Marco Labs Episode 4: Andrew Bartlow and building culture in high-growth teams

Culture isn't ping-pong tables, it's the day-to-day experience at a company.

The fourth episode of Marco Labs is here. We had the opportunity to sit down (virtually!) and speak with Andrew Bartlow, human resources leader. Andrew specializes in helping high-growth teams build culture — which he works on at People Accelerator — and shared plenty of thoughts. 

Key takeaways

  • There's no such thing as a best practice. As Andrew says, “what is best in class? It depends on what you're trying to accomplish.” Understand that your organization is in its own unique situation, and there may not be a "right" that applies to every company.
  • The access to a much broader talent pool with remote and hybrid work is game-changing. Hiring is already a big challenge, and it's only harder when you're constrained to a specific geographic area. Hybrid and remote work helps 
  • The potential of human resources leaders is growing. Companies are becoming even more aware these days of the importance of culture, and employee happiness and engagement. There's a huge opportunity for people leaders to be involved in not just providing great service, but helping to define how organizations are run and led.


Rather read than listen? 

We’ve included a transcript of this episode below.



Hey everyone, how's it going? I’m the CEO and co-founder of Marco Experiences. We are a platform that helps companies and teams find best in class experiences. Marco Labs is a podcast that we've started to interview creators, community builders, people, leaders, and we have Andrew Bartlow, who's kind of a combination of all three. 

He's written a book. So I guess he's a creator, certainly a people leader, as well as kind of a community builder. Andrew, really excited to have you on and would love to just kick it off by hearing a bit about your background. And so I think it's expansive within the people leadership space and spans a number of different types of companies, culminating into what you're up to now.


Well, I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me, glad to be a guest on the podcast and a customer of Marco Experiences. As you mentioned, I've had a long human resources career, about 25 years, right after grad school. I'm one of the few people that didn't fall into it.

I actually studied for this and continued through, you know, some giant companies that we've all heard of. Some startups, most of which are not around, some have been pretty successful and then a bunch of midcap organizations as well. Had a big, big break maybe four years ago. Actually I guess it was more like seven or eight years ago.

I had my first chief HR officer role at a public company and it went through, and had a great exit and started consulting, wrote my bucket list book and started the People Leader Accelerator community. To help other HR leaders be more successful at start.


That is awesome. And I think it's a lot of career to pack it into kind of a minute here. But it's, we actually were able to meet in person, I guess last Sunday, and I was able to meet some of the folks that you work with in People Leader Accelerator, who obviously had great things to say about you. I think we can see your book in the background, maybe.

You know, what's the book about? What's it? What's it called? 


It’s a labor of love, certainly a labor. The book is called Scaling for Success: People Priorities for High-Growth Organizations, and it was published by Columbia University Business Press. So we just found my coauthor is a PhD management and organizational behavior professor.

And, we'd been talking about this bucket list book idea, like, hey, how could he and I be helpful to the broader community of HR practitioners, like what would be useful to put out there in the world? Yeah, here, I'm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You have the tech cradle of innovation, lots of startups, as you know, and lots of growth and lots of challenges come with that.

And we had not found anything that really served that community. Lots of people trying to make playbooks and checklists and, you know, some people go back for a master's degree and we wanted to just speak to that community niche that it is. But people leaders at high growth organizations have some unique challenges and how can we be helpful to them?

So it was published, officially in print in July, and I found out I had an audio book a few weeks after that. And you know, just getting in more people's hands. I don't make a heck of a lot of money out of it. It's like a 10th of a 10th. A publisher gets to keep that, but more so it's about being useful to the community out there.


Yeah. Well they congrats on the book. That's a huge accomplishment, I'm sure. Especially now even more useful as people leaders have tons of challenges they're trying to navigate. And so people leader, what is that? It came out of the book a bit. 


