The journey of a start-up L&D Pro

At some point in the life of an organization, people feel the need for a Learning & Development team. We were really curious when does it happen, who can step up and lead learning initiatives, and what’s the focus at first?  I met Moniek through L&D Shakers, a new community gathering all learning professionals based in Amsterdam. I was really lucky to have the chance to talk about her journey in WeTransfer, where she grew as a learning professional and where she had the opportunity to saw an organization’s journey from 20 people to 200 people.

So for our first start-up story, enters Moniek.

So you’ve been with WeTransfer ever since it was a small start-up. What were the learning needs of the organization when you were less than 30 people?

Back in the days, the needs were completely different from now. As our success was growing, so was the urgency to prep ourselves for growth. L&D wasn’t done in the way we currently approach it. It was a lot more informal, and knowledge was often shared internally, and on the job. Our focus was mainly on establishing our values, our ‘why’, and get our organizational structure in place. People changed jobs and responsibilities all the time.

How would you describe the learning & development practices back then at WeTransfer?

Back in the days, we did have a learning budget. But we didn’t really promote it as much as we do now. It was a matter of ‘find your manager, pitch your idea, and make that move’. I remember the first year, I was still pretty shy as a newbie. I wasn’t even aware of the fact we had an individual learning budget. We had a budget for development, we participated in an incubator program, we visited conferences, but there were no formal programs. People learned mostly on the job, as no day was ever the same in times of rapid growth. And whenever we organized in-house training, we used to outsource this to external parties. Now as we’re bigger, we prefer to give the stage to our internal experts instead.

When I was one year in, one day I woke up, and it clicked. I suddenly realized I wanted to change my career in the direction of HR. I had a background in cultural sociology, so I wasn’t educated in HR. The biggest support in my growth at that time? It didn’t come from books, and it wasn’t formal education.

It came from the people around me, allowing me to fail and stand up again. When I pitched to change my job at that time, I was challenged by the CEO. He said, “Moniek, sounds nice, now rewrite your pitch to 3 bullet points and convince me again.” He didn’t ask me for my resume, instead, I was given trust, autonomy, and the freedom to shape my new job as we both saw fit. He introduced me to people within his network. And yes, sometimes I fell flat on my face, but that was okay. The confidence I gained at that time, taught me more than any book could do. In my eyes, that’s what learning & development embodies at all times. And it definitely represented the start-up mentality we had at the time.

Could you tell us a bit about what changed up until now?

A lot has changed since, and we created a lot more structure in L&D. We launched an internal academy to give the stage to our in-house experts (We-Academy), we have individual learning budgets, from intern to CEO, and Learnerbly to support us in this journey. To help teams grow and excel, we have a team learning budget, a conference budget, and an in-house team coach.

We rolled out a Leadership program and started with ‘intervision’ groups to encourage peer learning. Moreover, we focus on career development through a coaching program and career frameworks. We play and innovate, during our monthly Play Days. We’ve got a health and wellbeing budget (to see a coach or develop your six-pack). We reflect on the things that can improve in retrospectives, we learn about the needs of our people through Officevibe. We look ahead in our All Hands. And no day is ever the same.

However, some things never change: our CEO still has his doors open, always willing to take a moment and talk “Moniek, what’s on your mind?”.

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How did the learning focus shift in WeTransfer until now?

Over the course of the years, when the company grew from 25 to what it is now 200, our needs also changed. As we grew, we were forced to rethink our values and organizational structure. We changed our ways of working, our reporting lines changed. We went from “aren’t you the guys from the file transferring service?” to a whole suite of products with Paper, Paste, Collect, WePresent. The way we hire, how we shape our teams, how we make decisions. Leadership development, onboarding, performance management. All has changed. Even how we look at change, changed.

This year, another change hit the whole world. I’m wondering what happened for you guys when COVID hit?

When COVID happened, we were forced to be flexible and rethink how we deliver learnings – in whatever shape or form – as people needed to be remote. And it accelerated investing in an online platform (Learnerbly), something that had been on my wishlist for a long time. But transitioning L&D under lockdown wasn’t necessarily a matter of changing offline training to an online setting. Sure, we had to. And yes, it was challenging. But that wasn’t our top priority.

We realized we weren’t ‘working from home’, we ‘were at home and we were trying to make it work’. We wanted to make the best of the situation and keep sane and healthy at the same time. You see, we only exist through the brilliance of our people.

When you think about how most of the learning happens on the job or in a social setting, that’s where I found the challenge. I wondered, is it even possible to create those unplanned social learning moments. Those moments, no planned phone call can replace. I wish I have the one answer.

But I’m confident to say that some core changes we have had to make, have had a great impact. We got getting better at communicating, more mindful of all of our offices, and more flexible. Inclusivity and mental health are op top of mind. We are closer than ever, from wherever.

This year has been a busy year. We were forced to rethink our onboarding process. In our journey, to become a certified B-corp, we’re focusing on what it takes to be a responsible tech company. Meaning we’re challenging ourselves to be diverse and inclusive (and educate ourselves on these topics), as well as being mindful of the impact we have as a company. We just organized a Mental Health Awareness week to facilitate a discussion around the health of our people. We’re playing around with our newest lovely learning platform, Learnerbly. We’re about to launch a voluntary program, and we’re kicking off a remote leadership program as we speak.

When did you realize that you need someone focusing on L&D programs at WeTransfer? When should start-ups start thinking about this?

I love this image by VIE people. If you think, just like me, that L&D is more than just offering learning programs, I would advice: the sooner you get someone in to map out your onboarding process, get your values in place, train leadership, the better your foundation. And on that foundation, you’ll be able to build a rock-solid employee journey! All you got to do is ditch the idea that L&D is only about offering classroom training only. There’s so much more to it!

What would you recommend to those filling the shoes of a one-man L&D team? What helped you in WeTransfer?

You’re not alone! Join a community, talk to people, and enjoy the ride. It’s by far the best job ever!

And practice what you preach. It’s easy to put yourself last when you’re so busy supporting others in their learning journey. So take the time to invest in your own development as well. I’ve learned a great deal in a Train the trainer course. And knowing how to ask the right question (develop your coaching skills) is key is L&D. But most I get out of talking to likeminded people. People like you.

✌️ Always be learning!

Moniek Suren grew as an L&D Professional at WeTransfer, where she's now designing all kinds of learning programs for her colleagues. She's also one of the Learning Shakers founders, an Amsterdam based L&D community.

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