Scaling Your Business Without Losing Your Culture

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By Walker Donohue

Aside from “innovation,” few buzzwords carry as little real meaning in Silicon Valley and the broader tech sector than “culture.”

While countless startups and established companies alike have seized upon the idea of corporate culture as a vehicle of employee attraction and a way to differentiate themselves in crowded markets, culture remains one of the most crucial aspects of your organization.

So how do you cultivate and maintain a strong, ethical corporate culture when you’re trying to scale?

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at what companies actually mean when they talk about culture, as well as ways to foster your corporate culture as a direct reflection of your company’s brand values.

First, let’s talk about what culture really means.

Healthy, Productive Cultures Don’t Just Happen

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about culture—at least as it pertains to companies and brands—is that, even if you do nothing, a culture will emerge across your organization. Once we understand this, it becomes easier to see that culture is a result of actions, decisions, and direct actions.

Put another way, strong corporate cultures don’t just “happen.” We have to make them happen.

This is surprisingly difficult even in the early stages of small companies. Think about it for a second. If workplace culture is an extension of a company’s brand values, who decides what those values are? Once that’s been figured out, how do you actually disseminate these ideas and values across your organization?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the CEO or founders are responsible for identifying and shaping a company’s values as well as ensuring that every employee understands these principles. The problem with this approach is that it’s up to a single individual to arbitrarily decide what the entire company’s values are and adopt a top-down approach to implementing those values. This is fine if your company aspires to be the personal fiefdom of a control-freak CEO, but for companies that want to cultivate and nurture genuinely meaningful corporate cultures, it’s completely, wildly unrealistic.

What We Really Mean When We Talk About ‘Culture’

One way to think about culture is to see it as “our way of life.” As you can probably imagine, this covers virtually every single aspect of a company and its operations, from large, intangible brand values to how your customer support teams answer the phone or respond to email.

Culture encompasses big and small things, such as:

  • The products we build and how we ship them
  • The way we communicate internally and externally
  • The messages we choose not to send—and why
  • The incentives we use to motivate our staff
  • The behaviors we exhibit every day
  • The boundaries that, if crossed, have meaningful consequences
  • The speed at which serious problems are escalated to someone who can solve them
  • The speed at which those problems are acted upon
  • The way we dress and the symbols we display
  • The ways in which we celebrate victories
  • The things that make us proud, and the things that bring us shame
  • The things that upset us, and the things that bring us joy
  • The things we do to grow as individuals and as teams
  • The way we perceive ourselves and our role in a company

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the things that fall under the umbrella of corporate culture. It is, however, a way to start thinking beyond Casual Fridays and ping-pong tables as being representative of the cultures we create.

Our companies—and our people—deserve better.

Action + Communication = Values

One of the major challenges to establishing and maintaining a strong, cohesive corporate culture is the fact that many companies rely on at least partially distributed teams. It’s hard enough to foster and cultivate an inclusive culture at a growing company without tossing remote workers and asynchronous communication into the mix.

That’s what makes understanding that corporate values are the direct result of what we do every day and how we communicate with each other so important.

However, even this is easier said than done. For small teams, it may well be possible to intentionally create a positive culture via Slack. For larger teams or fast-growing companies, it’s completely impossible.

As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” For our purposes, this means that all those negative interactions we try to avoid—angry posts on social, customer support tickets, bad reviews—are actually the most valuable opportunities to identify and cultivate the brand values we want to foster across our companies. A negative tweet, for example, may be a great opportunity to identify a potential feature gap in a product or fix an overlooked bug. A customer support ticket might be a great way to update your internal documentation or develop a new troubleshooting tool.

Put another way, failure is a much better teacher than success.

Values Are Meaningless Until We Act Upon Them

As we mentioned earlier, “culture” has become one of the most overused buzzwords in tech. Many companies talk a good game about their culture and values, but talk is cheap.

Values mean nothing until we act on them. We’re inherently social creatures. We follow the examples set by others, particularly those we admire. It’s easy for a CEO to talk about open-door policies, but their actions are what matter; it doesn’t matter how easy it is for employees to air their grievances with the Executive team if nothing ever comes of it.

There are unique challenges to retaining a strong corporate culture as a company grows. However, managing organizational change always comes back to the same two things: how we communicate and how we choose to act upon that communication. This applies to the scrappiest underdog startups and to established tech behemoths.

Avoiding Culture Shock

Corporate culture is a lot like a garden. Left alone, it may be fine for a while, but before long, you’ll be confronted with a tangled, overgrown wilderness that bears no resemblance to the garden you originally planted. If, however, you tend that garden carefully and consistently, it will bloom and thrive.

Take a look at the culture of your company and think of it as that garden. How are you nurturing it? When was the last time you got on your hands and knees and weeded it? How often do you water it? Sure, Mother Nature will do most of the work, but we have to get our hands dirty, too.

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