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Startup Leadership Insights: Montse Olivan Valdés

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Our guest this week is Montse Olivan Valdés, a psychologist who specializes in Human Resources. She has more than 18 years of experience spanning across the IT industry - from video games to the internet sector.

Today, Montse is Executive Office Director for the Spanish offices of New Work SE in Valencia and Barcelona. She works with a team of roughly 180 software engineers and product managers and is responsible for the Human Resources and Office teams, as well as budget allocation. Montse also serves as a member of the leadership team in Spain.

Given her extensive background in leadership and people development, we jumped at the chance to learn more about Montse’s thoughts on the role of HR in developing effective leaders and addressing common challenges new leaders experience. Let’s get to it!

Thanks for joining us today. It’s clear from your experience that strong leadership skills are important to you. Can you tell us what leadership effectiveness means to you and your company?

At New Work SE, we have a Leadership Code that is used in all departments across the company and for managers at all levels - from team leads to vice presidents. The code is a description of our desired leadership culture and principles. It provides an overarching framework of New Work SE’s desired leadership behavior for both leaders and employees.

The code has several competencies related to how we achieve project success. These include skills like the ability to delegate and to communicate company decisions to the team, among other things. Strong team leads are essential to our company because they support the growth of our employees and help us to retain talent.

We agree! It sounds like the Leadership Code competencies provide a helpful framework. Since you have those core competencies in place to serve as a guide, how do you measure leadership effectiveness?

First, leadership is addressed in each annual performance review. We also have an interesting tool where a team, as a group, provides feedback on their manager. This activity is moderated by an HR business partner and provides us with a way to analyze a leader’s strengths and weaknesses based on their team’s unique perspective. Each people manager receives this team feedback every year and it has proved to be one of the most effective tools to help our leaders grow.

That’s a great idea and a wonderful way to involve team members. If you find that one of your leaders is struggling to be effective, how do you address the situation?

If a manager isn’t effective, we need to evaluate exactly why. Every reason needs to be addressed differently with the help of the HR business partner. Together, the leader and HR business partner can work through development topics and training. This may also require collaboration with higher-level leaders.

It’s great that you take a team approach to help your leaders improve. No matter how great of a leader someone is, they can still find their role to be challenging. What are some common leadership challenges that you hear from your managers?

Our team leads have come from senior software engineer positions (or another senior position related to the technical knowledge the person has) mainly based on the excellence of their hard skills. As they become leaders, we are asking them to focus on soft skills - to grow and energize other people, to delegate, and to be strong and assertive in the face of unpopular decisions.

This is the most challenging issue I hear. New leaders want to know how to be close to the team and at the same time strong enough to establish boundaries. In most technology companies, the organizational structure is very flat. Managers are very close to team members, which is perfect on most occasions but more difficult to manage when managers need to be assertive.

That makes perfect sense. Trying to be both a trusted team member and a strong leader can be tough. How did you help them manage these challenges in the past?

My strategy is to always provide leaders with the tools they need to succeed. I want to help our leaders to understand what they can control and what they won’t, also I try to guide them through the different challenges the will face.. You can also create a network among team leads, whether at the business unit level or as in our case, the country level. This enables leaders to share both challenges and solutions.

Those are great ideas. What other ways can those of us in HR support managers? Do you have any great examples?

From my perspective, being close to them is the best strategy. If HR only goes to managers to ask them to complete necessary HR procedures, they aren’t going to buy into the idea that HR is available to truly be their partner.

I have regular informal meetings with each leader (grabbing a coffee is perfect!) to check in and ask about any obstacles they’re facing and how I can help.

You’ve provided us with wonderful insight and many ideas today. We have one more question for you! What advice would you give other HR leaders?

Stay close to your managers. They will be essential stakeholders to HR, so investing time in empowering managers is essential in our job. Remember, the stronger your leaders are, the stronger your company will be.


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