two factors for sure.

[00:10:25] RS: Got it. Looking back at the scaling part, you gave some really good advice on how to sort of feel out which process would and wouldn’t. Can you kind of give some examples of the ones you specifically are going to focus on to be like, “Okay. This needs to be reworked before we grow”?

[00:10:38] SW: Yes. There are a few, so I’m [inaudible 00:10:41] most relevant ones, if I’m honest. I think the way we do hiring might need to be looked at. In the UK, we have a really thorough interview process that looks and feels like meeting the hiring managers, meeting some of the key peers, meeting some of the team, the [inaudible 00:10:59] works really closely with. There is a really comprehensive competency-based interview and structure. When we’ve been hiring recently in the US, for example, some of our earlier roles. What we’re experiencing is, we are obviously a new entity over there. We’re perhaps not a strong established brand, just as yet over there.

I think what we’re also experiencing is the US interview process generally are a lot shorter. Sometimes we have three, particularly for more senior roles, we’re seeing that. That in the US definitely feels more like two so far. It’s just maybe, we still go through a comprehensive interview, but we think about the number of stages, or the number of panel members involved, or even the types of questions that we’re asking. It’s things like that.

[00:11:39] RS: Got it. It makes sense. Also, with regard to scaling, there’s this challenge where the people who join your company early have this role in building a company that’s maybe no longer for them. Because if they join it like 10 to 20 people, they probably like this sort of freewheeling experience. It’s sort of just like get things done, way less process. Then as you grow, it’s inevitable. You have to add processes, you have to add some red tape and whatnot. How do you think about keeping early startup employees happy as the teams get bigger, as there become more rules, as things become more codified around them?

[00:12:16] SW: Yeah. That’s a really interesting question and actually something we’re thinking about actively as we speak. There’s probably two larger strategies and I’m framing them under the sort of overall retention strategy. The first one really focuses around being really transparent with the career framework that we’re just launching. What do the available roles look within your function, cross functionally in the future? Not just active roles now, but actually the ones that we’re projecting the next three years, giving them visibility. Once they have that, then its growth plans, right? These are the available roles. Where do you want to go? How do we get you there?

We’ve got training budgets that aligned to those. We’ve got external mentors that then work and support with them. The idea is just to really show them the long-term vision really, for them and the vision they’d like to see. Then actually, sometimes it’s showing them that there are other strategic products they can get involved in. For example, we’ve got some really smart members of the organization. They’ve been here for a really long time. They’re constantly involved in things pricing projects, and they might be engineers, or they’re involved in setting entities, and then they might be customer success individuals. It’s about that, giving them that leverage and giving them that room that they’re still really speaking to some of the original members.

The CEO is really hands on. That relationship they had in the earlier days with the likes of the CEO, and the co-founders and the earlier team, it’s very solidified and they’re still getting that touch point and still feeling quite connected to that hub that started out a few years ago. Giving them those projects, and really making sure everyone’s still hands on, including the CEO, who has been the person who’s hired and really brought everyone in an earlier date. That engagement still exists.

[00:13:56] RS: Yeah, it seems related to the question of how to scale culture. When your early employees talk about, “Oh! Well, back in the good old days, when we were in that tiny office, and we were just scrappy and trying to get everything done.” Do you want to like encourage that esprit de corps, and that company morale, and whatever those like gritty sort of values that got you where you are? How do you do that? Well, why not go back to the people who saw it firsthand. I love this idea of, you kind of rely on them to be cultural pillars in a way and to be like, “Okay. You talk about the good old days, how would you like to have an active hand and maintaining that feeling and making sure that we still do work in the same way in some areas.”

[00:14:40] SW: Yeah, exactly. I think they really enjoy it, they feel that they’re contributing, they’re still adding value, they still feel central. Actually, even some of the new projects. Recently, we do work around, okay, our values, are they still relevant five ,six years later? Are they going to be relevant when we go to the US and when we scale to other time zones? We still engage them in those. Even the value-driven products, we engage with them, as well as the why the staff, of course. But yeah, it’s nice to see their stories. It’s actually quite nice. I haven’t joined and worked in a business where some of those early individuals are still A, here and B, as passionate as the first day I landed eyes on them nearly four years ago. It’s just incredible.

