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How do you best capture the culture of a small company that is about to go big?

After successfully transitioning my organization to another, I have now been given a role as VP of Leadership Development at a quickly growing startup. We are 24 people now, quickly marching towards 120 by 2018. At the very early stages of launching my previous org, I once got wise advice from Tony Hsieh to document core values ASAP to capture our culture. This proved to be transformational for our growth and I was lucky that I learned that so early in my career. Yet now, the current company I joined is a bit older and steadfast in some ways. There are also multiple offices across the US & Canada. People are remote. Outside of staging empathy interviews to capture what people think about our culture, what other methods work to capture, document, and reflect culture to a growing movement?

21 Replies

Jose Manuel (
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Journalist Super-connector PR/Marketing Leader Quadrant Two PR LLC & EVECAIN Network Founder Business Adviser
Congratulations, I think that an employee retreat/training goes a long way for staff. I think this and a board of directors retreat should be held annually. JM de Jesus, MBA
Peter Jackson
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Peter Jackson Advisor
CEO
B- Some quick thoughts: In my history, the culture swing from 25 to 100 was dramatic on the culture. New leadership often takes the ownership away from the original owners, the space changes and the growth pressures are to stay pace with. As the leader three times in my career of this occurring, I found myself forgetting names and roles. Knowing everyone at 65 staff members was doable, but after that I really had to work at. Knowing anything about them was impossible (pre facebook, linkedin) To answer your question, I think it is key of executives to know everyone. Attempt to make it part of the staff meeting. Where he or she is from, where they went to school and where they worked. Questions like: What is our goal for them this year and how do we help them make that ?Forcing a slide show of new staff followed by a quiz can make it easy later for your CEO to walk down the hall and say "Hi Doug from Duke". How are we doing here in making you successful?". vs a big smile and "I'm not sure who that was...." All the execs knowing more about your people top to bottom will add to making the All Company Meeting. Staff can really make an impact when I contact and addressing people by their name is done in front of everyone. You are now big and the little culture is gone: I once broke a company of 280 employees in to 5 teams. There was a mix from every division on each team (sales, marketing, accounting, HR etc). I created a set of competitive matrix and kept score for everyone to see. These included sales, customer service time turn arounds, hiring days out standing, turnover etc. The contest lasted 6 months and the winning team went to Hawaii with significant other. We tripled our sales that year and everyone benefitted. Good luck Peter
Brittney Kraft
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Brittney Kraft Entrepreneur
Business Performance Advisor at Insperity
Hi Bartlomiej, I see this happen often as I work with several growing successful companies. Have you tried climate surveys yet? We have found that asking good questions is always the best way to get feedback from your people and doing this by way of climate surveys can help with brutal honesty. I hope this helps and if you have any questions please feel free to reach out. Have a great night! Sincerely, Brittney Kraft Business Performance Advisor Visit my page at: http://www.insperity.com/brittney.kraft 4900 N. Scottsdale Rd #1200 Scottsdale, AZ 85251 Office: [removed to protect privacy] Cell: [removed to protect privacy] Fax: [removed to protect privacy] Committee Member| Junior Achievement of Arizona| https://fundraising.intelis.com/jaaz/?A=290663 Board Member| American Diabetes Association | www.diabetes.org/in-my-community/local-offices/phoenix-arizona/
Stefan Pagacik
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Stefan Pagacik Entrepreneur
Innovation Catalyst | Impact Platform Development, Finance and Human Capital Advancement
Dear Bartlomiej, Your post has come at a very fortuitous time. My colleagues and I have developed content and a methodology that addresses your concerns. And they are very real concerns that can undermine the success of an enterprise. If you are willing, I'd like to hear more of your story and share with you how Collective Alchemy (our work in Human Centered Talent Development) can possibly offer answers and a roadmap to address your issue. Please let me know when we can speak via phone or Skype. Next week would be better for me. Thank you. Stefan iAdvisor|"Imagination@Work" Cell: [removed to protect privacy] | Office: [removed to protect privacy] Twitter: @StefanIACorp www.iadvisorcorp.com Please consider the environmental impact before printing this e-mail.
Phil Hallenbeck
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Phil Hallenbeck Entrepreneur
Lead Information Systems Engineer at MITRE Corporation

Bartolomiej, my experience in this area (mostly with nonprofit and volunteer organizations) reinforces Brittney's and Peter's thoughts!A fewperhaps-minor additional thoughts follow:

-the multiple sites are both a blessing and a challenge:It's challenging to exercise leadership across many miles and time zones, and each site is likely to develop its own variant of the company culture (and sometimes even a literal counterculture). (I suspect but am not sure that this phenomenon may be weakened by extensive cross-site collaboration, but would be very surprised to see it go away entirely.) I seethe multiple siteshowever as primarily ablessing in a small growing company, in that you can focus both climate assessments and leadership efforts on small, often-distinct teams, rather than being overwhelmed by a series of very large subordinate organizations. Hence, you have an excellent near-term opportunity to shape the growth of the company along with its culture.

-I think the advent of better synchronous collaboration technologies such as desktop VTC and peer-to-peer video chat gives you a great opportunity to "manage by walking around" at much lower cost than face-to-face, giving you many inexpensive opportunities to both sample the climate and offer impactful leadership. I suspect though you'll still have to do as much F2F as the budget allows, especially given your particular leadership portfolio.

