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How to maintain a great culture during rapid growth?

A former colleague once admitted to me: “We have a great culture, but I feel like I’m in charge of the weather… we’re growing so quickly, I just hope we get more sun than rain!” That comment really got me wondering; is our ability to shape culture really so elusive, just like trying to change the  weather?

Interestingly, a few weeks ago I had the chance to facilitate an experiential session with my Zone colleagues that offered me great insights into this. Our client was a life science company which was suddenly enjoying double-digit growth, and over two thirds of its staff had been hired within the year. While quite happy with the new performance trajectory, the CEO, given all these new faces, was also mindful to retain their “family values”. We worked with him and his team to develop a program that would sustainably embed their values within the organization to ensure long-term success. During the experiential kick-off, we guided participants to explore their own personal values in relation to the company’s, and experiment with their own micro-culture. Quickly into the workshop, it became clear that different people had different understandings of the same values because words can be interpreted in various ways. So how do you make sure people interpret your company values the way they were intended to be understood?

Don’t create an onboarding training; create an on-boarding experience

In a stable company, new people “get” the culture by watching how tenured people act. For better or worse, reference points are fixed. In a fast growing company though, new hires sometimes model people hired just a few months prior. Their reference points are much more fluid: the words alone are not enough to describe the values and the original culture becomes diluted. A critical factor of success here is to help employees get beyond knowing the values, and actually experiencing them. A simple way to accomplish this, which we encourage our prospective clients to use internally, is to ask people at the beginning of a meeting for concrete examples of what it would look like for someone to be living those values during that very session. They’ll probably suggest different perspectives, and that’s a good thing. This is your chance to get them to experience some behaviors that are in-line with the values and some that aren’t, along with the consequences. They may forget the words, but they won’t forget the feeling!

Experiencing the values will awaken in staff their own power to impact the culture, positive or negative. So how do you make sure they are aligned?

With rapid growth the key is to evolve in alignment with your values yet embrace diversity, for that is the human strength.

Provide staff with stable reference points

As we all know, at the foundation of a company culture lies its values. That’s why most companies develop a nice set that they usually showcase in their annual report or on hallway banners. These reference points determine the explicit culture, the culture we want. But the implicit culture, the culture we get, can be quite different if the “video” doesn’t match the “audio”. In this workshop, it was quite striking to watch employees refer to elements of their culture such as silo mindsets or lack of accountability as truths that might have as well been taken directly from the on-boarding booklet! It is very real for them because that’s what they experience. Declaring values of caring and respect for each other is great, but if the reality people experience is blaming and finger-pointing, that’s what they will come to expect and perpetuate. These become their actual reference points.

That’s why it’s critical for all company leaders who want to offer stable reference points, to also go beyond the words and continuously provide real-world examples of how the values come to life. Some strategies may include clarifying what the values mean for them during town halls and newsletters, role-modeling those values as frequently and publicly as possible, recognizing specific behaviors of staff living the values and acting swiftly against bad behavior (what you passively tolerate speaks at least as much as what you actively encourage). An obvious way for leaders to model the values is to deliberately use them in decision-making: make and communicate important decisions in relation to their alignment with core values and trade-offs. This way you are reinforcing that the company values are truly a reflection of what is considered most important, not just wallpaper for the hallways.

But sometimes, even with the right reference points, doing the right thing is not easy. How do you empower your teams to make the tough calls?

En-courage values

Have you ever observed someone talking about something they deeply cared about, while placing their hand in front of their heart? That’s because caring comes from the heart, not from the head. Problem-solving, profit maximizing, risk mitigation, analytics – those come from the head. Therefore, because values are an expression of what we most care about, they come from the heart. And they are tested most in times of challenge, when the head and the heart pull in different directions. So it’s one thing to get a happy, well-caffeinated group of people in a room to sing kumbaya and develop their ideal culture and values… It’s another thing to ask them to stay true to those values when the going gets tough.

During risky or challenging situations, the head gets so engaged that it can shutdown the heart altogether. In those moments, the special quality that allows people to stay true to their heart and values, despite risk and vulnerability, is courage. In fact, at its root the word “courage” comes from the latin “cor” (and in my native French, “coeur”), meaning “heart”. Without courage, values get drowned out by rationale, and logic is used to justify misaligned behavior. If a co-worker is having a bad day, it’s easy to justify “caring” as giving them more space. However it takes courage to truly care by reaching out and offering support, even when risking rejection. So it’s crucial to recognize courage, to en-courage, even if that means being vulnerable. Particularly in fast-growing companies where things are more ambiguous, leaders must create a safe environment where people are encouraged to speak up, give feedback and challenge regardless of tenure. So publicly acknowledge, expect and reward your teams when they demonstrate courage, because that’s the fuel of a values-based culture, the fuel of innovation, and the fuel of success.

Culture is human

Reflecting on this event and the insightful discussions we had, one thing that really hit me is that no matter how fast a company is growing, culture is created every day by the behaviors people choose. Although it may appear fixed, culture is a continuous subtext poll where behaviors continually get “upvoted” or “downvoted” by everyone. The leaders’ votes just weigh more! So at some point, with enough “votes”, a culture may feel so tangible and deeply rooted that it does indeed seem impossible to change deliberately. Yep – just like the weather! However, culture is human – it is constantly changing, either re-stated or re-defined based on the decisions humans make. With rapid growth as with any other type of change, the key is to evolve in alignment with your values yet embrace diversity, for that is the human strength. So with a strong commitment from formal and emergent leaders and the right tools to create insightful shared experiences, we can get there! We can integrate the head and the heart, and make organizations more human. We call it “getting in the zone”.

That’s where I decided to dedicate my energy going forward. So, is your team in the zone?

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Sebastien Meyer

+1 202 821-5849

Emilie Rice

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