An interview with Sarah Ben Allel, VP People at Qonto. Read all our interviews with Qontoers on our Medium blog!
What did you do before joining Qonto (your education, professional experience, etc.)?
I graduated from the CELSA having always wanted to work in Human Resources. I started my career at L’Oréal (a small cosmetic start-up 😉) where I had two different positions: at first, I was a Talent Acquisition Manager, in charge of recruiting interns and graduates, and rolling out the campus management strategy for Sales and Retail; then, I became HRBP (Human Resources Business Partner) for two luxury brands. I worked on talent development and career tracks, and helped brand directors to define a more efficient organization and build an attractive work culture where people would be able to grow. I really loved working at L’Oréal and learning from such a big company. It makes you more confident, mentally stronger and better prepared for the jump into the startup ecosystem. People usually see the two environments as polar opposites; on the contrary, I think they are very complementary.
Why did you join Qonto?
I’d heard so much about startups, the speed at which they work and their quality of execution. I thought it was time for me to delve into that environment for one main reason: to learn faster.
I found a job offer at Qonto that met many of my criteria and I immediately bought into the founders’ ethos and the business model, as well as the position. I strongly believe that choosing also means being able to give things up and I didn’t want to keep applying for other jobs when I had found the perfect opportunity: I would be the first HR specialist in a company that I trusted, and where I would have to build everything from scratch.
Qonto had around 45 employees at that time, which was a turning point: in France, once a company has more than 50 employees, the real HR works starts, for instance with the creation of representative bodies.
How would you summarize the recruitment process?
I had a pre-interview with Alex, one of Qonto’s founders, to discuss the key elements and how we would move forward in the process. Then I was given a business case, for which I had to answer questions such as:
Identify 10 Back End engineer profiles you find interesting and explain why
How would you develop an onboarding process?
How would you measure performance and engagement at Qonto?
In the beginning, 80% of my job was recruiting, so I also had to reflect on our employer branding. Finally, I came to the office to meet other Qontoers.
What stood out for you about the onboarding process?
What’s interesting is that I arrived before the recruitment process had been fully conceived and standardized — as I was the one supposed to make that happen — but the main pillars of our current recruitment process were already in place.
It already reflected Qonto’s work culture: we want to go fast, we like the hiring experience to be interesting for the interviewee as well as the interviewer (with the opportunity to meet other Qontoers) and we don’t simply evaluate the soft skills, but rather dig deep into candidates’ operational skills through a business case.
Tell us about what you do as a VP People at Qonto.
My main mission is to build a great place to work and a fast-growing team committed to embracing Qonto’s ambitions. It involves attracting and hiring the best talents as fast as the business needs them, and engaging them by providing the best employee experience possible in alignment with our values.
Day to day, my role is to build Qonto’s ‘People vision’ with the leadership team, manage my team (there are now 57 of us) and make sure we deliver on the project roadmap with the highest possible quality.
Last but not least, it’s important for me to be a Qonto ambassador, both internally and externally, and to promote our values by discussing them with other professionals or journalists.
What are the qualities required to be a successful VP People?
On one hand, to become an HR leader, you need to forge strong beliefs to be able to choose a direction. At the same time, you need to be a good listener, to be interested in people and projects and to keep suggesting new initiatives and ways of innovating. You need to be brave: it’s not an easy job, as you will have to solve many problems that require a certain emotional stability. You have to be diplomatic, to handle different personalities and ways of thinking, and to preserve an inclusive vision. In the end, you need to bring people together!
More generally, to succeed in a hypergrowth environment, you need to prioritize and anticipate business needs, to stay very close to the founders and leadership teams to make sure you remain aligned. You also have to accept being wrong sometimes; it’s inevitably going to happen when you’re working so hard and so fast to deliver what we call “right-first-time” quality in record time.
How would you summarize your day-to-day life as part of the Qonto People team?
My Google calendar is a bit daunting! But there is always time dedicated to my team: daily meetings to align on our priorities and weekly meetings to look at Kanban boards so I can help them on blocker points.
Then I make time to meet people. I try to stay as connected to Qonto’s teams as possible, and at the same time expand my external network, which mostly happens during lunchtime.
I spend the rest of my time on operational projects. As in any scale-up, it’s not because you manage a team of 50 people that you can stop delivering. I still intervene in recruitment, on communication projects, individual cases, in setting up new tools…whatever is needed to build the future of the company.
What has been your biggest challenge as VP People?
I learn every day because I face many different challenges, and that’s also why I love my job!
