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Why embracing subcultures inside your company is critical to scaling your business

If your culture is foundational, it can withstand different working styles, says the CEO of one of the best-performing stocks of 2021.

Why embracing subcultures inside your company is critical to scaling your business
[Source image: SpicyTruffel/Getty Images]

Creating a company is never easy, but it is the ultimate form of self-expression—whether it’s the product or service you offer or the type of company. Every business is unique, and so is every company culture. But how do you go from a unique company to a great company culture that can grow with you? Well one analogy comes from one of my favorite small business customers, Antoine’s, which makes these incredible cookies. It might sound strange to go from culture to cookies, but hang on and I promise I’ll land the plane.

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Antoine’s cookies are crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside and come in a range of flavors to meet any preference (mine is dark chocolate chip). As a passionate sweet tooth-CEO, I know firsthand that their cookies don’t have such flavorful appeal by accident, it’s by design. Antoine’s cookies are consistent and recognizable but still adaptable to seasonal changes, allergies and different tastes.

I think of our culture in a similar way. We create a foundational recipe through our shared mission and values, but at the same time offer freedom for individual flavors and team expression to shine. This approach also offers a flexibility for nurturing reinforcing subcultures that rise as teams grow and scale.

Culture is a living, breathing organism that can be stronger at 1,000 employees than it was at two—but only if it has the right ingredients and foundation to grow from.

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Here’s what I have learned about creating a culture that stays fresh and relevant through growth:

Build a culture that’s foundational, not aspirational

According to Vistage, the largest CEO group across the globe, 65% of CEOs strongly agree that culture is critical to their company’s performance and success, but only 16% are satisfied with the strength of it. I can understand why so many CEOs may be unsatisfied with their company culture. It can be really hard to establish and even harder to influence or change.

I defined the culture I wanted for Bill.com before I started the company. Growing up around small and mid-sized businesses, I absorbed values from my parents and grandparents that were instrumental in my happiness and success. I first saw the importance of identifying and articulating values in high school, where the values were displayed in the stained glass windows and throughout the campus. I learned at Intuit, where I worked for nearly five years, how the right values could unify and motivate employees to serve customers better.

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And so when I started my first company, Paycycle, values were a critical part of the formation. As I led that company I realized the difference between aspirational and foundational values. Aspirational values are about how you want to show up and foundational are about who you already are. From day one at Bill.com, we very deliberately focused on foundational values that could unite our team from the moment of hiring, and we encourage authenticity by each employee in expressing those values to better serve our team members and customers.

What does it mean to have foundational cultural values?

It’s who we are, not just words posted on a wall or on a website.  “Humble, Passionate, Dedicated, Authentic and Fun” describes what we at Bill.com all value today and what we’ll still value tomorrow.

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How do I know it’s working? I see it in our choices. When the road ahead is uncertain or requires a tough call, it’s our values and mission to serve small businesses that give us ultimate clarity.

Subcultures can have different principles but not different values

Growth requires evolution—not just of products and services—but also of people and teams. That means building space for subcultures to emerge.

As a company grows and scales, it will inevitably develop subcultures. For example, your sales team may have a different working style than your product team. Different leaders might view these subcultures as a threat or somehow diluting the overall culture. I don’t view them that way at all. In fact, I embrace these subcultures and encourage guiding them so they can individually grow and help the larger team thrive by virtue of their differences.

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For culture to be sustainable and scalable, I believe it must deliver and create satisfaction for each employee—not on my terms, but on theirs. Data backs this up. Robert Walters Research finds that 73% of people have left a job due to poor cultural fit. But “fit” alone is limiting. It suggests culture is a “break and bake” approach.

I think about it differently. When I meet with new employees and talk about our culture and values, I give them ownership: “This is yours. Go show me what it means to you.” I do that because for our culture to thrive, I believe it must provide the freedom and flexibility for individuals and teams to express themselves authentically, in their own flavors.

Another way to look at this is that while our values are our shared standards and behaviors; we can also operate using different principles that guide actions. For example, we have a team with a stronger bias toward urgency than others. While urgency is not one of our values, the principle of speed is how that team expresses their passion for moving quickly and dedication to the customer. It’s their special ingredient.

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Constantly reinforce what resonates with cultural values and communicate quickly what does not

Empowering individual expression and subcultures doesn’t mean it’s a free for all. The cookie still has to taste good to our customers and team members in the end.

It’s my job to encourage projects or ideas that are important to individuals or teams and align with our values. But the buck stops with me, too. As CEO, it has to be clear what our palette won’t tolerate in the short-term and long-term. Communication around what works and what doesn’t has to be ongoing and clear. I don’t take anything for granted.

Ego is one of those bright lines. You may have the best idea today, and we’ll run with it. But tomorrow is a new day and a level playing field. So you have to keep your ego in check at Bill.com given that one of our values is about being humble.

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When the boundaries for culture and subculture are clear, it comes down to patience. If the culture is strong, it becomes self-monitoring. If something or someone doesn’t mix well with the company values (e.g., our unique recipe), the bad taste is quickly identified in the form of individual conflicts or problem escalations.  Over the last 15 years of cultivating the culture daily, commitment to these values helps the organization determine what it will and will not tolerate.

This is the key. Living and protecting our culture becomes bigger than just me. It has to. While we still monitor quality and have appropriate checks and balances, this approach is how we’ve scaled culture and made room for team subcultures and individual interpretations–all while staying true to our foundational recipe.

And just like I am delighted by a new flavor available from Antoine’s, I’m excited to see what our culture and subcultures bake next.

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 René Lacerte is the CEO & Founder of Bill.com

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