Introducing Natalie Falconer: Our New Head Of People
With 15 years of experience in People and Talent in startups, venture, and as a former founder, Natalie Falconer is a force to be reckoned with. As a mum, former trainee reserve in the armed forces and expert jigsaw puzzlist, Nat brings a fresh combination of empathy, dedication and expertise to the Forward team, and we're thrilled to have her.
"Working in People isn’t a job that has set parameters. You have to be willing to give a bit of yourself away, and recognise it’s not a clock-in and clock-out type of role. You have to go above and beyond. If someone wants to cry on your shoulder or go to a counseling session, you need to go and support them, and make up the hours elsewhere. It is what it is." Natalie Falconer.
The world of people and HR
You began your career in ‘HR’ before moving into ‘People’. Is there a difference between the two?
Traditional HR is more often than not seen as an admin function, and so the department doesn’t have the senior buy-in to try new things. Instead, it’s seen as a ‘problem-solving’ function.
People departments on the other hand, now sit at the senior level and thus have the remit to be much more proactive. I feel much more at home in them! We get to think about how employees can develop and become their best selves at work. I often think “Our team needs some love today. What can we do?”
You’ve bounced between startups and VC. Are there any interesting differences between the two when it comes to People?
Startups are chaotic and full of lots of change. One minute you’re doing recruitment, the next you’re doing strategy, and the next you’re drowning in admin and processes. It’s never-ending, but it’s great fun.
The world of venture is a lot more structured and proactive, and as a result, I’d often go out and fix problems that our portfolio might be struggling with. In my past role, we delivered a lot of workshops about how junior-level employees can skill up and become effective managers.
What can VC's learn from startups?
Well, startups aren't one-size-fits-all. Some fit the fun, upbeat, dynamic culture that you’d imagine, but others are more old school, start at 9.01 am, leave at 5.01 pm kind of thing. A behaviour that spans most of them, however, is a willingness to dive in, roll your sleeves up, and get it done. Not all VC’s adopt this ‘muck in’ mentality. Fortunately, at Forward we buck this trend, but most VC’s tend to stick to their job roles, and there’s not as much cross-team collaboration.
Becoming a founder
You were a founder yourself! What were you building?
Well, I’ve worked for a lot of startups, and would always have to spend money on tons of tools. A HR system, a recruitment tool, a feedback tool, a learning-and-development tool, and some sort of rewards payroll system. And I’d have no budget. So I tried to make an all-in-one system targeted at startups, that met all of their HR needs and didn’t cost £30k per year.
I was fortunate enough to find a co-founder and we worked on Willow for about 2.5 years. I didn’t want to be a founder for the glory, I just wanted to create a system that I could go into a business and use!
To fund the tech build, we ran a consultancy business on the side. The consultancy side of things scaled wonderfully, but the tech didn’t work out. A lot of well-funded incumbents started building out their tools, and we couldn’t move fast enough.
What would you tell first-time founders based on your experience?
Do it for yourself, don’t do it for anyone else. I got to a point where I didn't know who I was doing it for. Was it me? My mum and dad? The people that I’d told and felt accountable to? I had a little baby that I needed to breastfeed, and I was jumping on calls at 8am in the morning. I just had to ask myself - what am I doing?! I should be enjoying my life, not feeling so burdened.
So, do it for yourself, and if it isn’t serving you anymore, then stop. Your team will understand. Your happiness is 100% the priority.
And, do you have specific advice for current founders who are building and scaling people teams?
Invest in it early, and invest in the right people. I’ve frequently consulted with companies that have scaled too quickly, and gotten too fat too fast.
Part of hiring the ‘right’ person is hiring someone who aligns with your culture. You need someone that’s on your wavelength. You don’t want someone who is going to bring in a really funky, work from anywhere, non-accountable culture, when you’re a founder who thrives on routine and accountability. And vice versa.
Also, your Head of People should be your right-hand person. They should be able to call you out and steer you in the right direction, without repercussions. After all, they have inside insight into what the team is going through.
The truth about working in people and joining Forward Partners
Was there a specific moment you realised that ‘People’ was your thing?
We used to do quarterly reviews at ASOS. It was a really intense week, where one minute you would be diving deep into strategy with no-nonsense senior executives, and the next, diving deep into admin and data systems. And I remember loving every moment of it. There’s not one part of the entire process that I didn’t like!
