How to maintain and sustain culture as you grow
You’ve had the idea, you’ve secured some great customers and the pipeline of work is growing. Until now, you’ve been a jack of all trades, but how do you become the master of all you’ve created, instead of its slave?
A founder can’t be everywhere, and as a business grows, the spirit that pervades an enterprise can be diluted, and with it the essence that has brought the business success. At some point, preferably early on, business culture must be defined, codified and promoted.
That was a key takeaway from a week-long visit to some of the most successful companies in the world, when 20 leaders from the 2018 Businesses of Tomorrow program visited them at their offices in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
In hour-long sessions with the likes of Airbnb, LinkedIn and Salesforce, they received a masterclass in how to attain scale, and the value of investing in culture along the way.
“The biggest takeaway was just how much culture is embedded in everything these incredible companies do,” Monica Meldrum, CEO and founder of Whole Kids, says.
Meldrum was impressed that at Airbnb each person she interacted with felt aligned to the mission of the company. It reinforced to her that even as a company scales to a multinational size, culture can be maintained and sustained.
Dylan Smith, the Australian head of global public relations for Airbnb shared a number of marketing campaigns for the company that played on the theme of inclusiveness. He introduced the campaigns by speaking passionately about his own journey coming out as a gay man in a conservative era in Queensland. “He talked so personally about his story and how it relates to the organisation,” Meldrum says. “Everyone there seemed to have a story reflective of Airbnb’s values, and they all were so aligned to the company’s culture.”
Smith told the Businesses of Tomorrow that culture was one of the most important elements of the hiring process at Airbnb. The company runs 12 interviews per candidate, two of which are cultural. Those interviews are conducted by ‘core value interviewers’, staff members who are exemplars of the company’s ethos and who are specially trained to conduct cultural assessments.
The view in Silicon Valley is that technology is developing all the time, making technical skills obsolete every four to five years, so it is better to hire for cultural fit than technical skill.
At Whole Kids, that is something that Monica Meldrum can relate to. It “took a while to get things right,” she says about hiring in the early days. “We hired for skills not values, then values not skills, there was a lot of trial and error.” Meldrum realised that the cultural component had to be front and centre at a moment when it felt like the wheels were about to fall off.
“We were growing so rapidly, we had cash flow pressures, staff were under pressure. Then when we were out visiting a supplier, a storm caused the roof of our factory to collapse and we lost two-thirds of our stock, at around the same time I had my first child, so I was starting to wonder what I had got myself into.”
“Then I received a letter from a customer who had a child with food allergies, explaining how relieved they were that food could be sent into school with their child, it was a game changer for me. It helped me reaffirm the values that drove me to start the business in the first place.”
Deciding it was time to articulate those values, Monica and her husband, James Meldrum, took themselves out of the business for three days. And in separate sessions with a management consultant asked themselves soul searching questions about why they were in the business, and what future they saw in it.
“We did the sessions separately, but when we came back, we were amazed to see we were so aligned,” Meldrum says.
At Whole Kids, they created a values framework that the company applies to everything they do.
“While our purpose is about creating happy, healthy lives for kids, we have taken our core values and turned them into five behaviours that inform every decision we make at Whole Kids: Be the Mouse that Roars, Care to the Max, Be a Force for Good, What would Apollo 13 Do?, Make it Fun!”
Now new employees are brought on after psychometric and behavioural testing and, once hired, go through an induction on culture and values. KPIs are linked to both business and values metrics. Meldrum says it does mean that they “hire slow”, but she is seeing the benefit.
“We are recruiting talented people who are dropping out of corporate life after having a family, and looking for a job that has purpose,” she says. "We've got the best team we've ever had."
Meldrum is now finding that with a talented team around her, it is time to start letting them start to lead her, if needed.
“At times as a founder you are questioning where you are going. We talk openly, and I’ll find myself getting pushback. It’s about letting go and trusting, because they are so aligned on our values. They want the best thing for the business,” she says. Meldrum calls it “finding the why.”
It’s a similar philosophy that helps drive LinkedIn. Indeed, one of the founders of LinkedIn, Allen Blue, told the Businesses of Tomorrow that the one thing he wished he’d done earlier in the company’s life was to “begin the conversation around values earlier”.
Blue told the group that “culture beats strategy”, and so culture has become a core element of how LinkedIn has achieved its success. At first, the founders tapped their own network as they filled early roles and they were fanatical about hiring at a high standard.
“Be extremely diligent on who you hire. Only hire A+ people. Do not hire an A or an A-. If you hire an A person, they will hire an A- person, who would hire a B+ person, etc. It is better to risk losing hiring top talent than to hire with doubt,” Blue says.
It was the second session Blue had taken Businesses of Tomorrow through. The class of 2018 had also had the benefit of his insights on culture.
“I would rather hire the fifth best, or even the 100th best person in the world with the right cultural fit,” he told them. “And that is why the vision, the mission, is really important to write down and really important to take seriously.
“‘Get shit done, have fun, dream big’, is one of the many pieces of extremely clear and frequently repeated cultural messaging and collateral which has allowed us to basically double every year in terms of size.
“That hypergrowth phase was enabled by the strength of our culture and how regularly the executive team applied those cultural tenets on a day to day basis.”
There are many things to think about as you grow your business – and preserving your ‘small company culture’ during expansion can be a challenge. But maintaining a reputation for being a great place to work makes it well worth the effort.
This article is a general overview and should be used as a guide only. We recommend that you seek independent professional advice about your specific circumstances before acting.