Scaling Culture During Growth Periods

Jamie Kehoe

Jamie KehoeDigital Content Manager at Venturi

Thursday, September 26, 2019

When startups take off, their rise is often best described as meteoric. From these success stories, metrics like revenue, projected growth and headcount usually take the headlines.

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But what often isn’t talked about is the way in which culture, an integral part of the modern business ecosphere and one worth an estimated $720 Million, is scaled during these periods.

We’ve brought together a number of leaders to share their thoughts on how to scale culture in growth periods.

Setting clear and scalable core values - Precision Lender

"Focus on the user and all else will follow." - Google’s company mantra
 

Plenty of literature has already been written about the value of having core values. Start-ups especially have embraced and championed them because they can enjoy the best of both worlds: small numbers of staff that are highly engaged and committed. It’s a culture dream.

However, when those start-ups enter a period of growth, how do they ensure that these company values are maintained and clearly communicated.

For Jillienne Reggiannini, VP of talent at PrecisionLender, it’s all about making sure those values are simple and easy to understand.

“At Precision lender, we have a standard set of values that we follow. We use them as our GPS to stay on track with the decisions we make. We rally people around those core values to innovate and helps us stay consistent as we grow.”
 

But there’s a difference between having core values and then committing to them. Often times, a company can fall into the trap of setting values and not living them.

So the first rule of scaling culture during growth periods is the easiest one to grasp.

Are your core values clear, simple and scalable? If not, you’ll find out as soon as you enter the growth period because they’ll quickly feel outdated.

“Keep your values very simple. Ours are single words and they all begin with H. Honest. Helpful. Humble. Human.”
 

Tantamount to the success of these values is their proliferation across the business, with some company's core values being “framed yet forgotten”.

“They are not just a poster on the wall. They’re everywhere. Including conference rooms, driving decision making. So when we’re in a strategy meeting and we meet an impasse, we ask ourselves - are we doing the honest thing? Or are we doing the human thing?”
 

And despite our best efforts, it’s a good idea to admit that no plan will ever survive contact with the rest of the business.

Although this is a widely quoted and often misused soundbite, it really holds true for a company's culture when going through a growth period when you’ll suddenly be home to new staff and leadership.

Each new acquisition will change the makeup of your team whether you like it or not. And this ‘Culture Add’ over ‘Culture Fit’ should be celebrated and accommodated.

So, don’t be afraid to look at your values. They should be drawn into question and doing so has shaped future developments for Jillienne Reggiannini and precision lender:

“We feel very strongly about our four values, but we have also noticed a set of things we know to be true. Principles, if you will, that we talk about all the time that help define our culture, but we haven’t written them down. We’re calling them our ‘Leadership Principles’ and once they’re written down we will be able to make sure they’re broadcast further.”
 

Mobilize leaders as champions - Touch Surgery

When you do scale, every member of the team will find themselves with an extra level of responsibility towards the company culture. But it's the founders and the senior leadership teams that can really shape the behavior of their employees and peers.

According to Robert Walters, 88% of employees believe that senior management are the ones responsible for shaping culture, beating HR (47%) and comms (20%).

It’s up to the founders and senior leadership teams to align the company culture with the behaviors of the board. Doing that, and working towards the core values of the companies, will cascade that behavior down the company.

The more these senior figures in the business communicate openly with the business about what their culture actually looks like, the easier it will be for everyone to action the culture. Values become less random words and more meaningful actions. They become less meaningful jargon and more opportunities to be recognized.

Something Andre Chow, co owner of Touch Surgery, believes wholeheartedly in:

“As you grow, communication becomes difficult. As leaders, it’s up to us to over-communicate to the point where you think people are bored of what you’re saying. I go over our mission over and over again every week. It has to become part of our everyday mentality otherwise you don’t live it.”
 

Standard operating procedures should reflect the vision and values of the company. If leaders want to create a culture that is customer-focused, they need to make sure their behaviors reflect that. Do they spend time in meetings discussing customer issues? Or visiting with customers on-site to better understand their challenges? The way they operate sends a message about what’s really important to the rest of the employees.

Building culture into the hiring process - Google Cloud UK&IE

Google has become synonymous with fun culture. I featured their company mantra at the start of this post and will probably reference them again in the future because they know how to get the most out of their people.

“The culture isn’t bean bags and football tables, it’s a physical manifestation of a point of view of what’s valuable. It’s recognizing that everyone works in different ways and they’re not always mechanist.”
 

