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Growing without Killing Your Culture

A next round of financing, a disruptive and innovative technology, double digit expansion, merging two organizations together – each offers a world of possibilities and the potential for everything you value most about the business to be in jeopardy of withering away.

Why? Because with each new employee, the culture, your culture, gets diluted a little more.

The faster you hire, the quicker the culture dissipates. So, one of the big questions that keeps running through your head, that vexes you at night when you’re still and quiet is:

How do we grow the company without watching the culture die?

As a leader you had a vision for the organization you wanted to build. Merging the best of everything you had experienced in your past. Something new, innovative, engaging. Better than what had been done before. Not transformative, not the best of breed, but an entirely new species all together. An organization like no other with a culture that brought people together, unlocked the best of what was inside them and changed everything.

When the business was smaller your culture was easy to perpetuate. It resonated from you and quickly encompassed all the early employees. It allowed the organization to be nimbler. A quick conversation in the hallway in the morning and you could change on a dime, redirect, transform and implement. By the end of the day, the business was in a different place, a better place. As a result, success came quickly, and more money and opportunity followed.

Hire, expand, grow. These words became the mantra of what followed. Twenty employees quickly turned to hundreds of employees and then thousands. Every one of these new people brought additional scale, new ideas and the ability to leverage what had been built before them. They also brought their perspectives, experiences and mindset regarding how the world of business works, how things should be done and what the company, your company, should be.

Was their vision the same as yours? Was what they wanted the culture to be – perfectly aligned with what you wanted it to be? Perhaps, but not very likely. So, the culture gets diluted a little bit more with each hire. What was so great in the early days begins to wither and die and slowly the company becomes more and more homogenized.  Soon, it begins to look and feel like every other company, for better, but mostly, for worse.

However, is this an inevitable reality? Does human nature force the average? Or can you keep the culture, the optimal culture, alive? The answers to these questions are, yes, yes and yes.

Yes, cultural dilution is inevitable. Yes, human nature will erode what was once great into a standardized average. Yes, you can keep an optimal team culture alive, but only if you have a focused effort to maintain it. So how do we do this?

To influence culture, we first must define it. If we don’t understand its underlying drivers, we will never be able to have a meaningful impact on perpetuating the optimal culture.

defined: cul / ture (kul’cher) n. The collective dominant thoughts and beliefs of a group of people. These thoughts and beliefs determine the actions and reactions of the people to external influences.

Modern social scientists and leaders in the field of psychology all agree, our thoughts and beliefs govern everything from how we perceive the outside world, to how we respond to varying stimuli. Simply put, our thoughts/beliefs drive our actions. Our actions dictate our results. It is all cause and effect.

Your culture defines things like:

  • How people treat one another and how they treat the customer
  •  Whether people will come in early and stay late
  • How people respond under adversity
  • How quickly they adapt and adjust to change
  • How innovatively people think

Your culture defines every nuance of how the people and the business interact – both internally and externally.

Three steps to Defining, Defending and Perpetuating Your Culture

Step One: Define your foundational cultural beliefs

Remember, thoughts/beliefs drive actions. Actions drive results. So, what do you want employees to believe about key aspects of the business? What beliefs would cause employees to take the actions required?

What is the organization all about? What does it stand for (internally and externally)? What are the key cultural components you want to carry forward? What is it that you value most? What is differential? What is it you want people to believe about the company, the vision, the value proposition? What do you want the people to believe about the customer experience, how we interact internally and our ability to adapt?

You can’t defend and perpetuate what you can’t define and quantify. So, this first step is critical.

Step Two: Develop your cultural marketing campaign

Selling a culture differs little from selling a product or service. Marketing is key. How will you get your cultural message out and make sure it rises above the noise, above all the distractions and resonates in the mind of every employee.

Organizations who properly perpetuate their culture, wear their culture with a sense of pride. They recognize it as a major differentiator and thus, don’t hesitate to show it, demonstrate it and trumpet it. You will see their culture statement on the company intranet and external website. You will see it on posters and signs throughout their buildings. You don’t have to look far to understand, who they are and what they stand for.

However, culture has to be more than posters on the wall and talking points in an all-hands town hall meeting. It is a centralized messaging that needs to be reinforced, demonstrated and recognized at every opportunity and in every interaction. It is talked about in team meetings, conversations in the hall and employee one-on-ones. This consistency and congruency builds momentum and makes the cultural messaging sticky.

Step Three: Align and Engage Your Cultural Ambassadors

The reason culture spreads readily on small teams is because one charismatic leader can influence the entire group. Cultural dissenters are also quickly recognized and either become converted or get squeezed out.

As teams grow, it is no longer reasonable to expect that a singular voice can hold so much sway. There just isn’t enough one-on-one contact with the larger group. So, leaders must look for strategies to multiply their voice.

The first point of leverage is in your recruiting process. If thinking and acting in an “entrepreneurial fashion” is one of your cultural cornerstones, look for people who have exhibited this trait in their past. If “adaptability” is a critical component of the culture given the rapid growth of the organization, look for people who have shown a propensity to rapidly adapt to the changes life has put in their path. Certainly, we have the need for new employees to bring critical skillsets into the company, however, a highly skilled person who undermines the culture is far from valuable to us.

The second point of cultural leverage is through the training and on-boarding process. The newest employees are also the most impressionable. They have yet to form deeply rooted opinions (thoughts/beliefs) about the organization. As such, introducing and reinforcing your desired culture in these early interactions has greater impact.

So, how does your on-boarding process and the initial training introduce, substantiate and reinforce the culture? There needs to be a dedicated strategy for this early stage.

Next, you must consider what happens when employees leave the safe and coddled environment of training. Is the cultural messaging carried forth congruently by their new manager? Like with children, “do as I say and not as I do,” never cuts it. Yet when managers fully understand that one of their Highest Payoff Activities is perpetuating the right culture, everywhere the employee looks the messaging is the same. Quickly they become bought-in in a very positive and meaningful way.

Managers, every manager, needs to understand that the optimal organizational culture lives or dies in their office chair. How and what they communicate to their respective team becomes what the employees come to believe about the organization.

So, have you developed your manager’s capabilities to extend beyond just the functional nature of their immediate role? Have they been trained, coached and mentored in a way that they both understand and have the tools required to truly be a Leader of both their people and the culture? Or, are they simply a manager of the process? Rest assured, the difference between being a leader and a manager is profound.

Growing a business and killing a culture do not have to be mutually exclusive.  However, without a dedicated plan and consistent focus they quickly become so. As leaders, we recognize our culture sets us apart. It attracts the best talent and keeps them engaged. It is the differential advantage that matters most, so it has to rise to the top of our to-do-list.

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