How to adapt your culture to fit a growing business
Interbrand published its 2018 Best Global Brand survey this month. Its findings show that this year’s top growing brands all focus on their culture, citing Amazon, Netflix and PayPal as examples. There’s no secret or surprise that culture drives business success, but what interested me was the relationship between business growth and culture.
So, how do you continue to grow your business without diluting the culture that got you where you are today?
Principles, philosophies and values
Firstly, it’s about the organisational principles, philosophies or values that have defined your culture and shaped your journey so far. Culture is certainly about how we do things around here, but often when a business grows, people get hung up about the changes to ‘what’ they do, or ‘how’ they do it. We hear stories like ‘we used to all finish at five on a Friday but now we’re too busy’, or ‘we all used to buy birthday presents but now there are too many people’. It seems that scale can dilute culture – but it doesn’t need to. Focus less on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ and think about the ‘why’. Finishing at five on a Friday is really about having flexibility; celebrating birthdays is about building relationships. Both are about valuing and recognising people. Think about new ways of demonstrating these same principles that fit the size and scale of your organisation now.
Culture is also about having a clear purpose and sense of direction that people know and understand. In the early days of a business, employees are in it together either financially as shareholders, or due to a shared passion or experience. As a business grows, it’s important to maintain a clear sense of purpose for colleagues to connect with. Equally important – especially when your organisation is entering into new markets, developing new revenue streams, or experiencing regulatory change – is communicating direction and momentum so that everyone shares an understanding of and is excited by where you’re heading. Also, don’t assume understanding, it’s not just new recruits, but longer-serving colleagues who need to get it. Which brings us to communication.
When a business is small, it’s easier to communicate. Often a quick huddle in the office will suffice to share news. As a business grows this approach no longer works. Similarly in larger organisations, the transition from single to multiple offices can cause communication problems. Finding new ways of communicating may require further investment or additional resources. In today’s technologically advanced world this has become much easier. However, a common stumbling block can be focusing too much on broadcast communication and neglecting employee voice. The value in the office huddle or stand up was only partly to do with speed and convenience, and more to do with the fact that colleagues could ask questions, make comments, or share thoughts with leaders. It was inherently two-way and participative. Listening to colleagues and ensuring they retain the opportunity to feedback, question and share (ideally face-to-face) is essential.
Unsurprisingly leadership is also fundamental to any culture. In a situation where the business is growing, it’s even more important that leaders reinforce preferred behaviours by role modelling. Don’t take for granted people will know what’s expected, and realise that ‘what you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say’. This applies especially for newer recruits whose assessment of how things are done is based primarily on their recent experience. That said, consider carefully the role of mentors and coaches whose choice of stories to share with newer colleagues will also be influential.
The stories that are told across an organisation are incredibly powerful and often the best lens through which to view its culture. Communication is key, but, thematically, stories usually relate to successes and failures. Think about how you share and celebrate successes and consider what people will remember. Focusing on the behaviours that achieved success, rather than just the results, can help your culture thrive.
Avoid formalising everything
One of the most common complaints in growing businesses is people feeling forced into adopting processes and policies that they see as bureaucratic. As a business grows, there will be a need to adopt some new processes, if only to maintain consistency and fairness and avoid general chaos. Avoid over-processing or formalising everything and be discerning. This Netflix example nails it for me:
“We don’t have a clothing policy, yet no one has come to work naked. The lesson is you don’t need policies for everything. Most people understand the benefits of wearing clothes at work.”
And look within the organisation as well as outside it for the best ways of doing things. Often ways of working that have emerged organically are the best for your business. It can be a case not of creating new processes and structures, rather making those which are implicit, explicit.
Finally when recruiting new colleagues, it is important to think about skills and cultural fit, and also take into account where you’re heading as a business. A new market or regulatory pressure may require new and different skills or mind-sets. A good start point is considering what your preferred future culture would be, how this differs from your existing culture, and what you might need more or less of to achieve the change. Bringing in new and diverse skills and thinking can really help your business progress rather than stand still.
Adapt and evolve
Ultimately the key is to adapt and evolve. Nostalgia can be limiting, but appreciation of past success can provide the momentum and energy to propel you into a bright future.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet