I hear this all the time, “we’re growing so fast that we’re worried we are going to lose our culture”. It’s a legitimate concern but there are ways to ensure this doesn’t happen. Below are some suggestions on how to retain the culture that has made you such a success.
1) Don’t hire a large number of recruiters
I’ve always thought managers should be the key force behind recruiting. This means managers should spend a minimum of 30% of their time recruiting, or roughly two days a week. This might be reaching out to their network, conducting in person interviews, or writing job ads that are spoken in the voice of the company, and your team, and highlighting the culture. The effort of finding the right people to join your team should never be handed over to a person who does not have a direct vested interest in hiring the right person.
But it happens all the time, as companies grow managers get stretched so thin that recruitment is the first thing they hand over to someone else, usually someone who was recently hired, who doesn’t know the culture (hasn’t had the time to learn it) and who doesn’t have a direct interest in ensuring the perfect person is hired. I’m not knocking recruiters, what I’m questioning; are your resources being used to their best potential?
Who are your managers? In most cases they are your longer standing employees, people who have been with your company since the early days. They are your cultural stewards. These are the people who live and breathe your culture and through their example they teach their teams how to be successful at your company. And I don’t mean successful in a one-dimensional way, I mean not only what goals you need to reach but how you reach them.
During the growth time the pressure is huge. Senior management is pressing hard, get your requisitions filled or you may lose them (this is death to a department head). The mantra becomes hire people now! When this happens the focus on hiring the right person changes to hiring the right person right now, which means success is measured by the number of hires rather than by the longer-term success of reaching your teams’ goals. That should be a red flag right there, but it never is!
Is it any wonder that during these growth periods turnover increases? It’s because you are so pressured to fill seats that you compromise and make excuses as to who is a qualified hire. It’s a short-lived success that results in long-term pains.
I’ve seen morale nosedive to the point that managers and directors are brainstorming on how to turn things around because they are afraid of losing key people. They are so rushed to turn things around that they never take the time to look at the root cause of this morale buster and therefor never learn from their mistake and they make it again during the next major growth period. I’ve seen it take up to a year to turn things around and in most cases it’s a painful period where you lose some rock stars who are impossible to replace. Imagine if you had only taken a few more months to find the right people to begin with how much of your resources would have been focused on your success rather than on your survival.
2) Stop doing exit interviews
If you are doing exit interviews then no one in the company is effectively managing your staff. This is a harsh statement but if you have to do exit interviews to know why a person is leaving then you need to ask how is it that the hiring manager, the HR team and the leadership team doesn’t have the pulse on the company. Is communication so poor that you honestly don’t know why someone is leaving your company?
Effective managers, a keenly aware leadership team, and an approachable HR team are not easy to come by, these are things that are learned and trained over time, but it is worth the effort.
Effective managers need to be taught how to coach their teams, and let’s be clear, semi-annual performance reviews are NOT coaching your teams. If you do performance reviews, chuck ‘em! Then have your managers meet everyone on their team for one-on-one meetings that last around 30 minutes each, preferably weekly. Use this time to talk about operational stuff but also ask your team member how they are doing, what roadblocks they are encountering and help give them the tools to overcome those roadblocks. Also ask them if they have any ideas on how to solve problems that you or the team might be having. Their knowledge and experience is invaluable and you should utilize that. And please, in the name of all that is right with humanity, ask them about their career goals and where they want to be and help them get there.
Then follow up with an email outlining what was discussed and listing any To-Do’s, with timelines, and review it during your next coaching session. Try utilizing a coaching software to help you manage these sessions and your to-do’s that come from them but if you don’t have one don’t use the lack of one as an excuse to not follow through on your meetings. If you have coaching meetings but never follow through on what was discussed or implied you will quickly lose the respect and trust of your team and once it’s gone, it’s gone.
