@Hanno is co-founder and CEO of Personio, an all-in-one HR software solution that recently closed a €103.5M Series D funding on a €1.4B valuation. He is based in Munich, where he leads an international team of >500 employees.
On the best advice from a mentor.
To never lie to yourself. It’s from Lars Dalgaard, founder of SucessFactors. It’s simple advice: at first, it almost sounds stupid. Over time, you realize its true significance. Every day, you could look at the metrics and have them make sense. You could tell yourself that customer feedback was meant differently. You could segment your NPS scores to have them look great. You cannot do that: you are still looking at real users and facts. You must continually question your honesty. Else, you and your team are just presenting good feelings to each other.
On all-hands meetings.
We have one every Friday. We stay transparent on what goes well and what doesn’t. Nobody is helped by presenting a rosy picture. When you are upfront, you’ll see engagement. People will try to help you solve challenges if you approach them openly. In What You Do is Who You Are, Horowitz defines culture as the behaviors lived in a company. Especially those who are lived when you are not there.
On learning from the top performers.
Back in 2017, we looked at our most successful employees, to identify the behaviors that made them as such. We codified those learning in what we call our operating principles. Concepts like diligence, communication skills, drive for impact and self-improvement. We hire around these religiously, we include them in performance reviews and all company-wide meetings.
On his hiring process.
It’s a number game: it starts with a big funnel. We do a lot of employer branding, to get the word out. We receive more than 35 thousand applications per year, both proactively and inbound. These go through a rigorous five-step interview process.
First: meeting the HR team. Second: the team lead. Third: a peer review. Fourth: a phone interview. An interview with me or my co-founders is always the last step. Throughout it, we search both for operating principles and specific fit.
Every step in the process has a different purpose. HR preselects and reduces the funnel. The interview with the team lead checks fit. From that point on, it’s about checks and balances, to compensate for urgency: we grow 40 people every month. To involve people unbiased by urgency raises the bar. Maintaining consistency is the role of the final interview with the founders. Depending on the role, there can be additional steps, like a case study. Everyone in the process has the same veto powers, myself included. Sometimes the decision is clear. Other times, a committee decision. The main takeaway is: in doubt, don’t hire.
On strong candidates.
Here, the “never lie to yourself” learning returns. If you find a candidate you truly like but realize they are looking for something different than the role, don’t hire them. They’ll only get frustrated and bored halfway in. Always ask how their ideal role looks like and describe the one you are offering in detail. If the two don’t match, there might be a misunderstanding or lack of fit. I spend 20-30% of my time interviewing candidates. My advice to other founders is that it’s ok if interviews are slowing down product progress. Time shouldn’t be a factor in hiring someone. We had been looking for a Chief People Officer for 18 months and interviewed over 200 people before finding one. Budget enough time to search, but don’t hire until you are completely sure you found who you were looking for.
At Personio, everyone from cleaning staff to C-level is rewarded with ESOP. Everyone participates in the company’s success. This allows us to talk about funding rounds in the all-hands meetings and still address everyone. Throughout them, we have provided the opportunity to do secondaries. Having a real option to cash out or hold makes value creation far more tangible. Often, our employees don’t sell, seeing the potential that lies ahead.
On the hardest company stage.
We were lucky to never have a “near-death” experience as a company. The hardest time was the one in between the first customers and growth. We weren’t yet predictably scaling but had to learn how to deal with investor expectations, the market’s, and your own. At that stage, you find yourself with tons of functions you know little about, all running in parallel. Here it’s essential you don’t behave like a CEO from the beginning, but experience being Head of Sales, Head of Finance, and more. It’s only after you have fulfilled those five or six roles that you understand what kind of people you need to fulfill them best. If you do it right, you feel almost like you stopped pushing and entered a state of flow where the organization doesn’t necessarily need you to function.
On the hardest personal challenge.
My personality lends itself to a constant change of focus. I’m lucky that my role is constantly changing, that I am being thrown into cold water that never gets warmer. Hiring an experienced executive team was extremely intimidating: you know they have reported to amazing CEOs before. Here, it is key to understand that, while they are far more proficient in their areas of expertise than you are, your specific product, company, and market knowledge can help them be really successful in their new role.
On digital balance.
Since reading Digital Minimalism, I try to cut back on unnecessary technology consumption, to be mindful of what my phone is used for. My device was always silent and with no vibration, now I also got completely rid of all notifications. No email. No Whatsapp. Nothing. I see content only if I actively look for it: I feel much more focused and in control. Staying well informed is important to me, but I would spend hours a day on the Süddeutschen Zeitung app: checking updates rather than learning. Now I block all news apps from my phone, and instead read the print edition of The Economist and listen to its podcast in the morning.
On his habits for well being.
To wind down before bed, around 9.30-10 PM I leave my phone to charge outside of the bedroom. In the morning, I wake up drinking a glass of water, with a cold shower, some meditation, and an espresso. I try to do sports pretty daily. I’ll come to the office with my road bike and in sports clothing, and shower there. Sport is crucial for me to keep balance.
On keeping a journal.
A year ago, I started keeping a physical journal. It’s a product called Self Journal. For every day, there’s a structured side and a blank one. I write down my thoughts and emotions on the latter. I use it daily to reflect on things, and weekly on Sunday nights to plan the week ahead. It helps me reflect, to focus more on the expectations of the team and less on decisions that might not be mine to make. The things that are most important and more often fall off the charts because they don’t feel as urgent.
Next to university, my side job was being a skipper for vacation guests. It meant having a crew whose health and safety I was legally responsible for. That same crew was customers I had to make sure enjoyed their vacation. It was a lesson on servant leadership: you have to lead towards a goal while maintaining a fun environment. You don’t want anyone to feel bossed around. The guests were generally older and more experienced than me, which in a way prepared me for my current role.
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