Yeah, People Leader Accelerator, that is. We call it PL. It's a mouthful to say, no matter how you get to it, we were thoughtful about this being an accelerator, you know, it's intended to help these high growth companies move fast. More successfully and likewise, their human resources leaders scale up and be more successful.

You know, we HR folks often, you know, get a bad rap for saying slow down. Let's think about this or hold on, have you thought about. And we want to help people be more confident, more competent and help these organizations move faster. And, you know, we put together a course that is fully delivered online.

We have a Slack-based community, but it's really small cohorts to get to know each other really well. It's application-only, it's only heads of people at high growth companies that are part of this. So. You know, it's the equivalent of an executive MBA that you're doing while you're on the job.

So really proud of it. And, we're about to launch our third cohort, for applications for the group that kicks off in January of 22.


Again, congrats and I was lucky to have to meet, I guess, one person from the first, as well as one individual from the second cohort as well. So what are the types of companies that, I think both of them were in kind of different industries, but kind of high growth technology companies. If I remember correctly?


Yeah, it's, it's mostly, it's mostly tech, both high tech and tech-enabled.

It's mostly venture-backed, you know, Series ABC, although we've had a couple of companies that were later stage represented, we've had a couple of organizations that are private equity-backed. But the common denominator is you're head of the fund. At an organization that is changing, evolving, and growing really quickly.

And often those organizations are founder-led, which carry with it, you know, some of its own challenges and unique, interesting things to work through. So those are the common points. And we thought it would be really valuable to pull together this group of peers in similar jobs at similar companies going through similar challenges.

And we introduce frameworks and ways of thinking about those issues, but we don't pretend to have all the answers or the checklist. You know, a lot of this is building your own community and learning from your peers.


Yeah. And I would love to to hear. First of all, what are the challenges? I mean, I imagine there were challenges prior to COVID, which I, you know, you started this prior to COVID and now there's probably quite a few challenges that have emerged out of COVID. So what are the biggest challenges that you're hearing from kind of the.


Yeah. Well, first I feel like I should backtrack a name, some of the names of the companies that are represented. You asked me that and I guess I missed it. Yeah. Some of the more well-known startups that have really taken off that have been part of this we've had, vintage.

The decacon based out of Lithuania, their head of HR Daniel's in the UK. We've had Figma, Murray suits,it was part of the OJI cohort and has now joined a faculty where we're really proud of. You know, I had heads of HR.

Yeah. That's the connection, I guess a stigma had a lot of, it had a lot of great experiences with Marco. So as we were talking about being fully virtual, you were our first choice. So, 20 different people have been through it representing 20 different companies. Again, mostly venture backed series, ABC.

And you know, some of those are the bigger names of organizations. And now I've lost your follow-up.


No worries. The question was around, you said basically what you do is you there's challenges that you create kind of frameworks to help kind of navigate what's your, of course you can't have a checklist. And so I guess, I did some pre-work and looked at the kind of modules and there were like HR and a high-growth organization kind of talent, acquisition, culture, and engagement. Right. What are those frameworks and what are those challenges, the biggest challenges that you're trying to solve or helping folks solve here? Yeah, like the common challenges, really.


We try to install a foundation of understanding of what the role is and what the challenges. Versus just what is the executional operational stuff like everybody's dealing with too much to too many needs, too many asks. So a big focus of this program is what is your role as head of the function at a high growth company?

Largely boil it down. The cliff notes version, the most important role of the head of the function is to decide what that group will do. There's always too much, always too many priorities. So helping to set the direction for your function and ultimately for the company. The HR team is uniquely positioned to do that.

So there's a lot around prioritizing aligning with your stakeholders, CEO, founder, investors, leadership team, not just lifting and shifting the best practices that somebody else has thought of, or at their last company brought over, but what's right for us. So that's a really common challenge.

Number one there's too much to do. What do we work on? Number two, we're getting requests from all sides to go do something and trying to figure out how it hangs together. What's right for us right now. And I talk about context over content in a blog post not long ago around. There's no such thing as the best practice.