-I'll cede the floor on climate-survey and other methodology tools and work to Brittney, Stefan, and others: Although I've crafted and successfully used these in the past on a limited basis,I count myself very far from expert in that area.

Good luck!

Cheers,
Phil

Marlina Kinnersley
4
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Marlina Kinnersley Entrepreneur
Co-Founder of Fortay (Data-Driven Hiring for Culture Fit)
Culture is organic and evolves over time with growth. As you mentioned it's important to capture the cultural footprint (values, beliefs and actions) as it stands now amongst the team. My suggestion is multi-pronged.

1. Assess the culture of the entire company - find out what's important to the team and their interpretation of the company's current culture. Talk to early employees #1-10 and see if and how the culture has changed.

2. Ask the leadership what they think the culture is. Now compare the two. Do they line up? Share the results with the leadership team. If the entire leadership team doesn't live or manifest the culture they aren't nurturing it - and culture needs to be nurtured. Employees are following the lead of their leaders so it's important whatever the core values, belief system and ideal behaviours they need to "walk the talk!"

3. If the current cultural profile aligns - AWESOME! Now monitor and track it over time because culture changes with growth. If not, then the leadership team will want to create an action plan to get things back on track. To be an exceptional organization connect strategy with culture, goals with engagement and values with actions.

Regarding monitoring and tracking tools you can create your own but when you use a 3rd-party tool like Fortay.co you are more likely to get honest and unbiased responses across the team. You want an honest picture, not a painted one.

Feel free to message me, I'm passionate about culture as it truly has the greatest impact on a company's success. I can share some links with you as well.

Good luck!! :D
Jerry Joyce
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Jerry Joyce Advisor
Improving Operational Performance
I started my professional career from college at HP when the old "HP Way" was very much alive after 42 years since its founding. I can say without question, that this renowned culture (at that time) was maintained because the management (at all levels) lived it every day. For decades, only individual contributors that embraced the characteristics of the "HP Way" were promoted to the first level of management and the same for each successive level. I'm not sure I ever saw it written anywhere, but it was blatantly obvious and observable in over 90% of all managers' day to day behavior and leadership. My point, 90% of a company's culture is driven by the character, communication and behaviors exhibited by the entire management team. All the values, platitudes and other fluff displayed on the walls, website and handbooks stating the "culture" are irrelevant if the management team does not exhibit them all day, every day. Management behavior IS the culture.
Liza Taylor
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Liza Taylor Entrepreneur
Communication Specialist at Keyideas Infotech
The working environment can best describe the company's culture. This impression can be felt by the moment you enter the office on your first day. Let me share my experience with you when I joined a startup for the first time. The HR came to me, introduced me to the company directors and took me to all the three floors of the office and introduced me to all the team members. The best thing is that the employees are so interactive. Everyone was welcoming and it is simply amazing.

There are too many things to be written, but after all everyone would look for one thing that produces a spark in an organization.
Lonnie Sciambi
0
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Lonnie Sciambi Advisor
"The Entrepreneur's Yoda"- inspiring, guiding entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams - CEO Mentor/Advisor, Author/Speaker

Having "parachuted into" a number of ugly turnaround situations, I've seen small company culture, from a lot of perspectives, often very bad. But all had one commonality...they never really paid much attention to culture.

Culture is both simple and complex. Simple, in that it will evolve, whether you plan for it or not. At its basic level, it is the soul of an enterprise and starts with the values the founder (s) bring to it and evolves from there. Complex, in that it touches and is touched by interaction with employees, customers and suppliers alike. So the evolution which starts simply with values, gets complicated by how those values are put into play with each interaction. It's really up to the founder(s) as to how or whether a culture evolves or is driven by those values and those interactions.

It sounds like the culture of your new company has been one allowed to evolve as opposed to driven. But you need to understand first, how that happened (or was allowed to) and second, how it has affected the interactions with employees, customers and suppliers. This is not a simple survey; it requires deep listening. To what employees, customers and suppliers really feel about the company and their interaction with it. And then listen to what the founder(s)/management says it "believes" about what the company stands for and how it treats employees, customers and suppliers. I would bet there are huge gaps in those beliefs and the reality that exists in each of those areas.

Closing those gaps is where the real work is, but it has to to come from the top.I also admire Tony Hseih and his is a great culture to emulate, but cultures are like people, every one is different, every one is has its own personality. Zappo's is a good culture to learn from, but yours has to be driven by your guys, not Tony. They will drive it...or not!

Tony Groat
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Tony Groat Entrepreneur
Executive VP at AWPT,Inc.
You already have received many good responses. For me the key is senior management WANTING this and working hard to develop and maintain it (it is a continuous process). The more employees you get involved, the better. My experience is that it requires time away from work to best achieve this, particularly when creating the foundation (mission and values). Your business decision need to be evaluated against them. You need to LIVE your mission and values 100% of the time or you will lose credibility and support. Do it right and you have the most incredible working environment and dedicated team that will drive your success. There is no easy solution - this is like everything that is worth achieving = hard work.
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