In the startup and small-to-medium business world, growing quickly is inevitable on the journey to becoming a successful company. We often associate startups and small businesses with great work culture, but when your team seems to be multiplying by the minute, how can you keep that same positive work environment when you are scaling rapidly?
Perhaps in the beginning creating business culture is an organic venture, but organic culture can only take you so far and there needs to be systems and policies in place to keep staff happy and in line with company values further down the road.
Today, we’re putting the question “How can we maintain great work culture in a period of business growth?” to the experts.
Emma Lo Russo, Digivizer CEO
In Digivizer our company culture was built from the team itself, not only the leadership team. What we landed on were the values of operating as one team, being genuine and courageous, being responsible for what we do and how we act, and being focused on growth. We protect this by hiring the best right from the start – they must be smart, talented, gets things done, be an infinite learner, and not an arsehole. By having the right people in the first place, by asking everyone to own the culture, and by practising radical candour with radical focus on business objectives, this in turn has fuelled our growth. Sustainable growth starts, builds and ends with culture.
Angus Dorney, co-CEO of Kablamo
Be clear about the values of the business. Make sure the leadership team lives and dies by those values.
Even at an early stage you need to over-invest in a great and engaging workplace. Things like hiring HR early, rolling out a benefits scheme, and training programs. It can feel uncomfortable to do this but it is worth it. Invest to the point of discomfort!
Face-to-face time between the team and between the leaders and the team. You need to make sure people feel connected to each other.
Ross Judd, founder of Team Focus and author of Cultural Insanity
If your business is growing you will need to take these three simple steps to make sure that every new person adds value to your culture.
(1) Talk about your purpose, why you exist. Make sure new recruits are aligned with the contribution you are making in the world.
(2) Be very clear about the culture you are building to deliver on that purpose. Define your target culture in one word, or two at the most, so it’s easy to understand and talk about.
(3) Talk about the culture you are building at every chance you get. During interviews, induction, team meetings, as often as possible. The more you talk about your target culture the more everyone will contribute to creating it.
Brad Giles, founder of Evolutions Partners and author of Made to Thrive
During periods of business growth, everyone’s focus turns to execution, simply delivering to customers can be a major challenge in itself. This challenge can actually be bonding for a team, and to ensure a great culture isn’t lost, leaders must embrace their ambassadorial role where there are 3 main actions to focus on.
- Leaders must communicate the plans and priorities to all, to ensure all people know what to focus on and why.
- Leaders must communicate measurable progress through the growth period, connecting today’s short-term pain to the long-term gain.
- Leaders must communicate positive stories that align with the core values and core purpose that are occurring through the period of growth.
David Pich, CEO of the Institute of Managers and Leaders Australia and New Zealand (IML ANZ), author of Leading Well
From moving offices, to increasing staff, to rising sales, periods of business growth present exciting new horizons for an organisation’s leaders, but expansion can often negatively affect our people and culture. Good work culture isn’t built on free lunches or ping-pong tables; it’s founded on the relationships between co-workers, managers and their staff, and your people and business. Maintaining a great culture through change entails providing opportunities to create meaningful personal connections amongst staff, building trustful relationships between employees and leaders, and fostering alignment with the expanding brand and growth strategy. By offering adequate support to staff during this transition, organisations can sustain their people’s positive relationships, the cornerstone of great work culture.
Jen Jackson, CEO of Everyday Massive and co-author of How to Speak Human
In working with organisations undergoing change, as well as experiencing rapid growth in my own company over the past couple of years, there are three ways we’ve found effective in keeping a strong workplace culture:
- Increase communication. Growth means change, and change can be emotional. Be proactive, empathetic, and keep it human. Even when you know exactly where you’re going, providing plenty of context for decisions will help bring people on the journey.
- Set non-negotiable rituals. These might be morning huddles for team performance, weekly/monthly all-ins for initiative updates and questions, or quarterly onsites to revisit strategy and address any cultural ‘cracks’ that might be showing.
- Celebrate the wins — big and small. During rapid growth, it’s easy to get wound up in the pursuit of big numbers. But it can often be the small wins that mean the most to the team.