There's what works for you in your org right now. And, you know, I think that's really important to keep in mind. And then, you know, maybe the third piece is everybody's trying to do all the same stuff. You know, you're a high growth org, which means you're trying to hire a bunch of people. So how do you deliver on that?

And by the way, those people want to be paid and they want to get promotions and be developed and, you know, grow in their careers. So there's all the delivery stuff that you're looking for your employer to do for you. And the HR function is looked at to do that. And so it, you know, it kind of goes back to what do you work on first?

What's enough? Lots of people find themselves over-complicating things. And so that's a focus of our exec ed program. The brilliant to the basics, understand what the basics are for you and really prioritize ruthlessly. 


Totally. And I guess. I'm curious. So what is the kind of a big challenge that someone from the, and you don't have to name a specific company, but you can keep it somewhat general that they may have faced in what you're describing and kind of perhaps how maybe a framework or just even the community itself, being able to have sounding boards kind of, you know, they were able to work through the PLA.


Sure. You know, endless examples of that. One that we talked about the other day was somebody was, their org is growing and they made a request to add to the team. So it was a team of one at the Series A startup, you know, one HR leader, who's doing everything. And, she was trying to figure out how to pitch the, when do I need more people and what will they do on the HR team?

Do I need a recruiter now? Do I need a generalist now? Do I need a director of people ops? And so, you know that that's a challenge. And, and so we talk about, you know, when to fill what roles you'll often, the recruiter role is the first need. And then, you know, figuring out is the head of the function, how to elevate out of the administrative, you know, a generalist or.

It’s really valuable early on as well, but a lot of it depends. A lot of it depends on the pace of growth, what the needs are. Maybe recruiting is going bonkers and you need eight people there before you need anybody else. And you're on a PEO. So we talked through in depth people's individual situations in depth and share perspectives and ideas around that and draw from prior experience and whatever available literature.

Yeah, I do love the combination of informed kind of literature and what's the knowledge, but then what you're describing, which is context is king, you know, and actually it matters what type of company, what you're going through, which probably helps your communities smaller.

I'm writing down that anecdote context is king, that's fantastic. I'm going to use that again. 


Well, I'm definitely going to be approaching you when it comes to a lot of, I mean, we're all excited to hire our kind of first people team member and grow that function because as a company that sells a lot to people leaders and interacts with them,and is building a team and I'm a founder led company, so many challenges on an everyday basis, which we're trying to navigate.


Excited for someone who's done it before. That's for certain, yeah. You get a lot of laps around the track, doing this sort of work. Like now I know something it's Vegas rules as well. Right. So we don't record any of our sessions. What we talk about stays there. And that allows people to talk about their authentic challenges. And a lot of people share that they have some level of imposter syndrome. So, hey, maybe I haven't done this before. How do I sort it out? And just that brain trust of more people that are going through it and maybe went through the same thing three months ago is just incredibly valuable.

You know, another, another example of something that's always coming up is, Hey, we're hiring. How do we handle potentially layering somebody? There's the original employees at the startup. And when do we promote the engineer to the director of engineering? When do we go outside and hire somebody?

Maybe it's somebody in marketing. Yeah. When do you layer, how do you carve up different groups and how do you handle that? What conversations do you have? And again, that's somewhat unique to high growth organizations is that's a challenge they keep running into. 

Totally. And it's, it's kind of balancing what's good for the business, what's good for the individual, and it's definitely very case-by-case and it's people's lives and their careers. And so, you know, it's tricky, multivariable equations. I'd be curious. How much has the curriculum changed get into pro the problems you're solving given?

I mean, and even what is your reaction to the past two years? Right. It's been a crazy time. 

Well, The key ingredients. So the past two years that change things are really interwoven throughout all the content components. So the structure of the program is what's the role of HR. And then you break down into the sub-functional elements, like recruiting and compensation and, you know, learning and development, that sort of thing, and the things that we're dealing with, diversity equity and inclusion has been raised into the spotlight much more so than ever before.

