Why should you build a people strategy?

Let’s start with a disclaimer. This is not a rigorous, evidence based research piece on the value of investing in your people. It is not written by a team-building expert. It is written based on a good level of experience of building and managing teams in the development sector across several different contexts and countries. It is written with an intentional openness and honesty, offering you an insight into how we approach managing our people at Expectation State and, as a result, provide some lessons and insights you might find useful. 

Some context first. We are a young, small business. Over the last five years we have grown and contracted several times over, using different models along the way. If you are a lean business like ours, it is very easy to get into a pattern of managing contracts or products as opposed to managing a business. The difference, I think, is that in managing a business, you have to make time to consider your approach to people management and development, asking yourself: what are the values you will apply to the business; what are the principles you apply to managing and developing your team; and what will you actually do about it? 

Values and Purpose

Every business today has a set of values and a purpose. But how meaningful are they? Are they simply single words like integrity, excellence and innovation? Or are they full sentences that cause you to consider how they will be applied and provoke a regular discussion about the thinking that sits behind them? In the context of this blog, do they inform your approach to managing and developing the people you employ and contract? 

Whatever your current set of values and articulated purpose, the simple message I want to get across is the need to invest in them. Invest time and effort developing them, communicate them across your team and use them to inform and challenge how you approach the different goals and functions of your business. If your approach to managing people has a clear, direct link to how you will achieve your purpose and act based on your values, you are probably going to be better at achieving that purpose. I can say with confidence that we invest in our values and purpose but it isn’t without the occasional kicking and screaming. Get used to that feeling. If your values never cause you to ask yourself questions about the business, they probably aren’t right. There are an increasing number of fantastic people and organisations to coach you through this but two I can highly recommend are Max and Jenny Remington-Hobbs at Mind Sovereignty and Caroline Rae at Caroline Rae Coaching.

Use your experience and the experience of others to build some basic principles

Team performance is often based on quite outdated models, largely drawn from military examples or classic corporate structures that rely on hierarchy. Over the last 10 years, there has been a lot more exploration of modern team characteristics and the principles that underpin them. There is now a huge amount to inform how you build your principles through articles, podcasts, books, coaches, courses and many more. Here are just two examples that have really shaped my approach to our team at Expectation State.

The first is an article from the NY Times in 2015 (Why some teams are smarter than others) which draws on research completed by MIT in 2010 and 2015. I was drawn to the article because of its challenge to conventional thinking and wisdom and its evidence based approach. The results resonated with my experience of managing teams and provided a basic blueprint for every team I have built since. Please read the article, but as a spoiler, there are three key characteristics of “smarter” teams that are highlighted.

  • Equal voice encouraged across the team 
  • Emotional intelligence as a priority
  • More women than men – read the article to understand why.


The second example is from the much read and quoted book – Legacy by James Kerr, using the New Zealand rugby team (the “All Blacks”) to explore the key principles that underpin team performance and success. I want to highlight three of those that might resonate with you. 

  • Good people make good All Blacks”. This is about defining what “good” is for you and your team rather than a universal definition of “good”. What are the qualities that you want your team members to embody? 
  • Sweep the sheds”. This is about everyone committing to the basics. What are the things that you all do as a team that demonstrate a level of commitment and humility? It could be as simple as taking meeting notes. 
  • Create a culture”. Do you have a culture as a business? What is it based on? Good ones, in my experience, have a strong set of values, but I would say that. 


These are just two examples of how we have built a set of principles around things like emotional intelligence, diversity and a strong, lived culture. You should ask yourself what has informed your principles and how intentional you are about incorporating them in your business. 

Do something about it

Values and principles are all very well but the key to all this is action. Here are three examples of how we have acted. 

  1. Aspire to hire the top 10% and develop to the top 1%. If you are going to build a high performing team, you need to have a goal and a plan to achieve it. Although it is a simple statement of direction, it really informs how we recruit our people and how we develop them. It sets a clear, bold direction of travel to act on. This means we have overhauled our recruitment process to commit to that 10% and have invested in a development framework across the team to edge closer to achieving that 1%.
  2. Make an intentional effort to hire from your focus markets. This is something that we believe strongly in. For us, this commitment is directly linked to our values and purpose and ensures that we are representative of the change we want to see in our sector, hiring more experts from focus donor markets. In terms of how we act, each new hire is firstly advertised in the countries we work. That’s why we have a spread across our focus countries rather than a concentration of HQ staff from the UK. 
  3. Make a Director responsible. This is harder than it sounds when you are a small business. Building and implementing a people strategy requires ownership and leadership that small businesses can’t afford to deliver through a Head of People, or an HR Director. We upped our game when we were more intentional about leadership and as a result, I am the Director responsible for people. 


So, my message to you is this: be clear on the components you need to build a high performing team. Invest your time in exploring what has been written, what your experience tells you and what you believe is required and build a framework for how you recruit that team. It really is enough to say: ‘I want to build a team of people with high emotional intelligence”, or, “I want to build a team of technical excellence”. The point is that you have made a decision and can act on it.

Put people first. Spend time understanding what motivates people and what their challenges are. You need to retain your team. We have a policy of actively helping people realise their goals, even if that means leaving. Invest in this process.

Finally, be clear on your values. Why do you exist? What drives you and what motivates you? Apply this to the problem you are trying to solve and get used to the inevitable periods of discomfort. 

Andrew Gharaibeh Collingwood – Director

Expectation State takes a different approach to development in emerging states.  Currently, we are studying the feasibility of a blockchain enabled digital compartment for a stock exchange, researching how to increase investment into refugee related enterprises, and helping a European family office to plan how it can better invest its resources in MENA.