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This is a classic tech entrepreneur’s dilemma: How can you ensure that your startup continues to grow but doesn’t lose its soul and culture that you worked so hard to build?
There’s no correct answer, and there’s no holy grail. It is a learning curve and, unfortunately, you can’t always get it right.
Having said that, I do think there are certain things that the founding team can put in place to ensure that the culture remains the core and the company grows tangentially from that core. Many startups, in their rush to grow fast, ignore this. Culture comes first and the company comes second, not the other way round.
So, what is this thing called culture?
The era of tech startups ushered in quite a few new trends including a massive shift in company culture. From cubicles to open offices, flexible work hours and uber-casual dressing, these startups began redefining workspaces that looked very different from their predecessors. Culture became a buzzword as graduates started to consider “company culture” as an essential part of their decision while applying to a company.
When these companies began to grow, it became challenging to scale the culture that once defined its teams. So why did so many companies invest in resources to ensure that the early days’ culture was retained as much as possible? It’s primarily because culture is more than just a buzzword. It can be a powerful tool that helps build ace teams. Culture impacts the operational side of the business. Culture affects the productivity of groups and the processes that make or break a product.
When we talk of protecting startup culture as a company grows, it doesn’t mean sticking to the way teams worked on day one of the company. Culture is a fluid concept — it’s adaptable, redefinable and malleable. As the company grows, the culture also needs to align with its growing needs. However, it’s crucial to stay connected to the organization’s fundamental “reason for being.”
Jim Collins writes in Built To Last: “Core purpose is the organization’s fundamental reason for being. An effective purpose reflects the importance people attach to the company’s work — it taps their idealistic motivations — and gets to the deeper reasons for an organization’s existence beyond making money.”
This core purpose forms the bedrock of a growing company’s culture. Every year, it’s critical to gather your team and revisit this core purpose to remind everyone of why they started in the first place.
In this article, I will discuss my takeaways from reading some amazing corporate thinkers and academicians, as well as how I have striven to tweak some of these principles to build our team at OneClass.
1. Build each team like a mini-company with members having four fundamental traits: creativity, data-driven, experimental and accountable.
Author Eric Ries discusses the concept of “corporate entrepreneurs” in his book, The Startup Way. As the company grows, corporate entrepreneurs can build teams as mini-companies, an entity in itself that’s accountable for its growth and results. It ideates, experiments and pivots as necessary without having to go through bureaucratic red tapes. While it’s important to bring in more structure and processes as a company grows, it’s also crucial to maintain the free-spirited entrepreneurial spirit.
2. Build pro-league teams with in-house captains.
As teams grow, the goal should be to transition people from “I’m great” to “we’re great.” This can be a tough balance when you hire high-performing individuals who aim for personal growth. The analogy of pro-league teams always comes to my mind here. High-performing players who enable each other is the ultimate way of building teams that foster individual growth and yet work in unison to produce great results. Growing leaders in-house is one of the best ways to acknowledge individual performers and give them the baton to build pro teams.
3. Champion accountability.
Accountability is a critical element of building a culture where everyone on the team owns their tasks. When you don’t have ownership, ideas and experiments get postponed. Focus on how something that can be launched next month can be started next week. The culture should make it clear that no problem is someone else’s to solve.
4. Foster loyalty.
This is one aspect that often gets ignored. When employees are loyal, they don’t indulge in unnecessary criticism but thrive in a transparent atmosphere where they can voice concerns, be heard and work toward a solution. Loyalty increases tenacity and resilience, two traits that make employees weather tougher times and strive to get through them.
5. Build a learning organization and incentivize self-development.
Learning is not a consolation from failed experiments — it should be a part of data-driven tests, successful or not. When companies grow, teams start playing safe, primarily due to the fear of facing rebuttal if ideas fail. Managers should foster a culture of taking calculated risks, sometimes failing and experimenting again. Each experiment should lead to the other, instead of teams sticking to tried-and-tested methods.
Another great way to incentivize your employees is by investing in skill-based training. Rather than providing beers and ping-pong tables, help your team learn valuable skills on the job. Additionally, promote a culture where your team can pursue their personal passions. There’s no greater way of showing that you care. Employees remain more vested where they can grow professionally and yet maintain a healthy balance in their personal life.
6. Hire for culture fit.
No matter how big you become, culture fit should be a big check in your hiring process. Screening candidates for basic adherence to your core values should be non-negotiable. A highly skilled candidate who’s unable to respect the values of the team can be tough to manage and deterrent to everyone’s productivity.
Finally, be open to change and yet skeptical of rapid transitions. In a startup calendar, years are months and weeks are days. However, culture takes a lot of time and should be treated with patience to shape the company as it grows.
January 29, 2019 at 09:04AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs