Leadership and Core Values — with Sabrina Castiglione
In our latest interview with Sabrina Castiglione, Tessian CFO, we get an insight into the growth and evolution of Tessian and her role in the company. Sabrina also shares her views on the importance of values and communication when scaling a company.
Andrew: Can you give us an overview of your Job and Background of Tessian?
Sabrina: So, I’m CFO at Tessian and recently passed the 4-year mark. It’s been quite the journey from person number 7 to a company of 150 with offices in two countries and team members worldwide. Initially, my role was called ‘Chief of Staff’, which was a catch-all title for someone solving various problems. My background before Tessian was in Chemistry, at Imperial College, back where I did my degree. Then, like many Imperial students, who decided against academia, I went into professional services. I worked for a number of years in pensions, then took some time out and came around to technology by a fairly fortuitous route.
When I joined Tessian we only had Angel investors, so I’ve been through the phases of growing from the seed investment round (Accel, Localglobe) to Series A with Balderton and Series B most recently with Sequoia. We’re now in the millions of annual recurring revenue and are continuing to grow fast. My CFO role has a fairly broad remit, so in addition to finance, I look after Legal, IT, Information Security, People, and Talent, so all the operational functions that keep the business going. I was basically the first People (HR) person and built the first recruitment processes, so I’ve done lots of hiring and onboarding. When you’re building and scaling a culture, you really see how it changes over the years, as you go from 10 people to 20 to 50 to 100.
Andrew: How has Tessian evolved in the transition from a 10 to 150 person business?
Sabrina: A lot! When you are a tiny company there are never enough hands to get everything done, everyone, even the specialists have to be fairly generalist. Everyone will be involved in something outside their remit and there will be no process for someone to come in and follow, so you need people who don’t need (or don’t want) a rule book. You want the people who are going to figure things out and work out how to put process in place and start building those foundations, sometimes in really scrappy and unscalable ways.
As you progress and get to around the 50 to 60 person mark, you start getting to the point where the executive team can’t manage everyone directly and you bring in middle layers of management. That’s the point in time where it becomes important to have some processes in place and a more structured way of working, so you can support more junior hires and start scaling a team.
By the time you get to 100 people, you need to have fairly robust people processes in place and you need people who are comfortable being specialists.
This transition can be really hard for some people because most of them will have an ideal company size, & an ideal point of time for the culture of the company. In fast growth companies, the company will change every few months and there’s every chance that the company will scale past the point that is that perfect sweet-spot for a given person. It can be hard, however necessary, when the changes that are needed for growth means that the business requires more functional experts rather than jack-of-all-trades people. The hardest part is that there can come a time when those ultra-collaborative, scrappy, entrepreneurial individuals, who were key players when you had 20 staff, start to exit the business when you go through that shift to 50–100 staff, when roles become better suited to those passionate about their specialities.
Some people naturally transition and become more specialist, but there are some people it’s not right for, who you’re going to lose, however brilliant they are, and that’s really hard. But it can be painful & sometimes even damaging to try and preserve roles that no longer fit what the organization needs.
One discussion that we’re always having is about equality, equity, and making things fair. When you do bend over backwards to accommodate longstanding employees, who no longer have their ideal role, it can create other organisational challenges, let alone inequitable opportunities for some equally brilliant people who joined later. I don’t have a perfect catch-all answer for every such situation.
Andrew: How did you come up with the businesses current core values?
Sabrina: The earliest iteration of the values came about when the founders got together and jotted down what they thought they were — those lasted us up until around the 20 person point. They reiterated it with the executive team when we got to the 40–50 person point, and the latest iteration was around the 100 person point, and was collaborative across the whole company.
I like to think of having a company like having a child. When they’re little you can strap them in a car seat, put up the baby gates and have control. When the company becomes a teenager, it will start doing its own thing. Every now and then it’ll echo something back to you that you can tell is from the original DNA, but it has its own personality by then.
So, we went out and spoke to our all of our employees and said ‘What do you think the values are that define Tessian? Which do you think still hold true? Which do you not really see in your day-to-day work? Is there anything else that defines Tessian for you?’ Most of the values that came about were iterations and refinements of previous values, for example, one value started as “Guided by Integrity”, then became “Right over Easy” and now it’s “We Do The Right Thing”. And those all sound like subtle changes but the evolution made sense for the stages of where the company was at the time. One completely new value came out of the process, that people said, actually, this is what defines Tessian to me, and that value is “Human First”.
It was a collaborative process, that started out with a confidential form, correlated into a series of themes for each value, and then run through a committee of volunteers. They then came and presented the findings to the founders and exec team.
Andrew: Obviously you’ve been the Head of People, which not many CFO ‘s have done prior to doing a CFO role. What’s been the journey in your recruitment process over the last few years?
