The path to becoming a CPO is never straightforward. Christine originally set out to become a history professor (a story for another time), which led her to discover her true passion for developing people. Christine spent the first 20 years of her career at Vanguard, beginning in training and instruction, followed by a winding path through back-office operations, and led initiatives for everything from risk management to high net-worth client management. Vanguard then brought Christine back into the People space where she served as the “catch-all” leader for their newfound HR goals across culture, engagement, diversity, and workforce analytics.
This was the perfect transition into the CPO role and through an online job application, Christine found herself as Duolingo’s first People leader in 2016. Over the next six years, Christine built out their entire People function and led the 65-person, pre-revenue start-up through their $5 billion IPO.
A CPO’s job is not to promote what you believe but rather to match your initiatives to what the company needs. Do not delude yourself into thinking that there are plug-and-play best practices you should follow. Your whole job is to understand what is best for your specific company at this specific moment in time.
There will be a lot of trial and error. One of my first initiatives at Duolingo was to build our compensation bands and leveling structure, which opened up a Pandora's box of questions for the business:
No matter how amazing of a job you do at answering these questions, nobody is ever going to be fully satisfied with their compensation. After the initial rollout at Duolingo, we overhauled our compensation bands quite a few additional times. That is completely normal! You can and should take solace in the fact that your structures will change drastically over time.
You must become comfortable with imperfection. The People function is like a firehose of feedback constantly coming at you. Unlike with Engineering, Product, or Marketing, everyone has an opinion and has heard of a best practice you need to implement. It is the nature of the People function. To last in the CPO role, you must be able to recognize when you have achieved a sufficient outcome and be proud of your efforts!
Your whole People function needs to be unified. The People team’s purpose is to ensure your employees are getting everything they need to do their best work for the company. If you start splitting your team into distinct parts, initiatives start to combat each other and become counterproductive. The Talent Acquisition function will say, “We need to raise our compensation bands to attract top talent,” whereas the Compensation function will say, “We can’t raise our bands - we will blow our budget!” As a unified system, you will better understand the trade-offs your company has to make.
The scale of your People team depends on your company’s model of how much service they should provide to employees. A legitimate philosophy of structuring the People team is that employees should be self-sufficient. The company can outsource payroll, compensation, and benefits and leave it up to the employee to work directly with the broker. At the other extreme, Duolingo’s belief was that employees should not have to think at all about administrative tasks. The result was that the People team today totals a whopping 50+ employees for an organization of around 500 employees.
Talent Acquisition - The TA team will scale proportionally with your headcount growth. At Duolingo, we were growing headcount at around 45% per year, and it became very clear that we needed to invest in more recruiters. Follow the arithmetic around your number of open roles and how quickly you need to fill those positions to determine the appropriate number of recruiters.
Miscellaneous - People ends up being a catch-all for the “weird” business units. At Duolingo, many sub functions rolled up to the People team, like social impact, immigration, payroll, equity administration, and all of the executive assistants. The extent of this will depend on the structure of your organization, but it is notable how the modern People team has grown to include more and more over time.*
*[Tim] - For data on how the People team structure has changed over time, read our report on Span of Control Metrics!
During our scale from 50 to 500 employees, we did not hire a single HRBP. This is an unusual People practice, as HRBPs are usually essential hires to diffuse HR policies and procedures throughout an organization. However, given the unique talent on our team, I believe this was the right call.
In 2015, we hired our VP of Engineering, Natalie Glance, from Google. She deserves a humanitarian award for leading the largest function at Duolingo and at the same time being incredible at promoting our People practices. Natalie handles everything an HRBP would normally take on - talent development plans, retention strategy, career pathing, team matching, and more. She is so fantastic that bringing on an HRBP for Engineering would be counterproductive. If our largest function doesn’t need an HRBP, it is hard to justify making these hires for our smaller teams. As we cross 500+ employees, the process is finally becoming too difficult to scale, and we have begun making HRBP hires.
No other organization will ever have a Natalie Glance - she is truly singular. Given her unique skill sets, I had to figure out what organizational structure worked best for us with Natalie in mind. As you design your People practices, avoid taking any conventional wisdom at face value and defer to your own wisdom instead!
Duolingo has the mission of making education personalized, fun, and universally accessible. Our mission, combined with being a rapidly growing startup, has attracted a team full of self-starters who feel they can teach themselves anything. Offering a scripted course on building new coding competencies does not resonate with the team; the team would much rather learn by doing.
The self-starter disposition was different from other company cultures I had experienced in my career, so I did my best to lean into it for our softer skill development. For our new manager training, we built a custom course on what it meant to be a role manager at Duolingo. The program highlighted Duolingo’s unique managerial customs, but also included external training on 1-1s, coaching, and feedback. Across the board, this training was more utilized and well received than other generic training from more traditional L&D vendors.
My first step was to ensure we had the right talent in place, specifically in Finance and Legal. We did not have a CFO or a legal team to speak of a few years before our IPO. Our executive team took a long look in the mirror on the competencies we needed to get us over the finish line for the IPO process and worked to make the right hires. The CFO search took me a year and a half, leaving our newly appointed CFO, Matt, barely over a year to prepare for the IPO process. For others preparing for an IPO, trust me when I say you need to ensure you have the right partners in place early.
Around the same time as our CFO search, we planned a strategic build out of our board of independent directors. Building a diverse board was quite important to our executive team and a goal we set at the start of our process. We also placed great importance on layering in new board members over time to avoid having a brand new board join all at once. The end product of having the best possible board of directors for our business was well worth the upfront energy, and I recommend other CPOs be deliberate about their process.
Another flag regarding the IPO process is to find the right compensation consultant because the compensation overhaul is immense. The biggest hurdles for us were switching from ISOs and NSOs to RSUs, rethinking our equity offers to candidates, and re-educating our employees on equity value. Be sure to know everything about compensation, as comp is the number one item you will receive questions throughout the IPO process.
One more bonus tip from Zoë Harte @ Upwork - have your Head of Strategy/Operations quarterback the IPO process as their primary focus. There is so much coordination required that it is difficult for a CFO or CPO to manage the process holistically, in addition to their normal responsibilities. Having a dedicated person to project manage the whole process makes everyone’s lives way easier.
It has been wonderful to have the chance to give back and support other People leaders! Since stepping away from Duolingo earlier in 2022, I have been consulting early-stage startups on their People practices. Many early-stage teams have not yet hired their Heads of People, and I have worked with their People team on both personal and functional development. If teams are looking to make CPO hires, I have been able to align executives on the search criteria to find the best Heads of People for their businesses.
Aside from consulting, I have also had the chance to work with Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab, a nonprofit organization promoting well-being for young people throughout the country – we’re looking for a CEO, so if you know anyone please LMK! CPOHQ has also been incredible, and I am so grateful for the many connections I have made through the community. I wholeheartedly believe in the value of having an open source group where we can all evolve our People practices - all CPOs should join!