Conventional wisdom has it that one of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a growth-stage entrepreneur is preserving your company’s unique culture. After all, it’s your secret sauce, and now that your company is scaling rapidly you had better figure out how to multiply the recipe.
Maybe that’s true. If you like making baloney sandwiches.
The importance of preserving culture may be one of the biggest old wives’ tales in the business world. In fact, culture issues often become an obstacle to creating the kind of diversity needed to build a great organization.
By nature, we want to protect and scale the things about our company we deem precious. But the reality of it makes about as much sense as pursuing the fountain of youth. As a leader your job is to understand and evolve your culture rather than cling to what is really just nostalgia.
Everybody has one
Every organization has a unique culture that takes root in its formative days. The tone is set at the top. If the CEO is at the office at 5:00 am, you can bet the seats are filled with early starters. If the founder rolls with hoodies and jeans, so will the minions. Of course it goes way deeper than dress code and work hours. A founder who is an engineer will nurture an environment of crisp logic and analysis. By contrast, one with a sales background will gravitate toward those who practice the art of the deal. Human nature will guide these people to hire like-minded colleagues and the culture will breed like so many clones.
The first four letters of culture
Entrepreneurship requires near-religious devotion to succeed. Any person willing to risk working at a raw start-up must, by definition, be inspired by the idea and the founders. When a start-up graduates to growth-stage there will be a hardy band of early employees who have survived the hard work and trauma of the early days. These people tend to become like a cult. From employee number one through 25, cult and culture are generally the same. As you grow to 100 and beyond, not so much. The newer employees will have joined under completely different circumstances and with varying motivations.
The inevitable founder cultists always have profound influence on a company as it matures. They carry pride of authorship and a sense of entitlement that comes from the shared bond of being the pioneers. They can be a great help in keeping the growing workforce enthused. But they also can also be like an immune system that produces antibodies that attack outsiders who bring new ideas or methodologies. That can mean trouble.
They just don’t fit in
Next to skill set, most companies consider fit a major hiring criterion. This sounds good, but it can lead to a kind of workforce homogeneity that stunts growth. A perfect example is work ethic. Most founders are workaholics; long hours and months without downtime are considered badges of honor. The nine-to-fiver, a person who may just have a life outside of work, has absolutely no place in your culture, right?
By adopting this approach you may miss out on some of the most talented people. Great people know how to work efficiently. That person you think has a bad work ethic may get twice as much done as the dude who routinely pulls all-nighters (with regular breaks for Call of Duty, Facebook and Snapchat).
As a company grows, it requires a whole new range of human capital. The product-centric CEO will need ace sales and marketing people. Experts in data and analytics will become an essential part of decision-making. And (gulp) you will ultimately need some attorneys in the shop. These new folks will come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. It’s unrealistic to think that every great candidate will fit into a culture born of your earliest days. Perhaps some can actually bring a new dimension to your organization, if you’re willing to nurture an environment that is open to change within.
Build a counterculture
Everyone understands the importance of ethnic and gender diversity in the workplace. Many companies develop specific programs to insure a diverse workforce. Why not the same with culture? If you begin with the presumption that you will benefit from a melting pot approach rather than cultural homogeneity, you won’t strictly filter for fit. Ask candidates about the cultural attributes they have experienced that have really worked, and hire people who mix it up. If beer bashes have become a part of your company’s routine, try some red wine once in a while. You will be rewarded with a richer, more tolerant, culture, and you just may discover your secret sauce consists of an ever-evolving recipe.