Sabrina: Years ago, it was people emailing us directly so it’s evolved a lot since then. It can be very tempting to get into like an old-world recruitment mindset, which is, we have 20 applications, these are the best 5, so I’m going to hire one of them. We now have enough hiring managers that we educate everyone, that is not how we hire, if we have 200 applications and none of them meet the bar, none of them get hired. No hire gets made unless they meet that criteria of delivering the outcomes whilst living the values.
If you compromise, it comes back to bite you every single time — and then you just have to hire that role from scratch all over again.
Today it’s become a much broader process in terms of who’s involved in hiring each role. When I joined the founders would interview everyone because there weren’t that many people to interview. Now we have a committee of people who have both tenure and seniority, who are trusted to do our bar-raiser interviews.
When you’re small and scrappy, you kind of just work with what you have. When your culture becomes more defined, you have to be really careful to make sure that you’re hiring for culture add, rather than culture fit. It requires a lot more training and thought to hire successfully as you become bigger, and to know when to say to those involved in your hiring processes, ‘hey here are the qualities I can be biased towards, please help catch me on that’.
Andrew: How do you test for values during an interview?
Sabrina: So, we have our values and we have sets of questions that we can use to determine whether or not a person demonstrate the values. One of the things that we feel is really important, is to not just ask people, ‘do you believe in doing the right thing?’
Instead, we ask questions that might be a bit sideways, but would demonstrate a value in practice. That’s really important because not everyone is going to come into a business and necessarily 100% love all the values or have them come completely naturally. It’s all about demonstration, not belief.
Andrew: How has your onboarding process changed since transitioning to remote?
Sabrina: Pre-Covid, we did all our onboarding in person, and we didn’t have any fully remote employees, so it was much simpler. We had a lot more people in the UK than we had in the US, so we flew every US hire over to the London office to really immerse them, then they would then go through all the relevant training, meet their team and anyone else that is key for them to know in person. Have a coffee with the founders, set up with a buddy, and so on.
Now it’s much more difficult; we’re a security company so we have to be pretty hot on how all of our equipment and laptops are set up. So whilst before, we would do the people onboarding first, now we have to do part of our IT onboarding first. We try and break it up, so we get them set up on the laptop with the minimum setup, so they can get on to zoom for meetings and our People team can try to emulate that welcome-to-the-company intro session, and then do like a remote welcome lunch, before finishing the IT set up.
Wherever possible, we usually do a social a month and we keep that going even whilst we’re remote. We try and have future Joiners come to those socials before they start, to connect them with members of their team because it’s much harder to have those water cooler moments whilst everyone works remotely.
Andrew: What can you share that has worked or failed in your team going remote?
Sabrina: You need more asynchronous communication because you do not want people to end up in back to back zoom meetings all day. You need to find a way to collaborate whether it’s Atlassian, Notion, Google drives, or whatever works for people to break away from the constant immediacy of instant meetings and messaging. It’s really important to avoid putting too much strain on people; you might have your weekly one to one catch up with your manager but if you’re doing project management or collaborating on a big piece of work, you want to try and find as many ways as possible to not do all of that at the same time, and save the face to face time for just the critical crunch points.
Of course, a lot of this only works if you trust your team members to deliver. Admittedly, many companies weren’t expecting to have to hire for this, but going forward, if your company is embracing remote work, you need to be able to hire people that you can trust to run independently and to do things without having someone lean over on the desk like ‘hey? How’s this coming along?’ all the time. There are things in my inbox from my CEO that are getting old and he hasn’t chased on it because he knows it’s due in 2 days and trusts in 2 days he will have it and so the chasers aren’t necessary. I think that’s going to become an increasingly critical quality for hybrid team members going forward.
We’re really fortunate at Tessian because we’ve been pretty thorough about maintaining our hiring bar, sometimes really slowing down hiring, even on what feels like critical roles because we’ve insisted on waiting for the right person, so when we have someone join the team we have high faith in them.
Andrew: What steps have you taken to have diversity and inclusion at the forefront of your application process or hiring process?
Sabrina: It’s hard, because especially in technology the talent pool is non-diverse. Trying to create a diverse company out of a non-diverse talent pool is always a bit of a tug of war because let’s say there are two Companies and the pool is 25% diverse, if one Company becomes 50/50, the other Company is 0/100. At best, that’s solving the problem in a really shallow way. So we promote volunteering & sponsoring causes that look to bring more people into our industry too.
Internally, we run diversity and inclusion training with everyone and it goes beyond the usual unconscious bias talk, and looks more at invisible diversity. We use the iceberg picture and explain how a lot of people’s diversity is under the surface, and isn’t always things that you can see. We get an external provider to come in that builds connection and then we try to embed that throughout the business.
We’ve set up employee resource groups, an LGTBQ plus network, we have our ladies network and a number of other groups of people who share interests & get together. There’s a mixture of creating safe spaces for minorities, but also making sure that they are not siloed. This is to make sure that it’s not just only women supporting women or only our LGBTQ+ people supporting each other but that everyone has opportunities to connect with — and support — people in other parts of the company.
