Will your culture scale as you grow? Ask these 9 key questions

Every thriving business is likely to expand—a bigger office, new locations, even online goods and services. As you add staff, will your esprit de corps endure? Here are pivotal points to consider.

9 culture questions to ask

Expansion is a team effort—and culture is a vital component.

Whether you’re entering global markets, diversifying your operations, extending into new categories or trying to reach potential customers with innovative products and services, you’re bound to need more people on board—sometimes, entirely new offices.

You’ll find the right culture creates a significant competitive advantage: improved talent attraction and retention, outstanding customer service, and happier, more productive people.

However, when you’re facing aggressive growth targets, it’s easy to focus on the urgent at the expense of the important. In the rush to scale, many businesses underinvest in the cultural underpinnings required to deliver their business strategy, and performance suffers as a result.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re in growth mode, here are nine big questions to answer for scaling successfully:

1. The magnetism question. Are you a talent magnet for candidates and employees, with persuasive answers to the big questions: “Why do we exist? Why join, and why stay?”

Clarity about your employee value proposition, employee experience and employer brand is essential when you’re scaling your workforce. As you make your company as attractive as possible, use your distinctive brand to establish an emotional connection. That way you’ll hire people who don’t just do what you do; they believe what you believe.

Example: Musgrave is a 140-year-old family-owned food retail and wholesale business that continues to go from strength to strength. Its purpose, “Growing good business,” sits at the heart of an employer brand set up to attract people who share the company’s entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to long-term success.

2. The code question. Is your desired company culture (purpose, beliefs, values, behavior, way of working etc.) easy to pick up, share and apply? Is it an operating code for your people?

In the early days, founders are ever-present, controlling hiring and knowing everyone by name. As companies expand, it’s no longer safe to assume your culture will be understood or meaningful to all. If you’re facing this issue, take time to codify your culture, bottle it and hardwire it. As things change, don’t be afraid to update it.

Example: Netflix’s manifesto on organizational culture was first published as a slide presentation in 2009. It has been viewed over 18 million times and was once praised by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as “the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.” In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced an update, saying the new document “reflects the emphasis we put on global thinking and inclusiveness, and maintains our joy of working with stunning colleagues.”

3. The proof question. Beyond words on the wall, do your brand’s culture and ethos come to life in tangible, obvious ways (e.g., distinctive people policies, practices, internal initiatives, social rituals)?

Culture is best defined as “the way we do things around here.” Actions, as ever, speak louder than words. If you are trying to migrate your culture to a new location, translate it into a distinctive people experience and practices that are easy to replicate, emulate or talk about.

Example: So many examples; here are two: At online retailer Zappos, the culture is reinforced by offering employees $2,000 to quit, because they want only those people who absolutely love the job. Ethical cosmetics retailer Lush puts its passionate people front and center, featuring “Made by” illustrations of factory staff on product packaging. What are your equivalents?

4. The leadership question. Do colleagues have faith in company leaders and share their vision for the brand and business? Would they follow them anywhere?

Great leaders set the tone in any culture change process. As things evolve, keep the confidence alive by demonstrating that the CEO and executive team are in touch with needs on the ground, personally committed and putting the interests of the business above personal agendas.

Example: Amazon’s leadership principles are published online, the most distinctive being, “Have backbone: disagree and commit.” They say: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

5. The team question. Do you have the right people on board, i.e., a team with the right attitude, capabilities and blend of perspectives to drive growth?

Growing headcount can be a headache, but try to aim for precision over speed; the wrong hire can be costly and do a lot of damage. Consider your brand’s target audience, and reflect its makeup in your team. Strive for “culture add” not just “culture fit” to stimulate a more diverse, creative working environment and, ultimately, better results.

Example: Like many tech brands, Facebook has been heavily criticized for its lack of diversity—too white, too male. In response, it  banned the term “culture fit” when giving feedback on candidates. It has also updated the interview process to align with its values and has rolled out training to help mitigate unconscious bias.

6. The freedom question. Is yours a workplace where people feel free to be themselves and empowered to learn, grow and do their best work?

The enemy of growth is excessive control—particularly micromanagement, which distracts leaders from the big picture while stunting colleagues’ development. When things turn toxic, intense, control-driven workplaces become unattractive. As online retailer Zappos found with its holacracy experiment, balance is key. The role of management is shifting from controlling to supporting success—setting expectations, offering insight and resources, and then stepping back to allow autonomous, self-organizing people and teams to work their magic.

Example: In music streaming pioneer Spotify’s workplaces, they organize for autonomy. Self-organizing teams work toward the company mission but are free to focus on chosen projects. This high alignment/autonomy culture means leaders focus on which problem to solve and let the teams figure out how to solve it. They liken it to jazz, of course. That means it’s not without its glitches—there has to be a balance of autonomy and accountability—but when it’s good, it’s really good.

7. The engagement question. As things change, do you communicate well with colleagues and foster togetherness?

Engagement is an outcome, not a process. In engaged cultures, people understand and believe in the course the business is taking and know how to play their part. The starting point is a clear narrative, swiftly followed by a good conversation. If you’re changing tack and you want to bring people with you, make room for questions and invite a wide range of views and ideas.

Example: When Microsoft bought LinkedIn for $26.2 billion in 2016, CEOs Satya Nadella (Microsoft) and Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn) and wrote messages to their people, explaining the rationale and what it would mean for them. Weiner’s letter was an optimistic, persuasive piece, designed to move hearts and minds. By publishing it on his own site he underlined LinkedIn’s belief in being “open, honest and constructive.”

8. The incentives question. Are you motivating the right behavior?

The science of motivation tells us that paying people well and fairly is a given, and additional financial incentives or emotional pressure (“I’m counting on you”) can have unintended consequences. If you want a healthy culture, apply the trifecta of intrinsic motivators: Make work enjoyable and meaningful (purpose), give people the freedom to self-direct (autonomy), and support them to keep improving something they’re good at (mastery).

Example: Shane Snow, co-founder of content marketing company Contently, has spoken candidly about his company’s challenges. Despite a relentless focus on culture from day one, when the company hit five years old and 100 people, it became clear that the practices they had in place were the exact things research said would kill company culture and, eventually, productivity. Read the full interview here.

9. The killer question. Would you fight for your culture if you went head to head with a rival in the war for talent or in a merger/acquisition?

You know you’ve got something special if your culture is worth fighting for. If you’re scaling, get ready to promote it and even defend it.

One final warning: Sometimes, we humans hold on to things that no longer suit our purpose. If growth presents an opportunity to rethink your culture, don’t shy away from the challenge. A great culture enables success.

Stephanie Matthews leads Brandcap’s culture practice. A version of this post first appeared on TLNT.

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