Culture is vital, not only to the enjoyment of running a fast-growing company, but also to perceptions of your brand and, ultimately, your chances of success.
Get culture right and people will want to work for you. They will be happier, more productive, and more innovative. Don’t underestimate the industry and media goodwill a reputation for great company culture can generate, and the value that can create.
Get it wrong, however, and you can quickly come unstuck. Even if you avoid scandals, your team won’t be as happy or productive, and you’ll pay the price of high employee churn. Success – if it comes – will be slower.
Fast growth can make maintaining a good culture difficult. Rapid hiring, evolving strategy, and the need for greater organisational structure threaten the status quo, so here are some things to consider.
The chief executive’s behaviour in meetings and on social occasions, the business imperatives and values they emphasise (and, perhaps more importantly, the ones they neglect), and even their casual interactions all define culture more than any inspirational banners ever could. The values in your company handbook are meaningless if not consistently embodied at the very top. Reflect on the aspects of culture that most influence success, and how consistently you exemplify them.
Ask employees their impressions: do they agree? Building a culture takes years of consistency – it can’t be done in one “strategic offsite”.
While consistency is critical, it’s also important to think about how the culture that serves you best today might need to evolve over time as your situation changes. “Move fast and break things” might work brilliantly when you’re small and agile, but leave you disjointed and unproductive as you grow, everyone running in different directions when what you need is greater focus. Consider giving teams specific goals, and letting them “break things” within defined parameters.
Look at how wider cultural change affects you, too: until recently I’d never heard of VC firms offering sexual harassment or sensitivity training, but recent revelations from my own industry and others are driving positive change.
Hire with care
When hiring, give yourself enough time – as much as six to 12 months for senior hires, or other roles with particular strategic importance – to make sure you can find the right candidate, not just the “best right now”.
Mistaking conformity for cultural fit is a common pitfall, and can lead to unwitting encouragement of homogeneity when diverse teams are proven to be more innovative and productive. You’re looking for candidates who will challenge “groupthink” while still sharing your business goals and values and being clear on their deliverables.
Culture might originate from the behaviour of leaders, but it can’t be sustained by top-down mandates and examples alone.
It requires employee-driven “movements” at all levels and in all every area of the business to emphasise the importance of key values. Identify individuals who can help peers embrace and embody your culture, whether by arranging social events or simply exemplifying your values.
Of course, there’s more to culture than perks and socialising. The most successful companies are built on cultures that embrace constructive criticism and challenging ideas, within a respectful and trusting environment.