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HIRE POWER 2012

Preserve Your Company's Culture As You Grow: 5 Steps

What's the hardest part of managing a growing workforce? Maintaining company culture. But you can do it, just like Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods--and Beryl Health.

One of the questions I get most is: "How do I scale culture as I grow my company?"  

No wonder when Inc. surveyed the CEOs of the private companies hiring the most in America, and asked, "What's hardest about managing a growing workforce," the No. 1 answer--by far--was "Maintaining company culture."  (It was the response from 72% of respondents.)

Preserving your culture as you grow your company is a big challenge.  You work very hard to develop business processes and systems to help you effectively grow your company.  Those processes can be to develop products, manage customers, develop IT functions, or simply handle workflow.  You can design, document, and teach those processes--create a recipe or a standard operating procedure for others to follow.

But how do you do that with a "culture?"  If it is just a feeling, an attitude, or a vibe you get when you walk in the building, how do you bottle that as you grow?  If your culture started with developing intimate relationships with your first five or 10 employees, what happens when you get to 20, 100, or 500?  If culture has become part of your secret sauce, will it just evaporate as you double in size, take on outside capital, or even sell your business?

I faced this challenge at my own business, Beryl Health, as I grew it from three to 400 employees.  Beryl has always been known for a fun, family-oriented culture, but every time I added a new process, built more structures, or required more accountability--steps all growing businesses have to take--I'd hear from a naysayer, who would comment: "The place is not the same anymore." 

Well, they were partially right.  The were right because all businesses evolve; that's an essential ingredient for expansion success.  But they were wrong in that we have successfully not only maintained a quirky culture, but improved it over the years.  I can tell you, from employee surveys, my team loves to work at Beryl.  How did I do that?  I dedicated myself to looking at culture just like any other business process, by "institutionalizing" it so that the culture can continue to live on and thrive in a consistent way. 

Here are five ways I've preserved the culture as Beryl grew:

I only hire leaders who believe.  

I try hard to find senior leaders who not only fit the culture, but will build upon it with their own passions and personalities.  If you don't have buy-in from the top--starting with the CEO, and then trickling down to the middle managers--your culture will never survive.  OK, sometimes I've made hiring mistakes, but I've learned from that experience: if you hire a senior person who doesn't fit and develop the unique culture, move that person out.  Now.

I show people I really care. 

At Beryl, I acknowledge the personal events of co-workers lives.  This is one of the most refined culture processes I've set up.  It could be a birth, death, college graduation, sickness, or completion of a 10K run.  I have a system in place to make sure I know when these events happen, and assign responsibility to senior leaders to reach out and touch people in a personal way.

I reward and recognize--consistently.

People want to feel valued beyond their paycheck.  Ask them how they want to be recognized, and document those wishes.  Then personalize your approach so that you give kudos individually but publicly when appropriate, and you're consistent in your methods.  Don't discriminate.  Everyone wants to feel good for a job well done.

I created a recipe book. 

Each one of Beryl's culture practices is documented--something I wish I could say for every one of Beryl's business processes!  Whether it is how to plan a fun event, how to hire for fit, how to manage a community service program, or how to move the wrong person out of the organization, I have put a system in place to make sure that no matter who executes on the plan, it will be done with the same standards. 

I established customs.

Create traditions that people can look forward to.  Start a culture committee and give the people on it autonomy to make their own decisions.  Assure people that you will support them over time, not just when the company is doing well, but even when the company is going through hard times.  That's when a strong culture is the most important.  For example, when the recession was at its height, and companies were dropping their 401(k) match, I doubled ours.

Culture is completely scalable and you have total control over it.  When you're worried about how to preserve your culture as you grow, remember that companies like Southwest Airlines, The Container Store, and Whole Foods have managed to do it with thousands of employees. 

If you listen to your employees, live by a set of core values, and document the recipe, your culture will live on.

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Last updated: Dec 4, 2012

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at PaulSpiegelman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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