For an entrepreneur, starting a company means more than just launching a product or securing funding or becoming one of the "unicorns" we keep hearing about.
It means creating, on the fly or after much consideration, an entire vision. One of the most important parts of that vision is what your company will feel like--the culture of the place. Culture is rarely part of your investor deck. It's so intangible in the beginning. As an entrepreneur, your job is to make it real.
"When I was in business school, I remember a classmate of mine saying, 'hopefully all of us are going to create businesses that give employment and growth opportunities for thousands of people,'' said Clate Mask, now CEO of 675-person Infusionsoft, "I got absolutely lit up by the idea that we'd hire people and create an environment conducive to growth."
Clate took that excitement and passion with him when he co-founded InfusionSoft back in 2001. During those first few years, he told me, it was thrilling to be able to hire other people to contribute to their culture of fast growth.
And then, suddenly, "it gets real." Every founder knows the feeling Clate is talking about: "when you hired a person you didn't know before they started working at your company, and then they're hiring people they didn't know. You start to feel the wobble." This loss of control, the "wobble," can be scary, but as an entrepreneur you can't let it shake you--and especially not the company you're trying to create.
So how was Clate able to scale this culture of growth?
Start with clear, concise, and actionable values.
Making sure everyone in the company sticks to your values means your values have to exist on paper so that they can be understood, referenced, taught.
Clate and his team took a page from Jim Collins, renowned business consultant and author of many books about company development, and recruited a group of employees across the company to contribute.
"We were clear that we were articulating existing values we love. Then we took it broader and broader, and finally introduced a draft to the company," says Clate.
Make sure they're the values of the company, not just the founders.
Another lesson from Jim Collins: make sure those values are a shared vision, property of the company--not just the founder's vision.
"At a certain point in our growth, we basically had to go back and rework some of our values," says Clate. So they opened the values up again for feedback--some people found certain things difficult to understand, some places were too wordy while others weren't descriptive enough.
"I felt really conflicted--I'm a big believer in Jim Collins, and he says you set the values in stone." But a conversation with another executive at Infusionsoft helped Clate realize how important the change was:
"He said to me, 'do they want to change the values? Or do they want to make them theirs?"
As a founder, it's important to make space for that kind of input--especially from a values perspective. If your executive team doesn't feel bought-in, they won't be able to live by the values you espouse.
To carry them through: hire, train, and fire to those values.
"When people say culture doesn't scale, they're actually saying 'we don't have sufficient discipline to hire, train, and fire to our values,'' Clate says. "All you have to do is begin hiring people who don't share the values, especially leaders, and your values gradually dissipate."
This can be particularly challenging as a fast-growing company--lines can get blurry, you can lose sight of those priorities that don't visibly contribute to your metrics. Staying true to those values and maintaining your company culture requires a constant, intentional focus.
Get a system in place that holds everyone accountable.
Part of Infusionsoft's internal review process has a values assessment. This makes it a priority to have frequent conversations between the leadership team and the rest of the company about the company values. If someone is struggling with those values, or a manager is getting feedback from others that they're struggling, it opens up space for a productive conversation.
"Our second value is we listen, we care, we serve. There's no better way to practice listen, care, and serve when you're working with someone who is not listening caring or serving. You can't rush to judgement, you need to listen, raise the issue and talk with them."
Remember: growth happens at all levels.
"When you get a company up and running, you realize very quickly that with human beings, you're dealing with a whole human being," says Clate. While work-life "integration" is a relatively recent concept, the personal and professional have always been intricately intertwined.