Even exiting people doesn’t have to be bad. If you do it with a ‘people-people’ approach - meaning you actually give a damn about them and you want them to be OK - it makes things easier for them. You almost want to do it for them to protect them.
It was really important for me to know my team too. I’d know if they were tight for cash, or if they had a family, and would tailor the message accordingly. I spent a lot of time doing CV writing for people afterward and helping them transition into other roles. Some people I’ve exited in the past have actually sent me thank you notes and gifts - which is bizarre. But so sweet! Being a decent person goes a long way.
What don’t people know about running a people team that you wish they did?
How important data is. There is this theory that the people department is just made up of process and conversation. I.e. you have a performance review process that has a certain cadence and a certain output, and this is overlaid with conversation and comms that clarify the process for employee’s or put them at ease.
But data plays a big part in the decision-making process. And for some reason, people teams tend not to be that data-focused. Data would come in at a higher level, above the processes and conversations. For instance, it could enable you to find out why the number of people going through performance improvement plans has risen. Is it because you’ve hired the wrong people? If so, what is broken with the hiring process? Or, is it because you’ve got the wrong managers?
Imagine a world in which you had endless resources, team members and freedom. What would you do?
I’m not sure if this is the right answer, but I’d definitely consider some sort of psychology within the workplace, more officially. I’d love to get a business psychologist to work with our team and unearth what’s blocking them, and how they can reach their full potential.
Why did you decide to join Forward?
So, I actually joined Forward at a pretty intense time. I had the interview 4 days before I went into labour, I was still running my startup Willow, and I was still an advisor to Kindred Capital, as well as having a few more clients lined up for 2020.
There were 3 reasons. Firstly, I bought into the fact that we were trying to do something different with founders. I have the startup bug, so the idea of working with other founders was really exciting. Next, I’d have my own team to look after. I missed not having a team - being a consultant can be pretty lonely. And lastly, we were doing something fun and innovative and weren’t sticking to the typical VC playbook.
Also, I’d heard good things about the investments that we make. Forward doesn't adhere to the typical give-startups-loads-of-cash-and-leave-them-to-it approach but is a lot more considered.
What is your vision for Forward Partners’ talent function?
I want us to have a team internally that is super motivated, super happy, and continually growing. Growing is key, and if they have to leave to ensure they don’t become stale, then that’s OK too.
I’d then ensure that this is replicated across our portfolio. Our team won’t just be helping them with their processes - hiring, exiting and developing people - but also caring for their mental health and wellbeing. It’s really tough to be a founder. I want to work to be there for them emotionally.
We all go through highs and lows - weddings, babies, divorces, break-ups - all sorts. So it’s vital that we have a team that gives a crap about each other.
Disney, jigsaws, honesty, and the armed forces
What is your secret talent?
I think I’m a good mum. That’s something I definitely didn’t know that I could do. I’m also really good at singing nursery rhymes. Except I don’t know the words, so just end up singing bump and grind. And jigsaws. I’m amazing at jigsaws.
What’s something that no-one knows about you?
I’ve got an obsession with Disney and jigsaws. Ideally Disney jigsaws. My husband used to buy me them to keep me going during my pregnancy. I did 27 when I was pregnant. Gets me in a really good headspace.
What do you live by?
Honesty is the best policy. Be kind. It will always get a little bit better. (Or, it won’t always be this rubbish?). And your happiness is 100% the most important thing in the world. Work through quibbles, but if you’re not happy then it’s time to change something.
What's your favourite quote?
"She believed she could, so she did." My mopsy (grandmother) - who passed last year - said that to me when I was thinking about launching Willow. She’s very posh. And she said to me on the phone “Natalie. If she believed she could, she would”. So I decided to believe and resigned the day after to launch my startup.
If you didn’t do this, what else would you do?
My personal passion is doing counseling within the armed forces. My brother is in the forces, and I feel they could be better supported. They do incredible work.
I started training with the reserves and found the intensity of what we were doing incredibly overwhelming. I’d get emotionally anxious on the Friday before going away for the weekend. And on Sunday, I would be high on adrenaline, but completely exhausted. And I was just a reserve! They deserve so much more support than they currently get.
Finally, what's your M.O when it comes to People?
Working in People isn’t a job that has set parameters. You have to be willing to give a bit of yourself away, and recognise it’s not a clock-in and clock-out type of role. You have to go above and beyond. If someone wants to cry on your shoulder or go to a counseling session, you need to go and support them, and make up the hours elsewhere. It is what it is