Event recap: HR Basics For Founders

updated on 26. October 2023 19 minutes reading time
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We were lucky enough to have HR expert and founder of ICH & WIR Entwicklung, Susanne Schwarz to run a workshop series titled “HR Basics For Founders”.

The workshop was tailored for startups to address a specific problem: Many founders don’t give HR much thought until things start to go seriously wrong. As one workshop participant shared, “I didn’t realise that HR was going to play such a big role in my startup”.

Giving HR the attention it deserves and creating a structure that supports the formation and development of a startup team is essential. Why? Because it helps your startup’s team become a high-performing one. And, a high-performing team can tackle bigger challenges in more innovative ways.

The power of ‘HR’ for an organisation was the theme of the workshop series that Susanne facilitated at firma.de’s Berlin headquarters. Below is a recap of the main takeaways from the workshops. Hopefully, they’ll be useful for your startup!

Part I: How to build a startup team

To have a high-performing startup team you first need to recruit one! The first workshop in Susanne’s series was all about creating a great team right from the get-go, which naturally means attracting high-quality job candidates to recruit.

Writing attractive job advertisements

If you want to attract a high-quality candidate you have to write a high-quality job advertisement. Being clear and concise is key. Don’t use vague language to describe the job requirements; instead, be precise in communicating the actual skill level needed to do it.

A good example of this is language requirements. It’s tempting to write “native level language skills” on a job description or something equally ambiguous. However, it would be better to assess the actual skill level required and specify the accredited level accordingly (e.g. B2). This will clear up any confusion and not discourage people who have adequate language skills for the job but are just not quite native.

If you notice you are attracting only poor candidates for the job, experiment with re-writing your ad. Your job requirements may need calibration!

Most importantly, don’t promise things you cannot deliver on. Always be transparent and honest, it’ll save you a lot of pain down the track.

Do an employer brand health check

Job descriptions etc. are important but so is your branding as an employer. You’re going to get very little interest from high-quality candidates if your employer branding is non-existent. If you’re starting from ground zero, then you’ll need to get creative about promoting what working for your organisation is like. Marketing your company shouldn’t only be about your product.

The candidate experience is king

Once you’ve attracted some quality candidates with your excellent job advertisement and employer branding, the next step is to create a good candidate experience. Bringing a candidate in for an interview isn’t only about testing him or her for the job; the candidate is sizing you up as a potential employer as well. Thus, if you want a high-quality candidate to accept your offer, creating a good candidate experience is essential.

How do you create a good candidate experience? Treat all your candidates with respect and empathy. You do this with open lines of communication and always keeping them informed of the recruitment process. During the recruitment process make your candidates as comfortable as possible. If your main objective is to see how they react under pressure, you’re not going to bring out their best nor are you going to be attractive as a potential employer. Also, be flexible when setting interview times – be empathetic to the fact that the candidate still has to work during the day. Finally, ensure that the recruitment process is efficient and timely – making candidates wait a long time for an answer is disrespectful.

Candidate selection: A prudent question is one-half of wisdom

Last but not least, you need to identify and hire the right candidates for your team skillfully. Do this by structuring your interview process, so you’re asking the right questions. Different kinds of questions you ask will give you very different insights into the candidate – choose wisely. By asking situational questions, you’ll get answers that are based on reality and not the hypothetical. This will help you learn more about how the candidate has behaved in certain situations and give you greater insight.

Part II: How to keep your startup team together

When it comes to HR, recruitment gets most of the attention. But, in reality, it’s just one part of the equation. What is equally as important (it’ll even help you with employer branding) is staff retention.

Having a revolving door of employees comes at a great expense to you. The costs of recruitment and onboarding to replace employees can consume a huge 25% of your HR budget. It also means that you’re harming your employer brand, making it harder and more costly to recruit as time goes on.

Staff retention boils down to having HR practices that support team harmony. As we have touched on before, this starts with attracting and hiring the right people, but then it’s up to you to be the kind of leader that makes people want to stay.

Know thy-team

Before your HR systems can be created, you first need to know the different stages that teams go through and then figure out what each team member needs in each of these stages. What are the different phases teams go through? The Tuckman model is the most effective way to identify the stage a team is in and how to act accordingly. Watch Susanne’s clip below to find out more.

As Susanne touches on in the video, every team goes through these stages. Your job as the leader is to guide your organisation through these stages so they get to the ‘performing’ stage as quickly as possible. And, you’ll have to do it again and again as change is always constant in all work environments. Below is a summary of what you as the leader should be doing during each team stage.


It’s crucial you proactively shape the formative stage as it will have a flow-on effect on all the other stages. As the leader, you do this by defining the vision, mission, goals and tasks for the team. Your objective is to create a framework in which your team can operate by setting the rules of engagement. And, you need to ensure people are committed to the vision that you’ve defined (asking everyone directly is an excellent place to start). Finally, manage people’s expectations to avoid confusion and disappointment.

Any onboarding process for new team members should include this, and it should not be done in isolation but as a group. Onboarding shouldn’t focus solely on the procedural side of the job but on integrating a new member into the team as quickly as possible.

