One of the great joys of start-ups is being able to set the rules. No legacy systems, outmoded hierarchies, or structures that are past their sell-by date. Creating a new company means building a culture from the ground up – one that can allow its employees to enjoy work more, contribute better, actively learn, be fleet of foot and able to adapt to a market in ways that outperform the more established players.
But what works for a small team starting out, doesn’t necessarily translate as that business grows. The independent, entrepreneurial spirit that may have driven company culture at the outset will inevitably have to adjust at some scale as a company moves from employees in the double figures to the hundreds or thousands.
In fact, recent headlines around toxic cultures in some big-name brands should act as a stark reminder that growth-minded businesses need to be alert to how their culture must adjust and modify. And if ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, this attention to culture is paramount for achieving long-term growth.
So, identifying the elements of your culture that will hold true no matter what your size are crucial. Start by staying true to your ‘why’. Performance isn’t a dirty word; in fact for us, it’s been essential to how our business has lived up to our promise and it’s ensured we’ve continued to grow, even through the pandemic.
Always ask ‘what next?’ – by being proactive at every point you best protect your clients, employees and the business. The role of the senior team is to build an ethos of looking forward to best predict threats and opportunities – the past 18 months may have demonstrated how hard this can be, but a ‘what next’ mindset means you don’t lose sight of the direction of travel.
Culture is all about consistency – especially in terms of the messaging coming from the business leaders. This may sound simple, but it’s too easily overlooked. A company’s values sit at the heart of this, and leaders need to effectively communicate and live them – so that everyone is brought on the journey. Understanding and responding to a company’s culture requires building trust and transparency – from both the business and your clients’ points of view.
Transitioning from a growth-hungry start-up to an established brand doesn’t happen overnight – investment in maturing systems and processes is key to ensuring they can sustain a scaled-up organisation, while not losing sight of the unique elements that made the business special in the first place.
This flexibility can be achieved with non-descriptive roles and giving employees permission to live beyond their role or responsibility or creating new positions that are in line with the latest business aspirations. Think of the business structures – are they set up to allow people to succeed, with room for growth and effective career development? Are you giving people the space to make your business better?
A company’s culture is defined as much by how it reacts and responds when things don’t go to plan as when they do. Sometimes we must embrace short-term fails and mistakes for the benefit of long-term learning and gain. Giving your employees the permission to make and learn from these shortfalls will no doubt have a positive impact in the long term.
Our culture is centred on an ‘all for one, one for all’ approach – our best player is only as good as the team supporting them, so we look to employ people who add to the gene pool and bring out the best in others. People’s personalities go a long way to making a culture so it’s vital to nurture professionalism and respect for the role, as well as each other – inner company relationships and friendships are crucial to work being a pleasurable and productive environment.
At The Kite Factory, we don’t take kindly to egos, and no one is too big for any job – this can include clearing meeting rooms, changing lightbulbs, or making a cup of tea. For us, acceptance comes from proving yourself, rather than your stature. By breeding a culture where everyone earns their keep, we hold each other accountable, and this means not tolerating people who fail to live up to our values.
Competition is fierce for most businesses and my final thoughts on cultivating the right culture as you grow are around value – rather than values. Adopting the principles of charity for commercial clients invariably delivers the best outcomes. Spending money as if it’s your own will drastically cut waste and focus attention. Avoid short-termism and rushing things because that’s what the shareholders want, for it might not be the right thing for the business.
Plenty of businesses don’t make it successfully from start-up to grown-up – some fail, others might survive but with a trail of unhappy partners, clients and employees in their wake. Culture is so much more than a buzzword; it is the essence of how you run your business and that needs to be constantly considered as you expand and grow.
By James Smith, Managing Director as featured in Startup Observer