This time last year Justin Basini, CEO and co-founder of ClearScore (the credit reference company ranked one of the UK’s 50 fastest-growing fintechs), was doing some serious soul-searching. After Basini personally made his first hire in January 2015, the company quickly turned into what he terms a ‘rocketship’; doubling in size almost every quarter and reaching 110 staff in the UK and 17 in Mumbai in just 18 months.
Cue hitting that point many entrepreneurs have difficulty facing up to: when to become a ‘proper’ company and hire an HRD.
In a frank interview published in another title, Basini talked openly about the ‘tipping point’ he’d reached; the weight of the decision was clearly preying on his mind. “I’m a control freak,” he admitted. Nothing unusual there – most founders are. But adding to this challenge was his less-than-complimentary opinion of HR.
“I’ve been told HR people are not the best people; they always default to policy,” he grumbled at the time. “I can’t have HR making the business stodgy.”
And yet, a year on, not only has Basini hired an HRD but she is very much ‘an HR person’. So what happened?
“Reading that interview was what made me get in touch in the first place,” reminisces the ‘HR person’ in question, Kirstin Furber, who is former people director at BBC Worldwide and former executive HRD Europe at 20th Century Fox.
“I just thought: here’s a business that sounds really interesting, run by someone that until I came [in February] had probably thought about the business all by himself,” she says, adding diplomatically: “I think we’ve all had our experiences of different HR people. I can see why it must have been scary for him – he wanted to get it right.”
It was Basini’s people vision that really won Furber over. “What’s always been clear is his passion for staff,” she explains. “It’s definitely where I feel we connected. Some HR are commercial, some more policy-led, but I’ve always been interested in how people can be more human, and their ‘best self’ at work.
“Justin had put a lot in place already, but when we spoke he was very open – he said ‘Here’s my business, here’s my vision, and here’s what’s already here [a high-performing culture]. Now I want to drive potential. Are you up for it?’ I said I was.”
In this sense Furber admits joining ClearScore as its first chief people officer (Basini deliberately still doesn’t do ‘HR’ in job titles) has been less the blank sheet of paper many may have anticipated. “We’re 160 people now, and the aim is to get to 200 by the end of the year. The phase we’re in is less about growth, and more about taking the talent we already have to the next level,” she says.
“The average age of our staff is 31 – so they’re hungry for responsibility and want to know what the next phase of their career will be. At times it’s been nerve-wracking thinking about how we do it, and it’s necessarily involved putting in some basics first. But ultimately we want to get to the point where all our people are leaders to some degree.”
The mantra through which Furber aims to achieve this is based on three simple words. Nonetheless it has taken her six months to plan her ‘grow, enable, lead’ initiative. It’s so new Furber only unveiled the strategy to staff a few days before HR magazine visited. But the clarity of her thinking is evident. “We want to develop people’s careers, but very importantly, Justin and I feel it must come from within the person themselves,” she says.
This is crucial for a business where it is common for people to have joined as an intern and three years later be responsible for whole teams (one joined this way and now manages 37 staff). Furber wants more of the same. Career aspiration chats will now be weaved into new mid-year and end-of-year reviews. And every two weeks, managers will have to report on their people’s goals.
“The message we’re trying to get across is that staff may well need to test themselves against our very tough performance-related principles,” says Furber. “This may not suit everyone, but it’s the way it needs to be – because we also have plans to expand internationally.
“To do this, and make a success of it, we need to very carefully assert our culture. It cannot be allowed to be diluted depending on where we locate to. Everyone must work to the same model globally.”
Just to get to the point where they can start planning their career, staff will have already made it through a tough probation period (around 10% don’t make it). During their first six weeks, fellow staff are encouraged to feed back on whether a new hire ‘fits’. If they pass, a giant wall – positioned in the middle of the office – is ceremoniously signed by the newly anointed employee to show the rest of the business they have ‘made it’.
“It’s a big event,” says Furber. “Even I had to be peer reviewed to pass probation, and I still have my fortnightly performance goals with Justin.”
With the overarching HR plan bearing similarities to Basini’s own three-pronged ‘acquire, engage, monetise’ initiative launched last year (which re-organised staff previously siloed by function into three teams), critics might wonder whether it is still Basini who is calling the shots.
But Furber is equal to the question. “The culture is very much the foundation, and that was already very strong,” she answers. “It’s about respecting each other’s views. The way we work is that we debate, then we go off, and we both create change.”
She believes the process is making her a better HR person. “You can’t just take what you did before and plonk it into this new business. What you can do though is draw upon your experiences. I’m not here to transform ClearScore, but to set the stage, and to fix things that may not be right.
“I’m the guardrail that supports people; I’m being respectful of what was already successful before. We’re on a journey to embed our customer-facing mission internally. Our ambition is clear, and we believe that if we can get HR involved early in the process you avoid a lot of pain later.”
Such a performance culture won’t suit everyone though, with turnover rates of 25%. “We’re not worried yet, because the people who are leaving aren’t what we would class as our top talent,” Furber says. “The people we actually want to keep are the people who don’t tend to leave. So we know that our culture messages are getting through.”
Profiling the qualities of what makes someone a natural ClearScore leader is something Furber isn’t ruling out – including using psychometrics. This might be the kind of traditional HR ‘stuff’ Basini held in low regard a year ago. But now it seems set to become pivotal to the business’s future success.
“All of these questions are maybes, and we certainly don’t rule anything out – just so long as we don’t lose working out how staff can be their best self at work,” says Furber. “This is the over-arching driver.”
A recent project Furber has completed is re-shooting the company’s recruitment video. HR magazine got a peek at the first master cut when we visited. The video stars staff themselves, all talking about the business and what it takes to thrive, and employees were allowed to speak completely unscripted.
“To be your best self you need to be driven,” Furber relates. ‘Being your best’ is a phrase that comes up multiple times, and deliberately so. “It’s so important we tell people what we’re like, otherwise the wrong people will join,” says Furber.
So now that she has been with the business more than half a year, does Furber think she is beginning to make the sort of difference that originally tempted her to get in touch? “We’re definitely in the groove now,” she says in relation to her relationship with Basini and the rest of the leadership team.
“I’m passionate about the professionalism of HR, and Justin is passionate about the business and where the next phase of development will take it. When these two qualities mix, it’s a good combination,” she adds. “Having said that, the environment we’re in is one where we need to act fast, and we’ve also done some work refreshing our principles – and that’s something Justin has still rightfully wanted to be involved with. In fact, he needed to be a part of it.”
Moving forward, the sense is that Basini will wean himself completely off the people decisions the business needs to take. “Justin knows he has been freed up to get on and drive the business more,” says Furber. “The CEO’s role should be an external one.”
The ultimate question though is whether Furber is happy she made the move from global corporates to a small (but growing) startup. Is she glad that original article was first waved under her nose?
“No regrets!” she says triumphantly. “Yes, it’s been nerve-wracking at times, but we’ve developed some great work. As HR professionals we have to realise that what is best practice in one business won’t necessarily be so in another. Keeping that in mind has been particularly useful here.
“This is a real challenge, of course. It’s a very different company. But it’s exciting times.”