Colin D Ellis, culture change specialist and author of Culture Fix
As a business grows it’s crucially important that the culture grows with it. A big mistake that organisations often make is to assume that their culture will naturally scale as the business evolves. In order to avoid this mistake it’s important that senior management provide staff with an opportunity away from the office, to redefine what the culture should be in order to maintain its vibrancy and to achieve its growth targets. Vision, behaviours and ways of working together will all need to change such that the culture scales as the organisation grows.
Dr Mat Donald, management specialist and author of Leading and Managing Change in the Age of Disruption and Artificial Intelligence
Business growth may be a welcome development but it does have its hazards. Growth means constant change, where your leaders and managers may be the key to change success based on recent research. It is no longer advisable to keep your staff distant, rather staff need closer, partnering style, relations with their leaders during growth. By allowing staff into your decision making, by accepting their opinions and options, it is likely that they will build stronger trust in their leadership, a key ingredient when more change occurs from new growth. Leaders will need humility, inclusion and negotiation to foster these new relations.
Craig Sanford, Founder and Director at Sierra Legal
We have adopted and maintained a true “team” philosophy as part of our culture. A key example is that we have no personal budgets or targets, but rather focus on overall targets for the entire firm. This allows for a supportive and collaborative culture, which aligns individual objectives with the firm’s overall goals. In addition, all team members communicate on a daily basis about matters and objectives, there is genuine workplace flexibility which encourages loyalty and retention of good employees, and there is open and regular transparency from the Directors on firm financials, clients, matters, opportunities and objectives. During our growth, this team philosophy has promoted and continues to promote a collaborative environment and culture (with no office politics!), with the opportunity for team members to continuously develop professionally and with an entrepreneurial spirit that promotes new business opportunities. This type of culture promotes greater cohesion, efficiency and overall wellness within the team, which in turn assists us in providing clients with exceptional legal advice and service.
Ken Kencevski, CEO and Founder of Devika
We have experienced times where within a four week period there are more new people in the room than there are original team members. During these phases, we make sure the core team are able to nurture the new members with support and education around our company culture. We do this through running formal group training on our values and by creating open communication channels for the team. It has also been really important for us to incorporate criteria around cultural fit into the hiring process. This helps us make better decisions at the outset about who joins the team, ensuring our new hires are people who positively reinforce our culture and will be a good fit within the company long term.
John Ahern, CEO, InfoTrack
At InfoTrack, we strive to be the leading technology innovator. This means coming up with new ideas and finding new ways to grow because when our clients grow, we grow with them. But growth isn’t just due to our clients. Our values put our people first. Great ideas come from people who love what they do.
Communication amongst InfoTrack employees is considered vital to our culture. We encourage all employees to ask questions on anything related to their role or the business in general, whether they are directed towards their manager or the Executive team. Our employees often express that they find our Executive united and approachable, and they thrive on the passion, intellect and varied experience of the Executive.
In addition, we pride ourselves on operating transparently and having a flat structure with minimal hierarchy. InfoTrack management have an open-door policy and are open, honest and supportive.
Chris Regan, Chief People Officer at Moula
It’s a lot easier to maintain your company’s atmosphere when numbers are small, but numbers or location shouldn’t drive culture.
Every businesses culture is unique and is something that everyone contributes to; from the CEO to the newest employee.
During a period of intense business growth with competing priorities and new people joining every week, culture can be challenging to maintain, but the key lies in the leader’s commitment to the importance of culture.
A focus on culture during the interview process, when on-boarding a new employee and continuously checking in on employee engagement beyond the first week is essential.
Ensuring that you listen to every employee’s opinion and adjusting as you go rather than waiting for an annual review is crucial. Through doing this, you can bring everyone along for the ride and encourage individual growth at the same time.
Andrew Laurie, entrepreneur, CEO and elite business coach
Periods of high business growth pose a risk to work culture. Fast growth implies change and sometime causes distraction. A business’s focus on culture can end up on the back-burner, creating the risk that culture runs off the rails.
It’s vital for businesses to maintain discipline throughout growth periods to ensure culture remains at the forefront of all activity. Businesses must define their culture clearly and appropriately to their business. They must describe objectively observable behaviours to adhere to. They must then actively maintain their culture in forms such as written statements, workplace discussions, and cultural compliance awards.
Although it’s easy to forget about work culture through periods of growth, during these times it’s actually more important than ever to maintain the discipline to uphold a strong culture. To ensure culture transcends phases of change, businesses must constantly work to actively maintain it at all times.