Matt McNeill, Customer Engineering Director, Google Cloud UK&IE, spoke to Venturi earlier this year. A big topic for discussion was the hiring process, which we can all concede is a notoriously difficult process.

46% of newly hired employees will fail within 18 months, while only 19% will achieve unequivocal success, according to a study by Leadership IQ. Of those that fail, 11% lack the necessary technical skills. The remaining 89% have other difficulties integrating into the workplace.

This difficulty has led rise to a term we’ve all probably heard enough of lately: the ‘Culture Fit’. Irrespective of how cliché that term has become, it’s still the glue that holds a lot of working teams together and getting it wrong can have disastrous results.

And, if you’re going through a period of significant growth, you’ll likely be doing a lot of hiring. So use that process as a great opportunity to kick-start a potential hire’s relationship with the company's culture.

Matt echoes the ‘culture add’ methodology referenced earlier and see’s the interview process as a chance to create a cohesive unit that can stand the stresses of significant growth.

“The things I’m most interested to learn is where they want to go as a person. When that’s clear, the natural intrinsic motivation of anyone really comes to the fore. You end up with a team of people who are all naturally aligned in terms of this common direction.”
 

This might be done directly, through questions in the interview, or it might be built around the interview process, like Precision Lender’s ‘homework’ project:

“We have our candidates complete homework to get an idea of how they complete work and how that sits with how we get work done at Precision Lender.”
 

The ‘homework’ is a great example because it’s scalable to significant growth periods. When the goal here is to figure out how your candidates would operate in your culture, it’s easy to create a single task that would suit almost all candidates in a specific team.

But this is about finding a system that works for your company. Here are a few more options for building culture into the hiring process:

1. Build your company culture into job specs

The hiring process for any position starts with the drafting of the job posting, and the language contained within a posting can reveal a tremendous amount about a company in the eyes of potential job candidates.

Companies tend to focus on describing the position and expertise needed to perform the job and often overlook the soft skills that would make a candidate ideal for the culture.

Find a way to build that into your job specifications and you’ll be building a scalable model for driving company culture.

2. Look for culture ‘adds’ not ‘fits’

In periods of hyper growth, you might find yourself having to fill roles quickly to keep projects moving. In this case, it can help to take a less totalitarian approach to the ‘culture fit’ and instead of looking at how a candidate might fit into your culture, look at what they might bring that you didn’t have before and what value that would bring to the team.

This can release the shackles from hiring, allowing you to pivot when needed in periods of growth.

This is something that has enabled Google Cloud to source the best talent in technology, as Rich Cobbold, EMEA Recruitment Specialist at Google Cloud explains:

“There’s an inherent question mark around looking for someone who fits in with an existing culture. As opposed to looking for someone who adds value to that culture which I think is a very different thing.   You don’t want to have a group of people that are all very similar. You want to have people with differences of opinions who each bring something unique to the table.”
 

Build out cornerstones of culture - Mercedes-Benz.io

In times of hypergrowth you might find yourself attracting talent from a wide range of backgrounds.

And if you’ve opted for a ‘culture add’ approach like mentioned above, you might fear ending up with a bit of a Frankenstein’s Monster of cultures; a hastily assembled troop of different personalities.

Sophie Seiwald, MD of Mercedes-Benz.io, faced this very issue when she was tasked with bringing together 3 different subsidiaries to form the digital branch of the popular car brand.

“There were suddenly so many different voices in the room.”
 

What many might see as a ‘wipe and reset’ moment for company culture, Sophie wanted to use this unique opportunity to learn as much as she could about the new acquisitions before making decisions on culture.

From this, the aptly named ‘pit stops’ were conceptualized:

“Twice a year we have pit stops. Two days of events and information. We use that format to intensively work on our identity and culture, what makes us different from everyone else. It wasn’t easy and it certainly isn’t finished but this cornerstone has helped us make progress.”
 

And although Sophie found herself in a position to be able to build culture during the growth period, there are still significant teachings here for those looking for ways to scale their pre-existing culture to a growing workforce.

Your cornerstone of culture - whether it’s an annual meeting or a weekly one - can be used to explore your culture and change the trajectory of it if needed.

Live long and prosper

Culture is an indispensable tool, and - like many tools - it will need to be scaled when you start scaling. This article has explored many tried and tested ways this has been done in a business setting, but it’s always important to remember that there is no silver bullet.

As Jillienne puts it:

“Culture is an organic process. The sooner we realize that, the quicker we’ll scale.”

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