How to think about culture when your business is scaling up

Scaling up is an incredible experience for a business and its people, but it can also be a challenging time. When you first start a business, so much is informal; everyone mucks in and the people around you can begin to feel like family.

But as businesses grow, it becomes less and less sustainable to operate in that way. You hire in more specialists, you have more people around the table, and suddenly Jeff Bezos’ two pizza rule is out the window.

With so many new faces, you can’t rely on people following your lead or looking to replicate the behaviour of those around them. As you evolve your culture, the way you operate must evolve too – but trying to do that intentionally whilst managing the challenges of running a business day-to-day is often easier said than done. So how can businesses navigate this challenge?

Here are a few things to think about as you evolve your culture through the peaks and troughs of scaling up.

What is company culture?

There’s a lot of buzz around the very idea of culture, and every business leader will provide a different answer when quizzed on what it truly means. With this in mind, I find it’s helpful to keep it simple. My favourite definition of culture is that it is in essence 'behaviour over time.'

Your culture is effectively the behaviours your employees exhibit every day. Those norms create the environment in which people operate and therefore, the culture. How do people behave when no one is looking? What are the habits and practices which are contagious across the organisation? That’s your culture.

For example, if people are consistently late to meetings then all of a sudden you have a culture where punctuality isn’t important, and that becomes the acceptable norm. This is why being intentional is so important for leaders and teams.

Building an amazing culture starts by defining how you want people to show up and feel every day, the way you want them to act when no one is looking, and those key norms of behaviour that you want to be contagious across the organisation

If you don’t spend the time thinking about it, it’s likely you’ll end up with a culture that’s inconsistent as norms change depending on who is in your team. Some of these norms may be helpful, but some will likely be detrimental to the kind of business you want to build. Intentionality is key to building a great culture.

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The impact of scaling up on culture

The lifecycle of a business, and its culture, is in many ways very similar to how a person grows up. Within both, you have distinct chapters where you discover all sorts of things as you grow, experiment, and develop a unique identity.

From how you like to interact with others, to what works and what doesn't work for you, each stage brings a change to the status quo and a need to change. And, in teams, that presents a number of challenges.

Founders and leaders will go from having a really clear idea and grasp of what everyone is doing most of the time, to having to relinquish control and having to put more trust into others – hiring more people to manage work to help the business succeed and grow.

As you scale, the need to set clear boundaries in order to allow those individuals to flourish becomes very important. Ensuring teams have what they need to succeed, but also starting to establish boundaries in how you all work together is critical to making progress, reducing frustration, and creating an environment where people are empowered and supported to do their best work. And that’s very difficult to do in an informal setting where people try to operate like a ‘family’.

There’s a reason why families have so many challenges, and that’s often because they lack clear boundaries, agreed norms of behaviour, and rely on personal connections to resolve conflict.

Reflecting and evolving

Setting periods of reflection and making time to reset and refresh is one of the best ways to begin the shedding process. It helps you to ensure your culture or business doesn’t stagnate and that you’re able to adapt intentionally.

At the beginning of a business’ journey, the culture is defined by the behaviours of the founders and filters down. But as you scale it’s not sustainable. At the end of the day we want to build best in class cultures and teams, and that takes intentionality, innovation, and constant evolution to make sure you adapt as the world does.

Certain ways of operating may have worked for you before, but with new people and new ideas driving the business you have to evolve your values and operating system to reflect that. Identifying what unhelpful practices or behaviours you need to let go of as you scale is crucial to evolving and building a great company and culture.

Adapting to new ways of working and incorporating new ideas as people join is critical to ensuring that culture is both innovative and inclusive. Setting aside the time each quarter or year to understand and identify what helpful and unhelpful practices you need to build or shed allows you to shed the unhelpful practices you may have collected along the way and build new and intentional practices which meet your needs as a business and culture. 

Getting alignment and input is still possible at scale, and with a distributed team, too. Tools like Miro are really helpful for workshopping as you can be anywhere in the world and have 200 people on a call, chipping in with ideas, adding virtual post-its, and collaborating.

Giving people the space to get involved and help to define the future makes them more bought into the process of change, and means you don’t keep practices just because you’ve always had them, but gives you space to shed those things that no longer serve the business and team.

By reflecting and evolving values, behaviours and practices, you’ll be able to remain agile and grow in a positive direction.

Evaluating by values

Going back to the definition of culture as ‘behaviour over time', businesses need to identify very practically what good looks like – especially in a hybrid world. One of the best ways an organisation can do this is to define their values.

Authentic company values define behaviour. Often company values are plastered on walls or in an employee handbook, but they aren’t truly lived or embedded in day to day life in an organisation. Values should be clearly articulated and embedded in processes, initiatives and policies to ensure they are really shaping culture. 

People like to be clear on what’s expected of them, and they follow the lead of those around them. So one really helpful way to define those norms as you scale is to use your organisation’s values as a lens through which you assess and design every process.

If you operate with the value of ‘people-first’, that should factor into deciding which clients to work with, what the team’s hours might look like, or what benefits you provide people with. Embedding values in the practices and policies you develop means that they are reinforced, people can understand how they should behave, and see them being truly lived by the organisation, too.

There’s also a need to embed these at the individual level. When reviewing performance, are individuals assessed on how they are embodying your values? Are they clear on what good looks like and how this should show up in their work?

This is a great way to embed values at scale because it is incredibly intentional and distils values down to individual behaviour and expectations. If values are a lens through which policies, practices and decisions are made at a company level, as well as assessment of individuals, then they can truly be lived across the organisation.

Being open to change

Ultimately, it’s about creating spaces for collaboration and periods of reflection with the intent to evolve as the team grows and your plans change.

Often founders build businesses because they are seeking autonomy and independence, or because they want to have control over their work and life. So naturally, there is likely to be tension during a scale-up phase, as the need to incorporate new ideas and relinquish some level of control emerges.

In order to make meaningful progress, however, it’s important to embrace change – however uncomfortable it may sometimes be. New people will come into the business and will bring their expertise and will often know a better way of doing things, and that’s good. That’s why you hire them!

Zooming out, being open to change, getting into the habit of shedding old behaviours and practices that are no longer serving you, your business, and your culture means that you can remain agile in an ever-changing world.

There’s no doubt about it, change is hard, but by embracing and normalising change and adaptation, you can build an innovative and inclusive culture that changes as you do.

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