Scaling company culture at your small business means preserving your core values and making it clear how they apply as your operations grow.
Depending on the organization you’re part of, the definition of culture can greatly vary. To some employers, organizational culture begins and ends with the ping pong table in the staff room. To others, a strong culture might mean providing free lunch and snacks. If you are a small business, it’s important to be purposeful as you create your culture for the future. Let’s discuss how small businesses can think about scaling company culture as they look toward future growth.
Ben Horowitz — cofounder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz — wrote that, “Culture is how a company makes decisions. It is the set of assumptions employees use to resolve everyday problems. Who you are is not the values you list on the wall . . . Who you are is what you do.”
First steps: core values
Christine Song is the founder of TopscaleHR , which helps startup CEOs create and scale organizational culture. She begins her process by helping them define their company’s values. She does an exercise with them to discover the values that are most important to them and will guide their future behaviors.
Song says, “Values can’t just be solitary words like ‘integrity’ or ‘humility.’ They have to go beyond that, so that they become actionable verbs that people understand and relate to.”
“Values can’t just be solitary words like ‘integrity’ or ‘humility.’ They have to go beyond that, so that they become actionable verbs that people understand and relate to.”
Once those “founders values” are clearly defined, she tells the leadership team to make sure that the values are actions they plan to live by and hold people accountable for. “Nothing kills cultures faster than a leader who says ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’”
Creating your set of core values is essential, agrees Ashira Gobrin, chief people officer at Wave HQ , which provides financial services to small businesses. She says building a team culture begins with the tactical first step of creating a well-defined purpose statement of “Why does your company exist?” and “Why do you do what you do?”
“Having an understanding and connection to this purpose will help you behave, act, and make decisions so you can get from where you are today to where you want to be.”
Make scaling company culture everyone’s job
There is a common misconception that culture is the job of the human resources department. In her consultations, Song explains early on that a company’s culture is an outcome of the decisions and the environment we create every day.
In the best organizations, employees recognize that no individual or department owns culture, but that it is collectively owned. “We don’t work on an island as individuals, and we are accountable to each other for how we behave. As a result, our culture can thrive if we lean in and participate in it, or it can dwindle if we sit passively and let it manage itself.”
Connect culture to metrics
As you start thinking about the future of your culture and scaling company culture, Gobrin says your company’s purpose and values should act as your north star when it comes to the hiring process.
“Great HR departments will capture metrics related to improving culture to ensure that what’s being measured is constantly being improved. In order to do that, you’ll need to be deliberate about what your intentions are so that the outcome matches the desired results,” Song says. “For example, if your company culture values diversity and inclusion, you’ll really need to create the metrics that will allow you to measure your results in this area.”
Employee surveys are one way to do that. Targeted questions can correlate into positive adjustments and actions that ensure that employee engagement is high and people feel that they are part of shaping and scaling culture.
Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, says success metrics are essential. Do you want to boost employee retention by a specific percentage? Attract more candidates for job openings next quarter? Improve employee happiness? Great. Document all of these goals, and then base your culture-building activities around hitting them.
Hire for a culture fit
Entrepreneur Cameron Herold, former COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, has said that when you’re trying to build the kind of culture that propels your business forward, employees must be 100% on board with your mission. That’s why recruiting and hiring practices are so important. Figure out if you’re attracting the right people to your company and evaluate the employees that are already there. Are they the right ones – a good culture fit – for the job?
Given the realities of The Great Resignation, employers are increasingly relying on a strong company culture to keep top talent and avoid costs associated with searching and training their replacements. Fast growing companies must expend a great deal of resources on hiring people. Even so, he recommends that if a new employee does not soon perform in line with cultural values, he should be removed promptly.
keep your best employees engaged with their work, provide them with the tools they need to get the job done, and establish a solid employee recognition and reward program.
Maintaining organizational culture is too difficult to tolerate new hires who are not on board with company values, Herold says. A strong company culture should have a direct influence on employee behavior. However, new employees can change company culture or at least weaken it, especially during rapid growth. Then, instead of scaling company culture, the leadership team might find they are losing control of it.
To avoid that, Herold says, the hiring process must recognize the importance of your core values and culture. Then, you have to keep your best employees engaged with their work, provide them with the tools they need to get the job done, and establish a solid employee recognition and reward program that ensures they know that their work is valued.
Scaling your culture to the digital world
When thinking about scaling company culture, it’s important to over-communicate your message and vital updates.
Consider the following with messaging:
- Different time zones your company works in
- Time of day you send your message
- Time of day that is best for staff to receive messages
- Different media you can use to repeat your message to make sure it is truly heard
It is also important to build new social activities and routines to replace the in-office experience when remote work is necessary. Use video conferencing to connect with people virtually whenever possible. Song says that “People are social beings and we crave human interaction. Actually seeing colleagues and company leaders provides comfort and a sense of normalcy over using the phone or chat functions to connect with people.”
Gobrin reminds us that culture is not something that is easy to describe. “It’s the outcome of leadership behavior. It’s not the perks of an environment or events or swag — it’s the emotional connections, responses, and way you make decisions.”
Healthy cultures are grounded by respect
Laurie Ruettimann, a former human resources professional turned writer, speaker, and entrepreneur, says that if employees respect one another and work toward a common set of goals, the company is on the right path to building a healthy organizational culture.
She says, “It’s an extraordinary feeling when employees operate on the same wavelength and rally around the mission and vision of an organization.”
She warns against overthinking company culture.
“A healthy culture is built on a foundation of solid HR practices. For example, don’t take forever to fill an open requisition. Pay people fairly. Recognize and reward exceptional employees. Have honest conversations with workers who struggle to meet their goals. Provide opportunities for people to learn and grow. It sounds easy, but foundational work is often the most significant challenge for a small business owner.”