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8 things I learned after quitting silo working to be in a People Operations role

You ought to love what you do. Otherwise, force yourself to love it.

8 things I learned after quitting silo working to be in a People Operations role
empty black rolling chairs at cubicles
Photo by kate.sade on Unsplash
A lazy deontologist turns into an occasional writer whenever she's broke.

About a year ago, I switched my Digital Marketing job at an agency in Malaysia to join a People Operations team in a young, global eCommerce company.

Back at the agency, I helped nurture, grow, and scale our product to the Indonesian market. As the only Indonesian-speaking team member in the Marketing department, I wore different hats to contend and win against the giants back in my home country.

As the single go-to person for the target market, people would come to me to get answers or solve their problems, and never otherwise. Sure, I had some interns to help me out sometimes, but I worked in a silo more often than not, and I could feel pretty alone.

I experienced other companies before my current one, and I can say that I know a great company when I see one. It's typically a particular combination of:

  1. Smart, driven, ethical, and morally-anchored leadership team that marries great idea/ vision and great execution
  2. A well-aligned team with motivation and faith in the leadership team, product, and the people
  3. Great product foundation rooted in solving other people's problems

So, when my current company reached out to me, I knew it was great, and it had the potential to be greater. My only concern was that the role requires me to step out of my silo mentality and cubicle. While getting out of it seemed tricky at first, leaving for that job made sense to me. It was a good decision, and I can say that it's one of the best decisions thus far.

Here are my key learnings in this journey:

1. You ought to love what you do. Otherwise, force yourself to love it

It's a cliche to hear this. But, in my experience of always working in either a startup/dynamic and young company, your relationship with your work is tough love.

You sometimes struggle to find motivation, at best not liking it, at worst hating or ridiculing it. Sooner or later, you drag the hours you have to put in. You will wish for the magical power of automation. You will hate proposing new ideas and getting them streamlined later because there are other more important things on the line.

Whether you work in a big MNC, a small firm, or a startup, not everything will be perfect. Things will get better, and you will realise that the small things you do add to the bigger picture soon enough.

Take the bigger picture as the focal point and love the small things. The bigger picture is where you or your company wants to be and is going to be. You probably still hate the small things, but you will have to force yourself to love them to be able to brace through. Because you know deep down, there's a big prize that you love at the end, and that's why you are doing what you do.

2. It's hard to do the hard things. But, they are worth it.

All the easy things have been done. They have probably been normalised too. Someone else is selling that quick-fix solution that everyone else can do because it is easy to do. Nobody wants to do the hard things simply because they are hard or painful to do.

I can already hear a "Duh!" reaction from this. But. If you look into things at a deeper level and start asking, "Where will this project end up? Will it help reduce turnaround time? Is it saving cost? What would be the buy-ins from the major stakeholders?" The answer to the questions is usually this: Only the hard things are worth doing.

I've gotten into the practice of continually evaluating myself at the end of each week. What did I do this week? How well did I do? Do I feel stretched up? Did I step up? And if there wasn't a moment of pain or discomfort, I knew that I did not add value that week. I won't let myself get through a week unchallenged.

3. There's no shame in asking, so question everything

One mistake that I always made was keeping all of my uncertainties and questions to myself. There's no good coming out of it, and, frankly, you end up wasting your own time.

Bring up your doubts and questions. Then question the answers and repeat that process. If you're still unsure, double-check with your team members. It strengthens the robustness and quality of decision-making. Your questions will either uncover edge cases, change the course of a decision, or serve to foolproof a decision. All are desirable outcomes. So, question up and ask away.

4. "It always seems impossible until it's done."

Ok, this one is not originally from me; it's from Nelson Mandela. But, it is a great quote and, after all, applies to anyone.

Life throws you into opportunities for self-discovery, new opportunities, and improvement like nothing else. An engineering graduate could dabble as a product manager. An ex-legal practitioner could become a customer experience officer, and the customer experience officer could also handle sales.

A former-sales-manager-turned-freelance-model could also turn into a marketing strategist. I came with an HR-studies background, and I am a writer by nature, but I often find myself juggling between recruitment and office management. You get the idea.

It's OK to feel overwhelmed. What's not OK is not trying. And while it always seems impossible, there are still mentors to listen to, resources to glean inspiration from, networks to tap into, and colleagues to bounce ideas with. People come first, then everything else will follow.

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5. Everything is only as good as how well you can defend it

You will encounter debates in discussion with your team, and most of them will never end with a black or white answer. If you believe in something, defend it. In doing so, back it up with facts and proofs. Even better if you have data and numbers to support it. If they still question you, find counter-arguments.

Prove them wrong - not because you want to be right. Prove them wrong so that the company knows what's right. And know that when you're proven wrong, it's never about you being wrong. Be grateful when you're proven wrong. Because then the company could avoid following the wrong decision - and that's a call for celebration!

There's a caveat, though. You have to know when to stop. Stopping a debate is just as important as starting one. Decisions need to be made, and no one has all the time and attention for a discussion. So, while you learn to defend your ideas, learn to agree to disagree and move forward together too.

6. A strong team is the embodiment of both Super Stars and Rock Stars

Superstars stretch themselves as well as the team. They are always onto "the next big/ best thing." They bring in ideas and push the boundaries of what once seemed impossible but now are within reach. A team without Super Stars will not improve, transform, innovate, and level up.

Meanwhile, the Rock Stars are, quite frankly, the rock. They are formidable, strong, stable, persistent, and nothing can wear them down. They show up consistently, do the seemingly mundane but undoubtedly important work. They run the wheel of the entire operation and make sure things don't break down.

A team without Rock Stars is barely functional. When you have more than one Rock Stars, don't forget about the others as you reward one of them. Super Stars need empowerment to stretch meaningfully and guidance to keep them on the right track to success. Recognise Rock Stars for their contribution and nudge them to make little but impactful step-ups to transform processes and daily operations incrementally.

7. Value is there when you create it

Any changes an organisation makes are built upon considering how much value it will bring to its largest segment.

I find this to be the most straightforward way to prioritise a change in an organisation. The same thing can also be applicable if you're in product management. Value is created when a feature is built, and a big chunk of the total consumers in the market are willing to pay for the price because it solves their problems. That is how you grow efficiently.

Break that down: What are you trying to build? Who is your target? why do they have that problem? How is what you're making going to solve that? How much is their willingness to pay, and at which price point? These are all important questions as you create value and need to be factored in before getting started on any project.

8. Be people-obsessed–not people-compliant

While a People Operations department - or traditionally known as HR - exists to solve people-related problems and serves the needs of unserved or underserved employees, you soon will realise that you can't give or do or be everything for everyone. Quite frankly, it's directionally misguided to aspire to have a one-size-fits-all approach to all the problems.

Being people-obsessed means putting people at the centre of what you do. Be it your own employees or customers. Unravel their needs and use cases to act on them.

Now, action doesn't necessarily mean implementation. You can act on a suggestion by researching more about it and still decide not to implement it because it doesn't create much value to other employees or the company.

So, while you should be people-obsessed and take their feedback seriously, you should never try to be people-compliant and change everything for everyone. Like what my colleague always reminds me, "You are not a complaint department." We are here to solve problems, yes, but an internal issue between one employee and the manager doesn't necessarily prompt a new work policy.

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