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Preserving culture while rapidly scaling

Here are some tips to help develop the right culture and promote values.

Preserving culture while rapidly scaling
[Jacob Lund / Adobe Stock]
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One of the most common concerns with rapidly scaling up a business—by both the number of employees and offices—is how to maintain the culture that early joiners shaped. The most important thing to realize is, you can’t.

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No matter how hard you try, the culture will dramatically shift and evolve with every digit you add to headcount, not to mention when you separate into different office spaces.

However, there are still things you can do to shape it and preserve what matters most. Preserving culture means setting precedents and trusting people to bring in their own culture that compliments what already exists.

Here are some tips to help develop the right culture and promote values.

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FIND PEOPLE WHO FIT

Whenever you’re hiring someone, regardless of how good their skills might be, keep in mind that they’re going to spend a majority of their time around the existing members of the company and they will be influencing their lives. Are they a person who’s going to empower and boost morale or someone with a demeanor that might cause problems? If someone is a bad culture fit, they might end up being a net burden by slowing down other key employees.

If they’re not a bad fit but they’re not quite a good fit, they could reasonably have a long tenure, shaping the culture and letting it drift. More importantly, they may eventually help with hiring the next generation of members. Do you trust them to be someone who will find interesting people who enhance a business, or will the culture drift compound over time?

These types of questions are important to ask early and often. What do we value as a company, and are we doing what we can as ‘keepers of the flame’ dedicated to preserving the original vision and direction? Scaling up means fewer and fewer gaps on a calendar, and it becomes more important than ever to step back from making business decisions to look at the organization holistically.

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BREAK DOWN BARRIERS

One of the most important ways to promote creativity and innovation is encouraging people to interact with their peers across disciplines. Diversity and inclusion mean nothing if they’re siloed off in their own sub-organization, never providing unique insight to groups that might need it most. This cross-connection will, in turn, sustain culture because it’s much harder for a massive, interwoven group to drift than a smaller offshoot.

As an organization gets bigger, it gets harder for various groups to meet. While they might pass questions back and forth, they likely won’t be eating lunch together or sitting next to each other. This is why non-work activities are critical.

Forcing people to join ‘mandatory’ happy hours has been shown to actually decrease morale. Picking out activities for groups that they don’t enjoy inherently creates resentment to be there in the first place and likely won’t foster greater camaraderie between attendees.

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Instead, let employees design their own communities around common interests and, when reasonable, encourage and fund opportunities for them to enjoy things together. Maybe a group has a common interest in escape rooms, or video games, or sports. It’s a great way to get people from disparate groups to form strong bonds between clusters that don’t otherwise interact. If you have two groups who don’t share many common interests together, maybe they could share a nice meal (over video chat, if remote).

No matter how large an organization gets, letting individuals take time during work hours to share a common interest can lead to valuable friendships that promote diversity of ideas and unique perspectives, making culture stronger.

LEAVE PEOPLE ALONE

Micromanaging is one of the worst activities for any organization. It drains time that the manager could spend focusing on important decisions and it leaves employees unable to form their own ideas, spending as much time updating on progress as producing results.

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Each employee has a purpose and a goal. If they’re a good hire, there’s something that they specialize in that needs doing. Instead of trying to control them, let them make their own decisions. The goal of leadership is to encourage the next generation of innovators and leaders and cultivate them, not drag them to the finish line.

Especially after they get some achievements under their belt, they likely know much more about a product than their managers. They’ve been working on a product or area for months, and they’re familiar with how it runs and what areas to push on. Instead of telling them what to do, encourage them to make their own decisions and suggest areas of improvement.

Even better, relax the strict hierarchies. Google showed how doing so can help the community. The most valuable thing you can do for an employee is to let them prove their worth and grow. If they want to take on stretch opportunities and more responsibilities, allowing ambitious individuals to challenge themselves is the only way you can know ahead of time if they’re ready for the next level.

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Without this, you’ll never know if they have a valuable skill set that’s being underutilized until it’s too late. Internal promotions instead of external hiring mean the next generation of leaders and managers are people familiar with the company’s culture, not ones who bring in foreign principles.

Culture comes from the people, not the organization.

Hiring strong, capable, intelligent people means you can trust them to do their best and be a positive influence not just on their technical area, but across the organization to encourage others. They were hired for a reason, and letting them grow their skills and influence means they’ll become valued members of the community and hopefully a keeper of the culture flame.

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Noah Mitsuhashi is Chief Artificial Intelligence // Investor Relations @ Portfolio Insider, democratizing financial data.