I think that speaks to a lot of the fact that the culture largely has stayed and been embedded. Of course, we’ve pivoted and changed what we needed to change. But largely, that’s the nucleus of a decent bunch of people, people that fundamentally care about a purposeful mission, care about one another, care about creating a great place to work, ideas and knowledge sharing and humility. It’s really great. We’ve kept on to that even though we’ve scaled. It’s really nice to see those early employees still feeling quite authentic about that journey and those values. So yeah, it’s been great.

[00:15:56] RS: Yeah. You must have done something right.

[00:15:57] SW: I can’t take credit. I’d love to. I can’t. As I said, the CEO, Johnny plays a big hand in that, and everyone that he’s kind of hired around him in the earlier days, definitely had been part of that journey. I took something that was originally amazing. I’ve built and maintained on it. And yeah, but definitely can’t take the credit he started it, so yeah.

[00:16:16] RS: Very humble. But you can take credit if you want. This notion of keeping that culture going, it can’t just be looping in early employees to participate in these projects. I feel like you need to be actively screening for it. That can get tricky, because how do you – screening for soft skills as nuanced to begin with, but then also, how do you turn a value into behavior and then assess against a behavior. That feels like a sticky wicket. How do you approach that challenge?

[00:16:43] SW: Assessing for values in interviews, yes, you’re right. If I had a crystal ball for every time, I was like, “This is 100% when I think about someone.” Then when they join, sometimes you can’t always get everything right, so you’re right. You need to think thoroughly and differently. A couple of things for us; we actually, I mentioned competencies earlier. One of our competencies is actually global citizenship. That is literally our values packaged and turned into skills, behaviors, and something really transparent. We actually qualify that pretty much in the first round. That looks and feels like actual questions that talk to how someone thinks, how someone behaves, someone’s level of teamsmanship, someone’s level of integrity.

I’m not going to give all of our secrets away, but really speaks to the kind of those behaviors that’s reflecting that competency through questions. We then look for really subtle cues. A few people on the panel, largely most of the panel, but there are definitely a few people plotted in the panel that have got very high emotional intelligence. They have been tried and tested in kind of their ability to pick up those unsaid cues. Again, it can be something really subtle, such as the level of eye contact, or the way someone’s treating someone else that they don’t think works for the organization, but they do. Or someone from the cleaning crew or whatever it might be.

We really look for those ways, the way that, are they respectful regardless of levels, are they decent, are they inclusive in the way they’re thinking, and the people in the room and so forth. Again, try not to kind of give too much of our secrets away. But the idea is, we really do look for those subtle behavioral things as well. In terms of decisions, we always try to go for really unanimous board in terms of the panel. My advice to everyone is always never panic buy. If we’ve got to go back to the drawing board, because that’s what we’re going to do to make sure we’re absolutely getting this right, we will always do that. That’s kind of been some of our success and the way we’ve done it so far. Some of the other projects look and feel like assessment, psychometric testing that we’re thinking about. There are always things that we are going to do as we continue to hire at this capacity. But for now, those things have worked for us and so far as behavioral competency, values, central questions.

[00:18:56] RS: I love that. I love the approach of trying to understand how the candidate treats other people who are outside of the interview panel. It’s sort of like, there’s this quote, if someone’s not nice to waitstaff, they’re not a nice person. When I was interviewing, I used to always go afterward, go to the office manager, and be like, “Hey, Cindy. What’s your read on this person?” Because the office manager was kind of playing the role of recruiting coordinator often, so she would welcome them to the office, she’d get them situated, she’d be like, “You’re going to be over here. Is there anything I can get you?” Just like niceties, p’s and q’s.

If someone can’t be gracious and polite in that, literally, their very first foot forward, then they’re probably not a nice and gracious person at all. Just based on her read of that, she’d be like, “Oh, yeah. They really couldn’t be bothered with me.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting, because you’re 1/30 of the company at this stage.” That to me was like a signal of whether someone was actually who they said they were. That’s easy enough to fake, so it’s not like automatic green light, but just one data point amongst a lot of data points.

[00:19:51] SW: Yeah, 100%. I was going to just also add. One of the other things I think for me as indicators. We’re all candidates, we’ve all been there, sometimes we’re shy, we’re nervous, someone has caught us off guard, we had a bad day, whatever. Also, we also apply our own humility and our own empathy. Sometimes when there’s been someone that is just on the fence or there’s just a small niggle, what we also do by way of really giving them that benefit of doubt is having an honest conversation. Inviting them back in whether it’s face to face, or a coffee, or a quick phone call. This is kind of all picked up on what do you think.

