Scaling up is an exciting part of a company’s growth trajectory. But culture poses a unique challenge - how do you transition from the organic, informal startup environment to something more suitable for the size you are aiming to reach? How do you maintain a positive, cohesive culture while the business is rapidly evolving?
Shifting from organic to managed
The mass shift to remote working caused by COVID-19 has solidified a lesson that many were already realising: fun office perks are no substitute for an excellent company culture.
Nowhere is this more true than in the tech industry, where competition for talent is fierce and companies have been attempting to outdo each other for years with benefits like free food, nap spaces and office pets, to name a few.
This is not to say that these perks are unappreciated by employees, but they are ultimately far inferior to a well-constructed ethos that has broad buy-in across a business. In startups, this is often created without much deliberate action - they usually mirror that of the founder, who is naturally inclined to hire people with similar goals, personalities and attitudes to work.
But when a startup begins to scale, this style of company culture is no longer viable. The addition of layers of management means that the direct connection between the founder and their employees is severed, so culture must be actively managed rather than naturally diffusing from founder to employees.
This is not just about the difference between culture at startups and larger corporations. The process of scaling presents particular challenges: rapid headcount growth means a sizeable proportion or even majority of employees are new hires; processes, policies, and team structures are in a state of perpetual change; the work is intense and employees are often required to go above and beyond.
Successfully executing this cultural transition requires proactive management based on a clearly defined framework. For example, Hopin, the virtual events company who are currently executing the most breakneck scaling process ever seen in the UK (they reached a £5.6bn valuation in August, having officially launched less than a year and a half previous), have a dedicated team for this very purpose.
You need to work out what you want your company culture to be, and how it can be reinforced as you scale. From there, you can put the right people and processes in place.
Purpose and values
If you don’t have them already, you should define your purpose and values at the outset of the scaling process, as the foundation of your company culture.
What is your company’s purpose?
What is your company's vision of success?
What does your company value in its employees?
These questions should help you determine exactly what your company is seeking to achieve and the qualities that need to be reflected across your workforce to get there. You can encapsulate your foundation in a mission statement, covering your purpose, values and your goals for realising your vision.
This part of company culture is often dismissed as a marketing exercise, but it is invaluable in a scaleup context, acting as an anchor in an ever-changing environment. A clearly defined cultural foundation ensures everyone is pulling in the right direction.
In an aggressively expanding company, it is important that you do not neglect the individual growth of your employees. A flat structure is common to startups, but it has a shelf life. After a couple of years, people will begin considering how they can reach the next stage of their career.
So if you want to retain your workforce and ensure they are satisfied, you need to make sure they have tangible pathways to development and progression. Set clear expectations on performance and behaviour, and regularly assess employees against these, while giving them training and mentoring opportunities.
You can also increase buy-in by offering ownership. As you’re scaling, you’ll continually be creating new processes, structures, parts of your product and so on. Giving your employees a high level of autonomy in managing these projects means that they are more likely to view it as their creation on completion.
Not only does this provide satisfaction as a tangible result of their hard work, the challenge of a project also gives them the chance to develop their skills.
Perhaps most importantly of all, you need to give credit where credit is due. Aggressive expansion often requires extraordinary effort, so your success as a scaleup is likely to be at least partially down to your employees going above and beyond. If someone is frequently working evenings and weekends, for example, particularly at mid or junior levels, they deserve to be rewarded, and may well decide to leave if they do not feel they are receiving this.
This does not just mean a large bonus, although this is of course appreciated. People thrive off respect and recognition from others - give shout outs to employees who are consistently exceeding expectations. Highlighting them will also set benchmarks for others and encourage high performance.
Hiring is a key part of scaling up. So whether or not you scale up successfully is, to a large extent, dependent on the quality of your hiring, which is itself reliant on finding people who fit your culture. Without consistent alignment in recruitment, your culture will increasingly drift away from its intended form as the proportion of people who are at odds with it increases. This is a particular risk when hiring people remotely, as it is harder to assess culture fit when not face-to-face with someone.
To avoid this problem, have a replicable 3 or 4 stage process. Ask questions relevant to the behaviours that your company is looking for or wants to avoid. Set expectations to candidates by clearly communicating your values and mission. Have multiple team members interview them. Once hired, have a regimented induction process that provides consistency to new joiners and gives them a strong grounding in your company culture, so they know what is expected of them.
Internal communication is vital to ensuring cohesion of company culture across the business.
Collaboration to leverage different resources internally is highly useful, but proactive management is often required to keep lines of communication between functions during scaling as structures change and new hires are made. Stakeholders should be introduced to each other and kept aware of new developments and opportunities for collaboration.
This is also true of opening new locations, where the challenges are arguably greater due to the distance. A good way to promote collaboration here is to staff projects with employees from different locations. It may slow down the execution of projects in the short-term, but will pay off in the long-term by fostering collaboration and closer relations between different offices.
In both cases, holding weekly, all-hands catch ups with all departments and locations and highlighting achievements can promote unity and cohesion of culture.
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