From a hiring and recruitment perspective, one of the most important parts when you reach the 50 person mark is having a really robust internal applications process. Before that, you probably only really have one person doing each kind of role. Maybe a bit of repetition in sales or engineering, but you’ve probably mostly got fairly unique roles. So, it becomes very easy and often very obvious when someone’s ready for promotion to just tap them on the shoulder, ‘Obviously, we’re going to promote Jane because Jane’s the only person who’s in marketing’. As soon as you have, Jane and Jill both in marketing at a similar level, you can’t just tap one of them on the shoulder and say, ‘hey, the top jobs yours now.’ Because the other one is going to say, ‘well, hang on a minute, that sounds completely unfair what just happened there?’. So, one of the most important things has been making sure that our process for internal applications is also robust and fair.
Andrew: What are the key things that you’ve done to help to ensure the longevity of your culture within the business?
Sabrina: It’s not enough to put the values in the employee handbook and then never refer to them again. It’s the little things that become a habit that embed the values. For instance, we have logos and slack emojis for each of the values, which we post when someone shares something that aligns with a certain value. Then at every all hands meeting, we have values recognition, & every week reminders go out to the whole company to nominate people who have displayed the values so we can give recognition to those people in front of the whole company.
Once a quarter we have a Town Hall where we celebrate values champions; an elevated version of the regular recognition. We choose team members who have consistently shown a particular value over the last quarter and then the applications are scrutinised and values champions chosen — who get special swag!
The other thing that we sometimes do is we have themed quarters; our most recent one was around Customer Centricity, and every team had to embed that. Next quarter, it’ll be Grit and Perseverance. You have to constantly embed values recognition and equally build it into performance review processes as well.
The other important thing for longevity when looking after people — especially if like me, you’re coming from a CFO background, and are likely to be highly logical, analytical people, that trend towards thinking about processes and logical outcomes — is to remember the “feel” element. Whenever you’re working on things with people, there are likely to be 3 key things you’re trying to get as an outcome:
· You’re often either trying to get someone to learn something
· Trying to get someone to do something, or
· You’re trying to get some to feel something.
It’s really important, especially in all communications to make sure that you’re thinking about those 3 things, and not under-indexing on the feel. The feel part, the emotional part, is what is most real to people.
Andrew: How well does the CFO role suit having People and Talent below it?
Sabrina: I think it is a big advantage. A lot of the CFO role is pulling all the various pieces together, trying to see into the future as well as dealing with any current challenges. If you’re in any kind of company that doesn’t produce a physical item, talent is your single biggest driver — it’s what is going to create the outcomes that drive your business. If you don’t have oversight of your ability to hire and retain the right talent, it becomes harder to forecast for the business.
Even things as simple as ‘how much attrition and rehiring do I need to budget for?’ can be critical. To go back to an earlier point, it also helps internalise that a lot of the pieces that you’re putting together touch that “feel” component, and that whilst data and analytics is important, you really do have to understand your business’ psychology as well, in order to create outcomes that are successful.
Andrew: At what stage did you think that it was not feasible to do both the CFO and Head of People?
Sabrina: We tried to hire our first head of people at around the 60 person stage, but it’s hard to hire for & I ended up holding onto it until we were about 100 people — that was really difficult to manage by the end. I was spending most of my time on People-matters and it was very difficult to keep on top of everything else. I would think around the 50–60 person mark (which means hiring earlier than that) you’ve got to bring in, not necessarily a Head of People, but a dedicated People person.
Andrew: Specifically to the finance function, when did you start thinking about the structure below you? Did you consider a Controller or an FP&A function first?
Sabrina: So we call all of the remits that I look after “Operations”, and in the early days we hired operations generalists — they do a bit of Talent, they do a bit of Finance, they do a bit of Legal, etc. The driver for the first dedicated finance hire was a Controller-type because we got to a stage where reporting was a big enough pain point, we started being voluntarily audited,. It’s borderline impossible to keep going past that point without help — once you start to be audited there is just too much work to do that solo, and do anything else, and too many pieces that need to be gone over in detail in a short time frame.
However, that’s partly specific to me because my background was very much on the statistical modelling side. If there’s one area that I’m still more hands-on with today, it is on the FP&A side. We have a robust financial model and it’s an iteration of one that I built. If your background isn’t in FP&A, I would definitely not want to go beyond Series A without having a really robust understanding of how you’re planning, budgeting and forecasting processes are going to work.
We have someone who looks after a lot of the bookkeeping, and someone who works on business partnering (budgets, working directly with teams), and a head of Finance, who does a bit of all disciplines and ultimately looks after everything and ties it all together. Their next hire will be a dedicated Controller.
This article was extracted from our Future CFO sessions, contact us if you would like to learn more about our Future CFO Programme. Also, if you wish to be notified about any future events we host, sign up to our mailing list here.
For more information on Leadership and Core Values, have a listen to our Zanda Talks podcast episode with Sabrina Castiglione, Tessian CFO
Contact us, if you have any questions on how Zanda can support you, as a finance professional email@example.com