How to Scale Your Culture (if it’s good)

When they were only ten people, they didn’t give much thought to how they shared beliefs. They didn’t need to. It was obvious; their product was going to revolutionize the industry.

They were on fire. They were going to change the way people did business. They talked about it everyday. Their dreams fueled the late night pizza sessions and early morning coffees. They grew, slowly at first, then rapidly. Their hard work was paying off. They were the darlings of the industry.

That’s when it started to go wrong. Well, not really wrong, just not as right as it had once been. It wasn’t obvious at first; it’s was more like a slow nibbling. The new hires they were adding were good, but they weren’t as excited. The projects were still successful, but the team didn’t high five each other when they finished.

One day, the CEO overheard the operations team talking about an upcoming client event. She realized they were just going through the motions. The team was openly complaining about the client, and their comments about their coworkers we even worse. Their tone ranged from resignation to downright toxic.

How did the once passionate team of 10, turn into a few hundred who were simply going through the motions?

It’s a classic story; a group of true believers start a company. In the early days, the culture is implicit. The challenge is, implicit doesn’t scale.

A shared belief system depends on daily communication. The early days of dreaming, the late night work as you write your first big proposal, cheering each other on during setbacks, these are moments that create a culture.

When the numbers of people grow, the moments change. The work takes over, there’s no time to dream. The task lists become longer. Before you know it, each day is a rinse and repeat of the last. Instead of shared beliefs, people are more likely to align against individual goals. Silos emerge and disengagement is not far behind.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As we learn more about the neuroscience of emotional engagement, and the social science of belief building, we’re continuously brought into organizations to help scale positive cultures. Here are two areas we focus on with our clients:

  1. Create a language and write it down

As you grow, the “soft stuff” becomes the hard stuff.  Every great movement has a lexicon.

The ethos that was the driving force of your soul in the early days can’t be dependent on having individual heart-to-hearts with every new employee, investor, or media outreach.

Our client G Adventures created a culture book to share their founder story and the profound impact they have on their clients. Another client, Supportworks, has a manifesto about their purpose and culture for all new (and existing) employees.

  1. Put someone (not the founder) in charge of it

If culture is an important initiative, someone important should be leading it. When no one is responsible for sharing the story and the purpose of an organization, it doesn’t get shared. Our client, Servus, a Canadian credit union appointed one of their top executives as “Purpose and Innovation Officer.”

If you feel like you can’t describe the culture to someone else, and that no one could scale it except the founder, you’re in trouble. Refer back to step #1.

Great cultures do not scale by default. They scale by design. Name it, claim it, and share it.