That's something that impacts all of those areas, your role and, recruiting and training and everything. So we have a separate week on DEI, but we're still talking about it throughout all the other elements. Remote work, we don't have a separate week on that, but that impacts how you design and deliver your other programs, whether it's comp or learning and development or recruiting people.

Are you asking people to come to a central office? Are they working out of Poland or wherever they happen to be? So it's interwoven, but the basics are still. Right. It's still about attracting and retaining quality talent that are aligned in a way that meets your business objectives. And if that's the core of the work, then the other stuff is, you know, it's movement around the periphery.

It's important stuff that people are really interested in. But the core is still. There's, you're describing kind of like the pillars. And then now the pillars perhaps are a bit different because there's now this new thing called kind of remote and hybrid. And perhaps that changes, but still recruiting.

That's still a building plots. So that makes sense. So we were chatting kind of last time, you had a really good analogy. Did the transition from operational and executional to perhaps more strategic? Not that it wasn't strategic before, but it's now even more strategic and kind of this notion of menu versus design the restaurant concept.

Yeah, it's an extended metaphor for sure. But, the role of human resources and people, leaders has so much potential, there's so much opportunity in it. And, our legacy, our history is to be rooted in great service and great employee experience.

And, especially if you're a team of one and you're an individual contributor over most of your career, you are great at. Delivering with a smile, a high-quality product. So put, you know, put that in a restaurant context and you are taking an order. You're giving great options. You're engaging with that person.

You're making them feel good. You're bringing them their stuff on time and, and that's great service and you can be. I would argue that there is a more valuable hire opportunity available to HR where it's not just great service where you're delivering on somebody else's order, but you're designing the menu or designing even the entire restaurant concept, like what should be on the list.

How should it be priced or prioritized? How do customers move through the restaurant? Is it a booth there's a table. And think about the employee experience that way as well. And what leadership roles are there in the restaurant and how do they work together? You know, so their HR has this big opportunity to be more valuable and more impactful and, and we can still deliver great service and there's value in that.

In great service. I'd argue that there's more that we can elevate and think bigger about how the business operates. And so that's how we approach the, uh, that's how we approach the work. And that's how we try to train that next generation of HR.


I mean, I think it's super exciting right. For the profession, because you're truly, I mean, this is a C level, again, it has been a C-level issue and now it is even more so kind of how, where do we even build our team, right. The mos kind of basic and foundational questions, are everyday, I imagine on, at least for me my mind, which is super interesting. I guess on that, on that note, where's your, what's your view of kind of how, and maybe there isn't an answer is probably what you might say, but you have a view as to how do you, I mean, we're in the business of building culture, right?

So do you think there is at least a framework for what's going to build a best in class?


Yeah, well, this, this is where I'll wiggle, you know, so what is best in class? It depends what you're trying to accomplish. And, I think there's been a lot said about the bubble, the bottom up bubble up culture of what, what does your team want and what's reality on your team today. And I think that's important to get a sense of, but I have a whole chapter on culture and, and communications is closely tied to that.

And, I argue that culture starts from the top. Culture starts with how decisions are made and what's recognized and rewarded and what people are promoted and fired for, you know, culture. Isn't about ping pong tables and succulent plants being delivered to your home office. It's not about the events and activities.

You know, culture is about how a company operates and how it treats its people. And, you could be a really performance driven, high RPM, you know, kind of, you know, tough as nails culture, like, you know, Amazon gets a lot of that. You know, Netflix is known for operating a lot like that, other organizations are much.

Paternal limit or maternalistic and want everybody to feel like, like they fit in and belong. And there's a lot of value in that as well. And in the homeyness of a culture and think about how that scales and think about how that connects to your work and think about how that connects to how your CEO founder operates.

You're not going to change your stripes. So like being authentic with who you are as a leader and what your company does and having some alignment along the way that's pretty much, it's true that you can't fake it, right? You just have to own what you are and then try to, and then try to align around it so people can self.


