If you’re leading a startup, you may think that you can handle everything by yourself – including jobs that would usually go to human resources. Hiring? Onboarding? Managing disputes? No problem. Well, you might save money, but that could leave you unaware of the problems brewing right under your nose. Margaret “Missy” Fulton, CEO of Chameleon Strategies, advises companies on strategic human resources. She’s an entrepreneur who helps other entrepreneurs build their businesses stronger with a comprehensive people strategy.
Watch and read to see our interview with Missy Fulton, hosted by Ramani Varanasi, the Biopharma/Life Sciences expert for Lioness. They discuss the blind spots of entrepreneurs, why you should rethink your onboarding paperwork and Fulton’s hidden superpower.
Margaret “Missy” Fulton’s seen it all – the good, the bad and the “crazy”. She’s been an employment lawyer for 22 years and works as a senior human resources advisor. Fulton has dealt with employee lawsuits and lawyers who weren’t reliable in an emergency. She’s built communication strategies for brand-new companies and those pivoting as they experience massive growth.
This adaptability and range of experience inspired the name of her company, Chameleon Strategies.
“We’re agile and can adapt to the client’s unique circumstances,” she said. “That’s important for CEOs, and especially first-time CEOs to understand. They spend a lot of their time building business strategies. But entrepreneurs need to start with a solid ‘people strategy’. That’s where we come into play. Our needs are the company’s needs, and our offerings change and diversify.”
Fulton’s advisory role
According to Fulton, all the companies she’s worked with have dealt with organizational hiccups. Usually, this is because the team’s current lawyers or HR executives were not reliable resources. Maybe they were too risk-averse to tackle underlying concerns. Some simply didn’t have the training needed to guide the company’s growth strategy. Either way, the company’s problems spiral until Fulton walks in to manage situations that feel like “minefields” or “explosive mushroom clouds”.
Where does she start?
Fulton’s recommendations vary depending on the stage of the company but building a foundation is always important. A new company may have its hiring and basic HR plan ready to go to market, but most likely, the team hasn’t considered its communication strategy very deeply. Fulton starts raising questions. What will internal messaging sound like? What’s the company’s communication style? What kind of workplace culture do they want to create? One general suggestion she provides is an employee handbook. They’re not required, but there are certain employment laws that management must communicate to staff in some form. Besides, a company-tailored handbook brands you as a serious leader, lays out workplace commitments and sets the company up for success. Wins all around.
Her discussions extend to business strategy, too. Where is the company spending money? How many employees need to be full-time, and how many could be contractors or work part-time? Instead of guessing how many people to hire, Fulton says it’s better to think about the tasks required and determine a strategy from there.
Creating a “people strategy” for growing companies
As companies expand, their priorities change. Growth is great on paper, but that lays more responsibility on the employer and their employees. Do they need new communication channels? And how can you keep employees on your team? There’s a war for talent in the corporate world. Companies need to stay flexible and creative to keep their best employees from jumping ship.
“Being an entrepreneur myself, I innately understand the business needs of an organization and how you need to remain fluid and agile to set a company up for success. I never tell a company that they can’t do something,” said Fulton. “I always find a way, and we navigate down that path together. We give them creative solutions and educate the senior team members so that they’ve got the tools to navigate these minefields on their own. Then they have me and my trusted team members as real-time resources whenever they’re navigating some of these potential pitfalls, too.”
The blind spots of entrepreneurs
As you’re reading, you might be thinking, ‘okay, that sounds useful for big companies. But I can handle those discussions by myself.’
Maybe not. Fulton says to seriously consider potential blind spots.
“Sometimes, senior leaders feel that they already have all of the tools they need to manage. That may be true, but other times, they need to have other people to serve as trusted resources.”
The biggest missteps, she says, come from companies that grow too quickly.
“They’re running to the next research and development phase, or they’re getting ready to pivot. And they don’t have a solid foundation. They don’t have enough people, and they don’t have any growth strategy. That’s when they start getting into potential problems. They don’t understand the legal nuances of running a business at different employment levels. Growth within your organization puts different requirements on your company and the company leadership.”
Supporting female CEOs
Chameleon Strategies has a client-first approach. Before COVID-19, Fulton would commute for hours to different offices. Now, with the help of video conferencing, she helps teams around the world. This isn’t a standard 9-to-5 job. She and her team assist companies hands-on whenever they need help.
But Fulton has a particular passion – supporting female entrepreneurs and senior leaders. Women facing “gnarly” terminations, struggling with their boards, or negotiating employment packages.
“I work with women when they feel like they can’t be their biggest advocate, or they really don’t understand what their market worth is, and they’re selling themselves short,” said Fulton. “One of my favorite parts about being a lawyer has been quickly coming in to learn what I can about a person. About their life path, their passion drivers and their company. I can help set them up for success, whatever that looks like to them. I can be their biggest advocate — whatever they need at any point in time. It’s truly been a unique opportunity to help serve so many women.”
Early beginnings of advocacy
The desire to speak up for others has been with Fulton for her entire life. Her fourth-grade teacher once asked the class what they would like to be when they grew up. Fulton said she wanted to be a lawyer. She was told that girls couldn’t be lawyers and that it would be better to pick something similar to what her friends picked (a teacher, nurse, mother).
Fulton considered, then said, “No, I don’t think so. I think I’m going to opt out.”
She admits she didn’t completely understand what “opt-out” meant at the time, but it got her message across. Fulton says that’s always been her superpower. Now, she can use it to build bridges for the companies she assists.
“I was the advocate for my friends growing up. Early on, I had the ability to synthesize lots of facts and concisely explain them. I could help them figure out the situation and make their own decisions on which path they needed to take. From that early time, I was able to be their trusted resource,” she said. “I’ve been able to do that with employment law. I can build the ‘think bridge’ between a company’s business strategy and its people strategy. I can also be there to understand and synthesize the issues and the creative ways to solve those issues. It’s unbiased and independent, so that person can own their own decision-making. I’m here along the way to help protect their interests, no matter what they’re going to look like.”
Her advice for other entrepreneurs
Fulton’s final tips come in three parts:
First, surround yourself with a “spice cabinet” of advisors and friends who won’t judge you when you ask for advice. You need that resource.
Don’t second-guess your gut. If something sounds off, or you think you’re being undervalued, work to make it right.
Finally, question people who sell you short, telling you it’s the “best you can do” in your market. Don’t blindly believe them.
“I’m finding more and more that women are undervaluing themselves. But market compensation and valuation information show that we’re improving that. Women are kicking ass. They’re getting more money than ever from venture funds. They’re creating incredible science. They’re serving unmet needs. And they really are rock stars. They need to believe in themselves.”
Ramani Varanasi is the Biopharma/Life Sciences expert for Lioness Magazine. She serves as an adviser to entrepreneurs and biopharma executives and is a co-founder, and the former president and CEO of X-Biotix Therapeutics, a company focused on the discovery and development of novel antibiotics to combat the ever-increasing global issue of multi-drug resistance caused by “Superbugs”. She is an accomplished business executive, with over 25 years of biopharmaceutical industry experience. Being attracted to mission-driven initiatives, Varanasi has operated with an entrepreneurial vision and passion for launching, building and being part of successful organizations by integrating research and business strategies focused on innovative medicines and solutions having a global impact.
This is part of a series of interviews from Ramani Varanasi, focusing on the VIPs in the Life Sciences and Biopharma world. Meet Liz Gazda, Laurie Halloran, Dr. Liang Schweizer, Sue Nemetz and Marian Nakada. Learn more about Varanasi from her interview with Bobbie Carlton, Lioness’ publisher and Editor-in-Chief.