It’s hardly news to anyone that, because the ecosystem is so competitive, we need to think of every single detail that could help us make a difference. But on the other hand, we mustn’t overthink or overproduce. It’s a very complex balance: you must believe you are the best whilst always staying humble, honest and aligned with your values.
The second challenge is definitely making sure that scaling won’t impact your culture, your DNA and also your overall efficiency. We talk a lot about hiring, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: if you don’t guarantee efficient organization, strong team leaders and clear models to succeed, then you simply won’t succeed.
In the end, there is no magic formula and for both challenges, it requires lots of hard work to be able to “walk the walk and talk the talk” and build the company you want to be!
You came back to Qonto after maternity leave. Can you tell us about this experience?
I went on maternity leave in April 2021 after three and a half years at Qonto.
First, there was an important preparatory phase: organizing, planning and handing over all my duties to make sure everything went smoothly in my absence. The founders had offered to hire a maternity cover for me, but I preferred not to. I make dozens of decisions on a daily basis, so I thought it would be complicated to delegate them. Instead, I staffed my team with middle managers so I could leave as serenely as possible.
When I came back in September, I was so happy to be back at work! I will remember forever the welcome the team gave me; I felt as if I had never really left. My team made me feel that I had been missed, which in turn makes you feel useful. I also received warm support from many other “mums” at Qonto who contacted me.
Taking this break also helped me to step back and reflect. One of the decisions I made when I came back was to reorganize my team. Another positive aspect was that, because I had always worked really hard at Qonto, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to leave early to collect my child at the daycare center. Instead, all the other managers showed great acceptance and I was free to organize myself without ever feeling guilty. As a passionate professional, being able to combine my ambitions and my new role as a mother was great.
As a parent, I also realized how difficult it is to juggle the mental charge — which is enormously underestimated. It’s essential for an employer to provide flexibility and trust. In the end, I was both proud to work for a company like Qonto (after all, I was partly responsible for the work culture) and convinced that we still needed to make progress on that subject.
Which of Qonto’s 4 values (Ambition, Mastery, Teamwork, Integrity) resonates with you the most and why?
It’s impossible for me to choose. Every single value has been weighed and considered very carefully.
Qonto is a model of ambition — the business and team trajectories prove that.
Mastery is definitely the dynamic you look for when you join Qonto. You need to constantly improve at what you do, to keep growing and learning.
Teamwork is the human dimension without which you would lose your motivation. Among the most regular feedback we have is: “people here are smart but, above all, they are always available, spontaneous, there is no internal politics and I always find someone to help me.” Also, this value at Qonto is something very specific — and essential to be able to scale: we believe that if we do not work at the same pace, nothing can happen. Teamwork is a question of timing, too.
Finally, my HR role is to guarantee there is as much integrity and equity as possible within our organization.
What I love about our values — it’s actually one of the first topics I worked on at Qonto and I remember telling Alex and Steve: ‘this needs to come from your gut’ — is the fact they haven’t changed over the last 5 years. Our values are simple, but they are so true to what we experience here. Nobody has ever told us “these values don’t correspond to Qonto”.
If you could speak to potential future Qonto candidates, what would you tell them?
That this is the place to be!
You come here if our values speak to you: if you’re ready to take a step forward, for yourself and for the business; if you’re able to challenge yourself; if you want to learn, not alone but with others. There are many great startups on the market. Qonto is a really great one. It’s an adventure with amazing business growth and the means to succeed, with people at its heart.
At the same time, Qonto doesn’t suit everyone. A hypergrowth scaleup is a less-than-perfect world: sometimes it’s difficult and you need to be able to handle this complexity to succeed. We try to be honest and show who we really are through our employer branding actions.
Do you have a fun anecdote you would like to share about your time at Qonto?
I have thousands of anecdotes but unfortunately I cannot share all of them!
I could tell you about my multitasking job at the beginning: taking care of the broken air-conditioning or finding solutions at the very last minute because we were moving into a new building with nowhere to store our furniture. Or when my main responsibility was making sure people were coming to the office after Qonto’s famous parties.
But I will always remember one day when several people came to me to see if I was “ok” or asked what exactly was my role. I kept getting many weird questions like this until I realized that most of the team thought that the new Chief of Staff was my new manager. Actually, they didn’t understand the role! So now, we explain carefully in all onboarding sessions what the Chief of Staff at Qonto does.
Qonto is, of course, a powerful and solid professional adventure. But it is also a very human and emotional one that definitely changed my life and I really wish everyone can live this kind of experience.