Yeah. I mean, I am a bit of a fan boy of the Netflix culture deck and, and all of the, kind of some, you know, think about companies as teams versus family. And there's a lot of really cool aspects of that. I do wonder, so what specifically, when it comes to location, do you have a view of, I've heard some people take a stand and say, look, the future is flexibility, right? Hybrid is a must. Do you, or is it similarly, you're kind of like, it depends on the organization completely. Or do you have a viewpoint? 


Well, when, when we have this conversation, I think we often forget that the world is not just tech. Yep, where pretty much everybody can do their job from a laptop, wherever.

I have clients that are also in industrial manufacturing and in movie theaters and in restaurants and, and that, that is tied to a site. And so yeah, some jobs will have to keep showing up, showing up for work in a physical location because that's where the point of sale is, that's where the work is.

For the other jobs for the headquarters type, you know, technology jobs, I'm there I'm sold, you know, that the future is distributed, that the access to a much broader talent pool that that gives you is game. When you think about the struggles that high growth early stage companies have, it's how to get the talent that's qualified.

And why the heck would you constrain yourself to somewhere within a 30 mile driving distance of your south of market San Francisco or Manhattan location? Less than 30 miles, I think in Manhattan would be the, it would be the radius, but just the talent pool aspect, I think we'll forward.

More and more companies will at least offer that option to be remote. Some people will continue to prefer to go into an office, but I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing offices treated like a perk. It's expensive. It could be a thousand bucks a month for a company to pay for that.

And if people aren't using it, you could use those dollars somewhere else, maybe in salaries, maybe in something else. So anyway, hope that answers your question. It does. I'm curious that you mentioned Netflix, right? And I think, you know, Netflix in the CEO read is, is notorious for saying, Hey, we want people back in the office because that's going to be what enabled.

Our culture, there is this natural tension between flexibility and perhaps that cohesive or, you know, just having a culture that people can feel. 


Do you have any ways of solving that? I mean, we're trying to do it with market, so we'll see how it goes, but. 


Well, I challenged the term of culture.

I think what a lot of organizations mean when they say, well, we want to maintain our, our culture is we want to maintain our performance, or we want to maintain our productivity. And that's where the root of a lot of the fear comes from where, hey, if I can't walk over to my teammate's desk and look at the code that they're writing, I don't have a great way to do that virtually I don't have a great way to collaborate.

Today. And, we're, we're seeing technology tools and platforms and, you know, companies, you know, companies like yours that are based entirely around this remote and distributed environment. And I think that's the next big wave of HR tech, you know, companies that provide services to other organizations and, and the HR world is how do you manage.

Other people, it's not just about one-on-ones and performance reviews. It's about how do you know that people are working on the right thing and give them feedback along the way. And I think, um, distributed work, performance management and productivity, um, will be a point of dramatically increasing.


That is awesome. And the last question I have for you is what's next on the horizon. You've got more cohorts, you're an advisor with a few more things. What are you excited about? What's for the next chapter? 


Hey, I have, I am just so privileged and, so thankful to be able to work with great people at Ultima, capital partners, private equity firm, where I advise their portfolio.

I work with a, venture capital firm working on, you know, HR and people, tech topics. Do some my own stuff. What really gives me the greatest satisfaction is mentoring and supporting other HR leaders, which is where the book and people leader accelerator came from. And, you know, I do, I do a decent amount of that.

One-on-one and, I just enjoy nothing more than that. It's helping other people that are earlier in their career, get off to a better and faster. Well look that is an amazing way to end the time here and looking forward to when we're out in the bay and October to meeting up in person and following up on our New York and together last week.


Awesome. Really great. Great to meet you in person. It was awesome that we were able to be together in New York. Yup. Barely made it was sledding and kind of ran there. Got there for the tailored, but we're certainly glad to be there. So cheers, Andrew. 


Yeah, thanks a lot.

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