"Many African startups focus on growth and product at the expense of people" - Toun Tunde-Anjous

Toun TUNDE-ANJOUS is the Founder of The People Practice, an HR company changing the culture of work in Africa by providing bespoke people-centered solutions to startups and small businesses.

"Many African startups focus on growth and product at the expense of people" - Toun Tunde-Anjous

Toun TUNDE-ANJOUS is the Founder of The People Practice, an HR company changing the culture of work in Africa by providing bespoke people-centered solutions to startups and small businesses.

Before her time at The People's Practice, she was the Director, People at Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB), one of Africa's leading startup accelerators and innovation centres. During her time at CcHUB, Toun helped grow its workforce by 4X in three (3) years. She also handled the recruitment strategy for CcHub's expansion into Rwanda and supported its acquisition and integration of iHub.

I had a chat with Toun about the top people management issues faced by African Tech companies and what it means to create a company culture. In this article, you will find the transcripts of that conversation.

(Note: Parts of the conversation have been edited for clarity)

From your time inside the African tech ecosystem, what are some of the consistent people management challenges that you've noticed?

One of the things I've noticed with very early-stage startups is hiring without a data-driven strategy and due diligence. People get hired from personal connections, regardless of whether the person is a good fit for the role they are looking to fill.

At the early stage, startups do not often have someone who focuses entirely on people. They hire employees, and there's a lot to be desired in how these people are treated, engaged, and managed. The employees then realise that there's a lot of focus on product and growth and very little attention on people.

As a result of the little focus on people initially, employees are given compensation packages that are not wholesome. Some packages don't even include benefits and practices mandated by law, so many people get shortchanged.

There is a case for working for a startup, which is that you get to pick up many skills as you may wear a lot of hats. However, the danger is that there is the possibility of not reaching a certain level of depth in a chosen field. This exposes your role to being taken up by more experienced people as the company eventually scales.

This brings me to the next challenge. When a company is growing, the people should grow in the same proportion. This means various forms of training to develop people - on the job, structured formal/informal, etc.

However, very few founders at the early stage are evaluating their employees. And evaluations are important because they highlight areas that need improvement and point you in the direction they should grow.

The final point would be culture. There's very little focus on culture. Most companies focus on growth and product at the expense of people. When they finally decide to focus on people, they are already riddled with so many problems. People are already deep in the cultures they have seen, e.g., "the bro code," and possibly other alienating habits.

I understand you, but most startup founders have limited resources and are under pressure to achieve results. Why should they not prioritize product and growth?

People are at the root of everything. Yes, the tech and product are important too, but even when you want to raise, an important factor to investors is the people on your team; they want to get a feel of the people doing the work.

It's important to get the culture right from the get-go. Once you have a bad reputation for having a horrible culture, it can cost you a lot in terms of investments, future employees, retaining people, and ultimately time lost in the ongoing recruiting cycle. You also end up losing institutional knowledge that would have been kept if people stayed longer.

Also, I don't see why it's so difficult. Many founders are willing to read up on lean teams, growing and scaling, building a product, and all other business-related concepts; they can extend their reading to managing teams.

What you find is that many founders have never managed a team before, not to talk of managing a global company. It is why founders don't necessarily have to be the CEO once the company starts raising and has a more massive presence.

Founders can look at other cultures and try to imitate them. Even if they can't imitate the cultures play by play, they can try adapting them to their local context.

I think one of the core mistakes is that founders actually think they are good managers when they are not. 48 laws of Power and the Art of Seduction count as management books in some circles. People read these kinds of books and think they know how to manage a team. Don't you think founders need professional training on people management?

There may be some resource constraints, but training doesn't have to be from an executive education course or similar. The learning can be gotten from reading books, online training, or even shadowing leaders that have built great cultures worldwide. As long as the learning is applied, that's a win.

I have a few great books that teach how to build great teams. Jim Collins' Good To Great' and Tony Hseih's 'Delivering Happiness' are books I would recommend.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as recognising that you are building the culture, not just for yourself but also for your team. It is design thinking, but for teams, so you have to involve them in the process.

Moving on to work culture, is there a standard for good work culture?

Yes. Many people think culture means everyone who works there is happy. If any company can achieve that for all their employees, they're champions of people management - that would be the ideal work culture.

However, building a positive work culture means building a place where growth happens and is not a toxic environment. A place where people can be their real selves and make choices that will help them grow professionally. A place where people know that they can offer suggestions that are received decently and vice versa. Top it up with great feedback and a fun environment, depending on what fun means to you.

Note that fun can mean different things to different generations. Again, it is important to create the company culture at an early stage with the team involved and in mind.

Can the work culture at two places be equally awesome but different?

Of course. A manufacturing company, for instance, would have a different culture from a tech company. People in manufacturing are likely to be in a different average age demography from people in tech companies, so what works for tech companies may not necessarily work for them.

For example, people in tech may feel stifled by the work culture in manufacturing. The constant requirement to keep creating in tech may not work in an industry such as manufacturing.

In manufacturing, there are many processes and automation that people have to follow, which would suit their personalities and workstyles. People who will thrive in that industry are people who like processes, a bit of repetition, and are not constantly trying to create new things.

If companies can have awesome but different work cultures, certain people may not be a good fit for some work cultures. Whose responsibility is it to determine if a person is a great fit for a company?

It's the responsibility of both the company and the individual. People believe it is an employer's market out there, but while employers assess candidates, candidates are also assessing companies.

People should make sure that the company they decide to work for is the right place for them. If you work in a place that has different values from yours, you won't last there, and chances are, you'll be unhappy.

Say, for instance, you prefer working flexible hours, but you discover the company you applied to is a stickler for work times - you have to get in by 9 am and close by 6 pm. You can take it if you are desperately searching, but if you're true to yourself, that's not the place for you. You need to be looking for a place that is as flexible, open, and agile as you are.

For companies, it's not about hiring people who are like them. Rather, it's about hiring around their values - that's what culture is really about.

Can you see this person living out your values? Can this person be an ambassador for your company? If the person visibly and clearly can't be, then it may be a struggle.

That's why it shouldn't just be an interview. There should be different ways of assessing people.

Some employers connect candidates with their prospective teammates or ask candidates to come in for a short part of the day to see how they would interact with their future teams. Most companies simply ask open-ended questions, during the recruitment phase, around their values  know if candidates have similar values.

What is your advice for startups trying to create their company culture?

First, to include everyone (or at least people in every group). Then, to be persistent and consistent in trying to design their culture. This means determining their purpose as a company, identifying their values, and creating behaviors guided by the purpose and values.

Most importantly, whatever culture is designed has to be lived out by everyone, founders included. For example, if they say they want people to be respectful of time, and they stroll into meetings fifteen minutes late with no apologies or excuses, then the work culture is only on paper.

Thank you for speaking with us, Toun. I think I've learned enough to start my own company and not suck as a boss.

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