The importance of empowering your people

Lisa Thomson is the Founder and CEO of Purpose HR, a consultancy that works with early stage and high growth businesses with a specific focus in the Technology, Engineering and Life Sciences sectors.

Lisa is a Saltire Fellow and long time supporter of Entrepreneurial Scotland, today she reflects on her journey of unlocking her entrepreneurial confidence, the opportunities of her recent acquisition by AAB, and the importance of empowering your people.


ES: Purpose HR — what do you do?

L.T: “ Purpose HR provides the full function of a HR or People department to early stage growth businesses. We have a niche sector focus on the Technology, Engineering and Life Sciences sectors. However, following our recent acquisition by AAB and our growth ambitions as a team, we are looking to expand our support to other sectors.

We provide support for the full employee lifecycle — attracting talent to a business, recruitment, talent management and talent acquisition, compliance, policies and processes, manager development and coaching.

Manager development coaching is a huge area for us. Due to our sector focuses we often work with first time entrepreneurs that are now in charge of building a business and a team. We take on a hands-on partnership role to develop and implement their people strategy. Our aim is to take our clients to a point where they might look to take on their own HR/People team, but we’ll scale them to that point and continue to support.”

E.S: As a business leader, what have been some of the major challenges during the past year or so?

L.T: “During lockdown and the pandemic, we found ourselves more in demand than ever before as many businesses faced people challenges. They had to consider furlough and huge numbers of business owners and leaders faced uncertainty. During this time, they really needed our support, help, advice and hand holding.

This extra demand had its own challenges when mixed with the fact that many of my team, myself included, are parents with young children. Although as a business we’ve always had a strategy to focus on building a team that wants to work flexibly - the pandemic meant we were now all juggling homeschooling which was a new and unanticipated challenge.

For me personally, it was a difficult challenge but one that unlocked a real opportunity as well. For too long, I had been heavily involved with the day to day operations. I found that I had to cut my hours right down to focus on my children, which enabled the opportunity for my team to step up."

E.S: What have been the major successes and opportunities of this period of time?

L.T: "I would definitely say that in the case of the pandemic and all the challenges that it brought for businesses, it has absolutely reinforced the need for investing in people. My experience has been that businesses more and more recognise the importance of having a people strategy and investing in wellbeing support, engagement and retention.

When I look back eight years ago to when I founded Purpose HR, the conversation my clients had was very much focused on compliance and legislation. At Purpose HR, we absolutely cover that, but that to me is ancillary — the key thing for me is strategic HR and getting people engaged and behind your business purpose and goals. Eight years ago, this approach was hard to get buy-in to, but there has been a big shift in appetite for strategic HR and I feel COVID-19 has accelerated this.

There’s a real churn of people leaving their jobs on the back of the pandemic — or as it’s being called the ‘Great Resignation’. More than ever before, employees are really questioning how invested organisations are in their people and what organisations are doing to encourage and retain talent. All of this has led to a market shift where businesses are considering strategic HR and HR support much earlier in their growth journey."

We really strive to add value with our support, not just handle the basics.

E.S: Are there any particular goals that Purpose HR has set for the next few years?

L.T: "
Following our recent acquisition by AAB in July, we are now part of a much larger group of companies. The acquisition has unlocked massive opportunities for us, including growing our team. We’ve hired four new staff, ramping our business to 12 people.

A further goal will see us focus on entering new markets. Edinburgh was always our focus area but we now have exposure in Glasgow and Aberdeen. We are also looking to expand down south as AAB has a presence and clients down there and that’s only going to grow.

Next will be to expand our sector presence. Due to my own background, we’ve always had a focus on Technology, Engineering and Life Sciences. Due to our acquisition, there are now other sectors we can unlock such as Energy, Food & Drink, Construction and Family Businesses."

E.S: You are a Saltire Fellow and, in addition, recently completed the Entrepreneurial Scotland eVolve programme — what were the biggest learning/takeaways of the programmes to you as an entrepreneurial leader? Was there a moment that stood out to you?

L.T: “The fellowship I undertook in 2014 at Babson College was completely transformational for me. I was able to secure a fully funded space through Diageo and the opportunity came at a point in my life where I had just taken voluntary redundancy from my last employers. They were in a transition and there was no longer a full-time role for me. Redundancy made me realise that the HR support my previous employer needed was actually a product/service I could take to the market so I went on the fellowship programme at Babson to explore this.

