Culture is constantly evolving, but you can preserve the essence of a changing organizational culture during times of growth.
Culture is a unifying force, connecting employees to each other, as well as the company’s mission and vision. A changing organizational culture is practically guaranteed as a company shifts and grows over time.
It’s more important to protect the essence of your culture than it is to preserve the culture initiatives you had when there were only 50 employees. You do this by prioritizing culture strategy as part of your overall growth strategy, just as you would any other business objective. A common mistake growing companies make is putting too much focus on one or two areas, neglecting others until critical issues arise.
To plan your culture strategy start by asking employees high level questions such as:
- What are the key things you like about your team today?
- What do you appreciate about the culture and dynamics of your group?
Once you collect those answers, ask yourself and the leadership team more difficult questions, “What does your team look like with 50, 100 or 500 people? What parts of the culture and dynamics can be maintained at that scale?” This will help you assess the core values that guide your culture, even if the specific initiatives must adapt for a larger audience.
Apply this assessment exercise to the following four areas that often present challenges as companies grow.
As organizations grow and add departments and layers, communication becomes challenging. Much like the children’s game of telephone, the more people between the source and the final recipient of the message, the more likely it is to become distorted.
Building scalable communications channels is a critical part of growth strategy. How your employees receive information when there are 50 people is much different than when there are 500. Planning ahead for how you are going to disperse information at each growth milestone will help you avoid miscommunications and protect the company culture.
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For example, if weekly one-on-ones with managers are an important part of your current strategy, you need to consider what parts of those one-on-ones are most valuable to both employees and managers. Once a team reaches 25 members, it’s nearly impossible for a single manager to conduct 25 hour-long meetings each week. By asking questions, you can identify the key parts of what is important about your culture and adapt your strategy to retain those priorities.
For some founding leaders, being able to communicate directly with employees is an important part of organizational culture they want to preserve as they grow. However, the leader’s responsibilities will grow as the company grows. It’s easy to get caught up in a myriad of other things competing for a leader’s time and priorities.
Not being able to know each employee by name or sit in the lunch room on a regular basis can be very difficult for founding leaders who built their company from an idea into a large organization. By making time for communication a priority, just like you would a board meeting or creating reports, leaders can preserve the essence of this cultural touchpoint.
Keeping the spirit of open communications with employees may take on new forms as the company grows, like video chats from the founder or a digital forum where the founder can field questions from employees. While they may not be able to talk face-to-face with each employee, the trust and compassion demonstrated by making time for these activities will help to protect and preserve the original essence of a changing organizational culture.
The physical proximity of employees changes as companies grow. In the startup stage, everyone may fit in a single conference room for meetings, making collaboration and communication easy. However, as the company expands, space becomes more challenging. You may outgrow your largest conference room or even office. Remote workers may join the team. In time, multiple offices or geographic locations may be added. These changes in proximity create additional challenges when trying to protect culture.
Remember, the cultural traditions you built based on how your organization looked in its early years don’t have to be prescriptive, they should adapt and change as needed. It’s important to ask questions to determine the core parts of your culture. Once you identify the core values, you can adapt culture initiatives to serve employees scattered across multiple floors, office buildings, and remote locations.
If collaboration is an important part of your company culture, you may not be able to have a company-wide brainstorming session when you have 500 employees. However, you can adapt the tradition of collaboration in ways that work for a larger organization. Creating smaller, cross-functional teams is one way to encourage collaboration in a larger organization. Placing white boards in every meeting room or using team communication tools that remove geographic barriers can signal to employees that collaboration is still a valued part of company culture.
As your organization grows, you will have an ever-changing mix of new and old employees. Employees that were with the company from the beginning will have different experiences and expectations than those who join later.
Taking time to talk through changes with early employees is critical to understand how to adapt their roles as the company grows. If they are moving into management, they may require additional support and professional development opportunities for their new roles. By having transparent conversations with individuals, you can understand their job preferences, preferred learning styles, and strengths and weaknesses.
Some employees may want to learn via job shadowing, while others prefer more formal learning processes like classes or conferences. Others may prefer using online resources to learn the necessary skills for their changing roles. Taking time to understand individual needs can prevent many common pitfalls that occur when early employees take on new roles.
Another way to preserve the essence of a changing organizational culture is to ensure each new hire not only fits, but also understands your company’s culture. This should begin during the interview process. Consider how you embed company’s core values into the interview and on-boarding processes. It’s important that each new hire understand the desired company culture and how each person is expected to demonstrate those core values in their daily work.
New hires are often a valuable source of objective feedback. Take time to check in with new employees 60 or 90 days after they joined the team to ask about their experiences and to ensure that the culture they experienced aligns with the expectations they had during their time as a candidate.
Your employee engagement tools are another valuable source of feedback to preserve the essence of a changing organizational culture as you grow. Employee engagement surveys, if done consistently and at regular intervals, can give you warning signs if your culture initiatives aren’t performing as expected during the transition. Declining scores that deviate from previous trends may signify a change in your company culture. Digging in and addressing the source of the issue when you first observe a change in trends can prevent further trouble in the future.
Retention is another area to watch closely during times of growth. Early employees may have been attracted to the role or organization because of the variety of tasks or the culture. Some of these employees may leave during times of growth, and that’s okay. However, significant turnover can be a sign your culture isn’t transitioning well. Popular wisdom suggests people usually leave a job because of their manager. If you begin to see significant turnover, it may signal an issue that requires further investigation.
Although it takes significant determination and planning to retain company culture through periods of strategic growth, it is possible. Prioritize culture in your growth strategy, just like any other business objective. By assessing the core values that guide your culture, you can adapt culture strategies to serve your organization at any size.