Robin Boomer, Director, Advisory, Human Resources at Gartner
When organisations are going through periods of growth, it is easy to fall into a rhythm and the expectation that things will continue on apace. We tend to think that what has put us in this position will continue to get us where we need to go. However, this approach can create some problems.
Consider a new organisation that has begun to grow into a medium-sized enterprise, they may need to move on from an entrepreneurial organisation that is mainly focused on innovation and flexibility in order to develop a value proposition and customer base, to one where consistent delivery of core products & services and clear lines of responsibility is paramount as they take on clients and employees to meet customer demands. During such phases of growth, organisations should be mindful of a few things:
- There is no one “right” culture.Organisations need to develop their culture to what is right for their strategic objectives, purpose, and stakeholder needs, all of which can change rapidly and significantly as organisations grow.
- Employees are held back by previous strategy and ways of working.The best organisations co-create behaviors and ways of working with all employees to ensure they can continuously start, stop, and continue the things that will lead to their success.
- Leaders do best by aligning process to desired culture.When leaders build workflows, budgets, and team structure with culture in mind, it has three times the impact on aligning the workforce to the right culture that both talking the talk and walking the walk do.
Shannon Hautot, cofounder HungryHungry
Everything in business is about balance, and finding the right balance that works for your business and your team. During high growth it gets far more challenging to keep an eye on ensuring a great culture as there’s always more to be done than hours in the day. I believe it is essential to keep in regular contact with your staff, regardless of how hectic it gets. Let them know it’s ok to approach you and express concerns and new ideas for innovation. It’s also really important to take time out to celebrate the wins and have fun together, as it’s a marathon not a sprint and we spend about one third of our lives with our fellow co-workers. Make it count.
Alexie O’Brien, Chief Operations Officer, Tell Me Baby
Workplace culture is so important in any business, but it is particularly important through periods of growth – especially while in startup phase. One bad hire can have an impact on the entire team, which can reduce productivity and turnover which is a big cost for a young business. The five non-negotiables for us are:
1 ) Hire right and for culture first. You can train staff for skill, but you can’t change someone’s attitude and outlook.
2) Onboard the team with the brand story, vision, mission and values. It is easy to take shortcuts and get new team members on the tools, but taking the time to invest in their understanding of the back story, values of the business and how things work upfront pays dividends down the track.
3) Keep regular, transparent communication through hosting regular ‘lunch and learns’ or company-wide huddles to share results, priorities and connect on core values. Deep-diving into core values bring them to life, which is important when you are growing.
4) Reward and recognise. Go out of your way to regularly recognise team members who go above and beyond in displaying your core values.
5) Get the team involved in generating the culture. Giving them responsibility for an aspect of culture can make it fun.
Ben White, Managing Director of Business and Wholesale, Optus
- When businesses grow rapidly, employees can become overly busy and focused more narrowly on their own individual agendas, which in turn can negatively impact the broader company and working culture.
- Maintaining a great work culture requires offering teams tools so they can perform tasks to the best of their abilities, whilst ensuring collaboration and clear communication are also happening.
- Find ways to introduce team cohesion. For example, regular in-person catch-ups can improve productivity and efficiencies. Also make sure teams have a physical space where they can come together for meetings or more casual interaction.
- In today’s mobile era, many SMBs choose not to have a physical location. New co-shared working spaces have proven very effective in many areas. They reduce isolation, provide access to a more diverse network, boost creativity, and foster a shared culture, values and vision. This ultimately sets business growth up for success.
Jessica Everitt, Talent Manager, Employsure
The way to maintain a great culture during a period of rapid growth is to ensure every single person – no matter who or where they are – is aligned to your vision, strategy and values. This can firstly be done by refining your recruitment process to ensure you hire the right people who will add to your culture and align to your values. At Employsure, we hire for values first, and capability second – capability can be taught, but values fit is harder to instil if it’s not there to begin with.
Secondly, it requires compelling and continuous storytelling. Stories are one of the most powerful methods to convey a message and to align people to a vision by creating an emotional connection. At Employsure, we use stories throughout our induction process and employee journey to explain who we are as a business, where we came from, what we believe in, and what we are striving for.
Finally, keep the lines of communication wide open. Actively ask for, listen to, and act on feedback, encourage collaboration across teams, and share regular updates.