Company Culture: How to Keep Your Entrepreneurial Edge as You Grow
A company’s culture is like water: It’s an ecosystem that supports the life forms that occupy it. It adapts to those forms over time, and eventually turns into a mutually supportive environment. But unlike nature, a company’s culture has consciousness and control: The people who occupy it are aware of their environment every minute of every day, and the people who lead it have the power to influence and to change it.
The problems and challenges related to culture simply never go away. Leaders can, however, tackle the shape and context of those challenges.
How do you perpetuate an entrepreneurial culture as you grow?
One of the greatest challenges for any growing firm is to retain its entrepreneurial culture. That culture is expressed by team members who innovate, who accept responsibility for work they’re not always proficient at, who make decisions decisively and efficiently, and who demonstrate a sense of ownership for their work. An entrepreneurial work environment is one in which people are not afraid to take calculated risks, and in which they can embrace the idea of learning something valuable from a failure. That same mood gives people the ability and authority to put their own stamp on the firm’s way of doing business.
Company cultures shift, so be proactive about defining and guiding it.
There comes a time in many such companies, however, when this environment faces challenges. That time may be when the company begins to hire functional specialists or professional managers, people who typically have corporate backgrounds rather than entrepreneurial experience.
It could be the time when the founders recognize they may need to bring in an outside CEO or president--someone who probably doesn’t have an emotional connection to the company. Or the time may be when the new office opens, which creates a physical disconnect that’s difficult to bridge through phone calls, emails, and videoconferencing. And, of course, there comes that time in almost every growing firm’s lifecycle when new layers of management are added, which reduces the company’s agility and slows down decision-making.
There’s no getting around these sorts of harsh realities, which all growing companies eventually face. But if retaining an entrepreneurial spirit is a priority for a company’s leaders, and those leaders are proactive about maintaining, defining, or advancing a company culture, it may be the one thing that truly separates that company from its competition and which gives them an identity.
Culture isn’t just an idea, it’s a practical way of working.
One way to do it is to name a Chief Culture Officer or to form a culture committee. In either case, that means making someone overtly responsible for maintaining the company’s entrepreneurial DNA. Another tack is to add an entrepreneurial discussion item at the weekly team meeting--and to let a different employee put it on the agenda each time. Maybe it’s taking a page from Google’s playbook and carving out time for employees to work on whatever projects they’d like; then it serves as an innovation platform for the company.
No matter what shape or form your actions take, it’s important that you do them proactively and that they get absorbed as part of the entrepreneurial culture itself. When team members build a sense of ownership over processes and outcomes, they become more conscious and take more, and more efficient, control. When things work, those team members build on them. When things don’t, those same people learn to try again. Failures should be discussed and successes are celebrated, but neither for too long.
When an entrepreneurial culture becomes a mutually supportive environment, a company is better equipped to deal with growth challenges, even if it can’t avoid them.
RAMAN CHADHA founded The Junto Institute, a progressive school that develops leadership capabilities, emotional intelligence, and management skills for founders of growth companies. He's also a Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at DePaul University, a frequent speaker and blogger, startup advisor, and graduate of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and the University of Illinois.
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