Number one is, can we have that conversation? Was it a safe conversation? Did they take that well? Did they have a growth mindset when we’re having that conversation? Could they take feedback? Again, that’s another indicator. Obviously, if they don’t, then we know we’ve made the right decision. But if they’ve been able to turn it around, and there’s that authenticity, then yeah, we’ve also gone. Yeah, okay, great. That was just a bad day for you. But you know, let’s go for it. Again, it’s just, we know people are complex and we’re all interesting and unique, so we don’t always want to be harsh. We always give that benefit of the doubt where we think we need to and where it can pay off.

[00:20:57] RS: What do you mean by a safe conversation?

[00:20:59] SW: Yes. I suppose safety is just insofar as someone you don’t know, you’ve just met for an hour, an hour and a half and then you’re making a decision about their career, about should you hire them or not. But you’re not sure, and you need to then go and have this conversation. Say, “Look, I’ve just seen this, I want to understand a bit more.” For us, we’d want to be curious. Therefore, by the time we’re turning up and speaking to them, it’s not an awkward, or difficult or confronting conversation. We have to provide them a safe environment to give them this feedback. Obviously, for us, we want the same reciprocated. We want to make sure that A, they know we’re coming from the right place and B, that obviously, there is that mutual respect in how we’re communicating and engaging in that conversation. Safe to both sides and obviously, for us, definitely making sure that we’re respectful, and empathetic and giving them that place to have been dignified in that feedback as well.

[00:21:51] RS: This is pretty mature view of evaluating communication and conversation. I don’t know if it’s like really done in like business school, or if it’s even emphasized in your role as you develop, as a people leader. You might go read these three books on body language, on nonviolent communication, on nonverbal communication, like these things that like all play a part, if you care about evaluating soft skills, and you care about learning about any nontechnical thing about a person. It’s so, so crucial and it feels like people aren’t really schooled in how to do this. Do you agree?

[00:22:25] SW: Hundred percent. I think I would have paid really good money, not even in my early career, even in school, someone teaching you how the world operates, how people think, behave, politics at work, how decisions impact you, how you impact other people, how to read behavior, how to influence in a kind and respectful way. I wish that was taught in school. It sets people up for life. I wish it definitely was something that we can educate everyone, and children, and obviously, young professionals about, as you get higher in your career, you don’t have time to learn these things. They become harder to, I guess, in becoming – be inherent. The idea is, if they are learned earlier, either in childhood or in your career, that they become a lot more enjoyable and for you to kind of navigate your way around some complexity.

[00:23:19] RS: If you’ve made it to a certain point in your career, you may believe that you don’t need it. You’re like, “Well, I’ve got this far without really dialing that down, so why relearn something now?” But yeah, maybe you should write this book, organizational diplomacy.

[00:23:32] SW: I like that, Rob. We can co-create. Now, I really like that. Yeah, I think. But the world of work is changing. I think the concept of emotional intelligence is no longer a soft, fluffy, nice to have. I think companies and successful companies are really honing into it. We obviously have seen a lot more injection in the HR strategic function in the way companies are capitalized in the C suite roles, in the way that I suppose companies are investing in engagement, in training, and all of those things. I think the role for strategic people functions is changing. I think, to an extent, it is because companies are realizing it’s not just your technical ability. It’s about how you behave, how you think, how you operate.

I was reading something a while ago, and it talked about, it was research on basically plane crashes. It said that, 1/3 of plane crashes are not caused by someone’s knowledge. The pilot, it’s not because they didn’t know something or the flight attendant or whatever. It’s not someone’s knowledge. It was actually the way they behaved when something went wrong. Again, it’s evidence of showing it’s not knowledge, it’s behaviors that really can drive success or failure. I think companies are tapping into that emotional intelligence for sure.

[00:24:46] RS: Yeah, couldn’t agree more. Sarah, we are approaching optimal podcast length here. At this point, I would say thank you so much for being with me here. I’ve loved learning about all the work you’re doing and the scaling going on at LandTech. It’s been a delight. Thanks for being with me today.

[00:24:59] SW: Thank you so much, Rob. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. All the best. Thank you.


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