There were a few distinct things that made the fellowship experience transformational for me. I had always had confidence in my knowledge and skill set — this was my background and what I studied. However, in businesses you can become pigeon holed into your specialist experience and expertise but I knew that if I wanted to be a) a credible business partner to clients and b) run my own business and commercially understand whats needed, then I would need to understand all the other disciplines and the fellowship at Babson offered me this. It allowed me to learn sales, marketing, finance in a safe environment.

Furthermore, I had never been to the States before and being exposed to that energy and ecosystem of driven entrepreneurial people, proven business leaders and the teachers at Babson was incredible.

I went through a big personal transformation with my confidence during this time. During my time, I was surrounded by confident ‘Alpha’ type characters, and it made me realise that’s just not me — you don’t have to be an extrovert to be good at engaging with people."

I believe strongly in leading with your own strengths, which for me is empathy and authenticity.

E.S: What can be learned from peers that you can't learn on your own, or from a college?

L.T: “For the last 8 years and prior to the acquisition, I often found it really lonely to be the leader of the business. However, taking part in leader programmes like those offered by Entrepreneurial Scotland allows you to be surrounded by people from different sectors. You often find they are on the same business journey and you can learn from them, share pointers and bounce ideas off one another in a safe space. The trust and safe space is really invaluable.

When I started my businesses, I wasn’t surrounded by friends and family who were entrepreneurs or from an entrepreneurial background. By beginning to surround myself with people with similar aspirations to mine really helped — I found these people really lifted me up.

I’m an ambassador with Woman’s Enterprise Scotland- an organisation that focuses on supporting women business owners, enabling equal access to resources and opportunities as they develop successful and sustainable businesses. My involvement has allowed me to surround myself with like-minded female leaders, all with varying styles of leadership which I can learn from and aspire to."

E.S: Do you believe there is a winning formula for becoming a successful entrepreneur? What's yours?

L.T: “I think it’s something that can be unlocked. You do have to have some natural traits for example, an appetite for risk and a specific mindset. However, I do feel these vital attributes can be developed and grown through leadership programmes, like those offered by Entrepreneurial Scotland."

E.S: What are some of the mistakes you wished you could have avoided?

L.T: "One of key things I should have done earlier was bring someone into the team. Very often when I recruit, I wish I did it earlier.

When I founded Purpose HR, it was just me for a couple of years and then I fell pregnant with my daughter so I brought in an Associate to help support. Looking back this wasn’t the right model for my business, the person wasn’t engaged and tied into the business. It flagged the need for me to properly invest and put the infrastructure in place, and spurred me to hire someone to support operations. I had been getting up at 5am before going to client meetings, managing my own diary, basically doing things I really didn’t need to be doing. I just needed to make that leap of faith and I realised I should have done it sooner.

I’ve only managed to become the leader I am and have the success story with my business because of my team around me. I really wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t brought in these amazing people, all with their own unique skill sets and who do amazing work with our clients."

E.S: Any tips you would now give yourself for when you first started in business?

L.T: "Be careful who you listen to. I’ve had a huge amount of people who underestimate me or pigeon hole my capability and in the past I’ve allowed it to knock my confidence but I have learnt to believe in your own capabilities... even when others doubt it."

E.S: As a member of the ES Community, what do you feel is the biggest benefit and value brought?

L.T: "Scotland is such a close connected network. Through Entrepreneurial Scotland and the programmes I’ve attended — which includes Unlock Ambition, eVolve and a further return to Babson in 2018 — I’ve hugely benefited from the access to a like-minded network. It’s a group of people who look outwards and upwards not inwards. A key thing is that when you’re in the network, it never feels like it is a group of people who just want to give you their business card and sell to you - it’s all about support, encouragement and peer learning."

E.S: When you’re looking for new talent in the business, what are the most important qualities that you look for?

L.T: "The technical skills and expertise is a given, the people I hire have to have that. What I do focus on is the mindset piece — I look for people that are excited by the space our clients are in and entrepreneurship. People that really care about our clients and want to be part of their business. I look for people who are solution focused and enabling.

We have three core values: trust, empathy and equality. We do assess everyone against that when we recruit, but it’s also there for any candidates who can’t get behind them to self-select out. We are at a really exciting stage where we’re hiring for a variety of vacancies and we are excited to bring even more talent into the business."


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