9 things you need to do as a CEO when you don’t have an HR team


One of the most critical phases of a startup is when the company is taking baby steps. Consider this. Your startup baby has come to life for a few months now. The only people on board are the founding members – typically 3 or 4 crazy individuals with a common obsession – who are all heavily invested in the venture, both effort- and money-wise. Sufficient groundwork has been done, and work orders have started to trickle in. Now it’s time to rope in more people into the venture, and consequently, use your HR management skills to keep your team up and running.

Just like how a baby makes a momentous shift from crawling to walking, a startup also has a definite take-off point where accelerating the pace is key. It is also the phase when the company falls – and rises from the fall – the maximum number of times.

In this critical phase, the CEO of the company is additionally responsible for team building and motivation. Each management function is vast in itself, and beyond the purview of this article. So here, we restrict our focus to the role of the CEO in handling the HR function.

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There is a definite set of to-dos that the new CEO needs to bear in mind while he/she sets out to kick-start the startup team. While one should be wary of taking these as the only defining characteristics of a CEO’s HR duties, they are nevertheless hallmarks of a truly connected CEO:

You are new to the job too, so equip yourself first!

Most first-time CEOs have been super-successful executives in large firms before they venture out on their own. You are already familiar with the idea of a company vision and mission. It’s time to define a broad vision for your own company. This helps set a guiding path for future actions.

Define the roles and responsibilities of your partners. Each partner must have a defined primary role for which the onus is on him/her. However, for the first couple of years, the partners must also be ready to double up as salesmen, technicians, accountants, coffee-makers, cleaners, and more!

CEOs would greatly benefit from management degrees or self-learning courses. Educate yourself on topics like effort estimation and HR budgeting. Survey the market for remuneration terms that are offered to new recruits of various functions. Be ready with a list of desirable qualities to look for in prospective candidates.

Cast the net among your acquaintances – but don’t poach

The founding members – more often than not – are colleagues from previous firms or college mates, with deep kinship and understanding between them. For the same reason, while bringing the first few employees onboard, look closely among your acquaintances. See if other colleagues and/or friends show interest in your venture. Send feelers out to relevant LinkedIn/Facebook contacts and see how they respond. Don’t forget family!

However, when people are attracted to your company idea, it’s important to get them in through proper channels. Don’t coerce or poach from your parent/rival organization. It is unethical and detrimental in the long run.

Pick go-getters and quick learners for your team

Since the company is at a stage when the product idea is fluid and customer expectations may vary wildly, the team must be ready to scrap past work and make new beginnings at short notice. In such situations, perseverance and quick self-learning abilities are a great asset, not necessarily in-depth technical expertise in one field.

Take the example of the world’s leading video sharing platform. Founded in 2005, YouTube originally began as a video dating site called “Tune In Hook Up”, similar to HotOrNot.com. When the site failed to gain traction, the founders scrapped the idea, and instead focused on simply sharing videos online. Acquired by Google in November 2006 for around $1.65 billion in stock, by February 2017, YouTube users were uploading over 400 hours of video every minute.

Get your company website up and running

A CEO’s time is extremely valuable. Don’t waste time repeatedly explaining your product idea and answering the same queries from prospective customers or employees. Set up a preliminary website with at least the basic information about your venture as soon as possible. The site can always be enhanced when things become clearer. The advantages of this are myriad. For example, the first thing a candidate you are considering for recruitment would do is access your website, where he/she can find all the information they need about your firm.

Set up efficient communication channels

Get on the social media bandwagon. It’s cheap and effective. Segregate the CEO role identity from the HR role while reaching out, though both are handled by you for the moment. This makes it easier for a dedicated HR person to take over from you at any later point.

Get your core team to speak online about the company and act as ambassadors to spread the word. Never leave incoming emails and messages unattended. The company needs to project an active ‘always there’ face and having clear communication channels is a great boost in this regard.

Work out an attractive pay structure

Remember, your candidate is most likely weighing your offer against his/her present job or an alternate offer from a big corporate house. You may not be able to compete in terms of basic pay, but be sure to include attractive alternative incentives relating to ESOPs, variable pay, allowances, working hours, learning prospects, and travel opportunities.

Employee onboarding is critical

Aligning a new employee with the company business and integrating him/her into your daily affairs is termed as employee on-boarding. To achieve this critical goal, prepare in advance for the employee’s arrival. Make training plans, sort out your seating arrangements, and assign a mentor to him/her. An unsettled employee in a small team will stick out like a sore thumb.

Keep them invested, keep them happy

As CEO, you may be totally kicked up about your company. Minor disappointments and hurdles may not trouble you. But every cancelled order or irate customer can cause havoc to the motivation levels of your team.

To sustain high levels of commitment and perseverance, try out different ways of keeping your team motivated and fired up, including stress relief methods, informal spaces where employees can engage and entertain themselves, regular talks to your staff to get them to share their fears and grievances, constant sharing of every bit of positive news with the team, however small, and selling your dream to them and making them want it as much as you.

When it’s time, get a dedicated HR manager

As CEO, you should be an excellent judge of your own effort and efficiency. Analyse your day and figure out which tasks are taking up most of your time. HR-related work is only a minor part of your role. When it starts to take up more time than your core tasks of product building and business expansion, it’s time to hand over the baton to a trained professional. Get a dedicated HR person – you should also be able to afford one by then.

The HR manager is supposed to be the most empathetic and approachable person in a company. He/she motivates, facilitates, communicates masterfully, and keeps the team together. When the team is nascent, the CEO must take it upon themselves to play this key role and nurture their team. But once the baby has learnt to walk, it’s time to withdraw that helping hand, and let the team learn to walk on its own, so that you, the CEO, are free to work on larger dreams.


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