What it's like to be the HR Director at Groupon

by Peter Crush
Groupon HR director on working for the 'world's fastest growing company', tackling a plunging share price and developing internal talent.

"Oh no, I didn’t want to join Groupon at all,” says Bernard van Stekelenburg without an apology.

"At first, I didn't even want to meet them. But, I felt there was an interesting story to be heard, so I decided I'd ask the senior people the hardest questions I could about the future of the company. They answered them all, and I left convinced. Suddenly, I was Groupon's VP, HR, international."

As changes of heart go, Stekelenburg, who joined the online deal-of-the-day discount giant in May, admits this is probably a biggie. Since 2009, the former global talent director at Citibank was happily running his own venture, Atazar, a consultancy testing the decision-making skills of high potentials in banking. Some might have thought his own decision processes needed double-checking when they learned he'd said 'yes'. Despite being dubbed by Fortune as the 'world's fastest growing company', one that grew from nothing when it opened for business in Chicago in 2008, to being worth $12.7 billion four years later when it floated in November 2011, Groupon has seldom been out of the press. Despite posting impressive returns - Q2 (to 30 June 2012) revenue was $568.3 million, up 45% year-on-year - and turning a profit for the past two quarters, the firm continues to baffle economists about whether it will ultimately sink or swim.

Perhaps there's a part of it that still bemuses Stekelenburg. "It's odd having both 45% growth and a plunging share price," he quips. But he is not easily cowed. If he thinks Groupon has legs, then it does.

"We have seen Groupon's period of tremendous growth," he says [12,500 heads globally, and from three to 700 in the UK], "but this will slow down. My job is to focus on developing the individuals we now have, to be sure HR is working in a standardised way globally, and to transform HR from a function that has simply supported recruitment, to one that adds value."

In essence, Stekelenburg is taking a newborn, and steering it through its difficult toddler years, the phase all start-ups seem to need to go through. Only, he starts on a much bigger scale. But if it worries him, he shows no sign of it. "It has been a stormy journey, but no business can have first advantage without scale," he says. "You need people before you can develop them. It's that simple."

'People errors' caused misery for early Groupon customers. Take Reading-based cottage industry, Need A Cake, which offered 75% off cupcakes last Christmas. Need A Cake owner Rachel Brown received orders for 102,000 cakes, when she would normally sell 100 a month. She was forced to hire more staff and equipment. She lost £2.50 on every order, calling it "the worst business decision of my life".

Stekelenburg says he's aware of such situations. He is on a mission to make sure the right HR processes happen, and people follow them.

"We admit we have not focused on skills, talent management, nor indeed succession planning," he concedes. "But one of the things I want to create is a common language for talking about this - and especially talent. We are developing a nine-box talent matrix, ranking performance and potential. A new HR system is being rolled out with a business intelligence module… I'm a big fan of analytics."

There is an obvious crossover from talent management roles at Citibank, although Stekelenburg is keen to qualify that there are several crucial differences. "Banking was about putting people down a clear development track," he says. "In an internet business, it's not quite the same."

According to Stekelenburg, Groupon, which now operates in 48 countries, has inherited two types of people: "Those who joined wanting to be part of a story; while others joined because they wanted to be a 'part' of the business. It's the latter I am far more interested in."

But even this recognition poses challenges. "We are proud of our entrepreneurial spirit. Those we develop still need to be offered choice," he says. "They either need to be able to grow by going down a professional route or be offered opportunities that keep them tapped into their entrepreneurial side. That's a tough call."

Growth is the part he has no control of; but what he does have are systems to bring development to fruition. Stekelenburg describes this "bringing in HR systems, but without Armani suits" - enough formality, but without ditching the unique company spark. He says Groupon won't let staff hold him to ransom. "Instead of asking people what they want, I say, 'here's our structure, and you either fit and accept this or you don't'."

This won't suit everyone. Which is why, perhaps, he has decided his HR reign needs to embrace something few will ever admit to: encouraging his best people to leave.

He has come up with a mantra - and it is a brave one: "I want Groupon to be the best place to develop internet talent," he says grandly. "By accepting this, we accept one other key thing: we actually want people to leave, hopefully to form their own start-ups."

Stekelenburg is offering staff a deal, and is certain it makes sense. "For me, one of the best measures of whether HR will be successful here, is how many leave and do their own thing." He adds: "I want to accept loss is fine; I want to say, proudly, 'we have given you skills, now go and run your own business'."

It is not quite as daft as it seems. "I'll know I'll have failed being a talent incubator if people leave to join rivals," he clarifies. "But we don't think they will. We want them to leave, and employ their own people."

But it is less of a surprise the longer Stekelenburg talks. He describes his pride working for a company that has created thousands of jobs at a time of global recession. But he also mentions the dangers of Groupon falling into what he calls "the slipstream of Facebook" [another big IPO with doubting investors]. Luckily, he says, Groupon staff never let the views of the stock market hang over them. "Most people simply shrug their shoulders and get on with things. Everything is inter-connected here. There is no hiding place. Work is extremely transparent."

The UK is where Stekelenburg goes to get ideas about other initiatives. The UK office is piloting "recruitment, assessment and selection" methods, along the lines of psychometric profiling and role-playing. "If we looked at our salespeople, we didn't know what the best profile was," he says. "Now we do, and are rolling this out Europe-wide." Post-Olympics, Stekelenburg wants home working to become more regular, if the business case is compelling.

Numbers are still what make this ex-banker HRD tick: "Most companies couldn't even tell you how many staff they have - we know this exactly." But you can tell he has waved goodbye to all that was bad in his former banking life. "The finance sector is beaten down," he says. "At Groupon, we definitely have one thing that was lacking over there - satisfaction. I find that pretty unique."

What will take longer to get used to is the crazy way Groupon still does things. Groupon CEO Andrew Mason is more than just a little maverick, downing beers at meetings, even bringing a pony to the Chicago HQ ahead of shaking hands with New York City mayor, Mike Bloomberg. "Andrew and I have met," Stekelenburg chuckles, adding: "He's not at all like he is portrayed." But the HRD says his CEO's "funny, funky element" is exactly what makes Groupon what it is. "What I want to avoid losing is our spirit and culture," he says. "The more you grow, the more you are expected to operate in a certain way, but internationally, I would say we are already less 'Silicon Valley', and more like an ordinary company."

Groupon, an ordinary company? You'd better believe it. It is already looking into diversity of its boardroom, and working out ways to hire more women evenly throughout the business. "The majority of our 32 million customers are women; we want to reflect this," he says. But don't bank on all of its quirkiness going just yet. "I was supposed to start in August," Stekelenburg muses. "They called me in May, and said, 'Why don't you start Monday? Oh and by the way, we're all going to be in Korea'." Some things, it seems, may never change.

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