During the formation stage, how you integrate new team members should be of paramount importance because it directly influences the formation of the team. Thus, integration should involve the whole team and have the aim of creating a communicative and open environment. Do this by getting team members to talk about themselves, including who they are, what their role is in the organisation and their strengths and weaknesses. Team lunches are especially useful for doing this.

Putting in the groundwork in the formation stage is vital as it is your best chance of creating an open team dynamic that’ll enable its members to deal head-on with difficult things that’ll inevitably come up. And, as a consequence, help weather the storm of the next team stage.


Conflict in a team environment is unavoidable. Once the pleasantries of the forming stage are over, team members will have differences of opinion, compete for status and for their voices to be heard. And, although you cannot avoid conflict you can steady the ship in the storm by doing the following things:

Work within the team to decide who has decision-making powers and who has which responsibilities. If there are clear lines of authority, it leaves less room for conflict and competition. Equip your team with how to navigate disputes by defining your team’s values and rules. If your team values working together over competition, this will go a long way to help its members get through the storming stage.


Once your team has clear lines of authority and responsibility and can aptly navigate conflicts, it’s time to create openness. A culture of openness where feedback can be freely given to help develop the team. Establishing a company vision and rules of engagement that foster kindness and respect in the forming stage will help cultivate the feeling of ‘we’ within the team and improve receptivity to feedback. This will help your team members grow and reach the advantageous performing stage.


This is a coveted stage where a team starts performing at a higher level and its members equally embrace self-determination and teamwork. However, provide support where necessary, especially when things come to an end (projects, employees leaving etc.).

Ideally, you want to get your team to the “performing” stage as quickly as possible because this is when the magic for your organisation happens.

Leadership is communication

The central theme throughout Susanne’s action plan for each team stage is communication. You need to communicate the vision, mission, goals and tasks at the start of the forming phase. During the tumultuous storming phase, there needs to be effective communication on who has which responsibilities and decision-making power. And, about the team’s values and rules. Moreover, constructively communicating feedback helps the team develop and progress to the ideal state of the performing stage.

Thus, as a leader, developing communication skills is essential. And, to be an effective leader, you need to learn how to communicate effectively in a non-confrontational way. To do this, first, you need to acknowledge that 80% of communication is about being seen, being recognised and being loved. This highlights the importance of communicating in a non-confrontational way.

During the formation stage, keep in the front of your mind what communication is really about when having those discussions about the company’s vision and mission and how that translates into people’s tasks and responsibilities. And, more importantly, when trying to win hearts and minds to inspire people’s commitment to your organisation’s vision.

To get people through the storming and norming stage and closer to the coveted performing stage, be prepared to have disciplinary and feedback discussions with individual team members. Again remember that communication is 80% emotional. Ensure that disciplinary and feedback discussions are delivered calmly and in a non-confrontational way.

Nonviolent communication

A highly effective strategy for non-confrontational communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s four-step method of nonviolent communication (NVC). This method is based on the premise that communication is mostly emotional, and aims to help people navigate this fact with the use of empathy. This is especially effective for both disciplinary and feedback discussions because when people hear something that sounds like criticism, they tend to either get defensive, lash out, or retreat into themselves.

Your mission as the leader is to communicate in such a way, that people don’t respond violently but connect with them on a higher level so they’re receptive to your feedback. This is why Rosenberg’s NVC method is so powerful for leaders because it is designed to stop old patterns of defence or attack and to reduce resistance, defensiveness and violent reactions. The method does this by promoting empathy and focusing on solutions rather than problems.

NVC techniques

When addressing problems, stick to concrete and specific behavioural examples. Use only facts and avoid using personal attacks, generalisations, or emotive and value-laden language (e.g. you’re a terrible person because you’re always late). Then describe your feelings about the matter to help the other person gain perspective on the issue and know where you’re coming from (thus increasing his or her empathy). Next, specify your needs and share your rationale for them. Once you’ve laid down the foundations, it’s time to make a request that will resolve the issue. Ensure that your request can be easily enactable by giving specific instructions.

It’s important to do the groundwork to create empathy first before making a request as it will make the person you’re requesting something from far more receptive.

Practising what’s preached

You may be thinking that this sounds good in theory but are unsure how to put it into practice. This is where an HR expert can add value equipping you and your team with the skills to develop into a high-performing organisation. Susanne has years of experience doing just this and, as you can see, gave a lot of valuable advice on how to do ‘HR’ the right way.

Who is Susanne?

Susanne Schwarz, founder of ICH & WIR Entwicklung, is a systemic coach for individuals and teams, as well as an HR consultant. Starting out as an IT project manager, she later found her way into HR, building entire HR departments for agencies from scratch.

Through coaching, training sessions, workshops and even retreats in Portugal and Africa, Susanne uses her expertise to support individuals and teams in their development – for their personal, professional and entrepreneurial success.

Susanne does this by first helping clients create a vision of where they want to be and a master plan on how to get there. She then goes about developing their communication and leadership skills and teaches them to use mindfulness to manage stress.

Susanne is based in Berlin and mother to a teenage son. If she’s not in Berlin, you’ll most likely find her surfing waves off the coast of some amazing location.

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