A keenly aware leadership team becomes harder and harder to remain aware as a company grows. The leadership team may be focused on the growth of the company and needing to find new office space, needing to hire new senior managers, needing to prepare to go public (which can eat up almost 100% of their time). But to lose touch of how your staff is feeling about things is to become a leadership team of reactionaries and no one respects a leadership team that reacts instead of acts. Knowing how your staff is feeling will help the leadership team to continue to make the right decisions regarding the growth of the company because they have the necessary information to help reduce those roadblocks and get their staff prepared for that next phase of the business.
So how do they do it? How does a keenly aware leadership team remain aware? Simple, by keeping the communication lines open, 100% of the time. Yes your leadership team will be stretched to the limit as you grow, as demands pull them away from the daily operations of the office, but you allow this to happen at your own detriment. Make sure their calendars allow for them to be around the office at least 40-50% of the time. This will make them visible and accessible. You remember in those early days when you said no hierarchy and that you were an open-door company? You better ensure that continues or your leadership team has suddenly become the ‘them’ in the ‘us vs. them’ scenario.
Also, remember how I said hiring managers need to meet weekly with each of their team members for at least 30 minutes? Your leadership team should do the same with their direct reports. They should also do this with non-reporting staff. These meetings with non-reporting staff are not about their work or their careers that is the responsibility of their direct manager. What these meetings are about is to listen to their thoughts and ideas about where the company is, what things are working well, what concerns they have, and ask them for suggestions on what they would do to solve the problems or issues they are seeing. And during the next meeting, let them know if you tried something or if there is any progress on items you discussed. Let them know their contributions are appreciated and that you find these meetings and their input helpful.
An approachable HR team should be a relatively easy thing to have in a company but I have seen, as companies grow, HR teams become more and more remote, more and more inaccessible and suddenly your awesome HR team is now part of the ‘them’ crowd. Ways to mitigate this are: don’t give them offices, don’t fill their calendars to the point they are never available, and don’t, whatever you do, allow them to create policies that go against the culture you are trying to foster. This includes not allowing them to do those things that HR professionals always say they need to do, including annual or semi-annual performance reviews.
I am particularly hard on the Human Resources industry because I feel HR is Broken. Today there is no innovation in Human Resources and the HR industry is squarely to blame, but don’t let that stop you from creating an awesome, accessible HR team that truly looks out for your people and your culture. The right HR team will be your cultural stewards. If current HR team acts like a cookie-cutter HR team, find better people, people who have a history of innovation. They will be key in keeping the culture that has made you successful.
3) Lead by example
What are the values of the company, the ones that speak and drive the culture of the company? Are they spoken, are they supported and rewarded? They better be if you want people to live by them.
And living by them means the leaders of the organization better lead by example even if it is painful, even if it is embarrassing, even if it means someone on the executive team gets fired.
It’s easy to live the values of the company when everything is successful, when all systems are running smoothly and things are moving along at break-neck speed. It’s another when some rough times are ahead. But don’t let those difficult moments compromise who you are, who the company is, and how important the culture is. It is especially important during difficult times as it can help guide you into doing the right things.
Every leader in your company, from the CEO, the CFO, to every direct-line manager, better live and breathe your culture or it’s just words. This means you sometimes have to embarrass yourself, admit you did something wrong. And this doesn’t mean just to your employees, this may mean you have to publicly embarrass yourself to your customers, to your investors, to your shareholders. It’s not easy but if you want your people to live and breathe your company culture, guess what, you better too.
4) Support your culture
I’ve seen as companies grow more policies and procedures are put in place as the necessity of scaling things replaces the hands-on approach of the early years. This means employees take on more of the responsibilities of onboarding so your Office Manager, Payroll person, and HR Manager can focus on more broad-based items.
But what this means is new policies and procedures are instituted. What was once, “Come see HR to fill out these forms” has changed into online services with multiple forms, signatures that you agree to this policy and that you have “read and agreed” to things. It feels corporate and the human touch is gone.
But there are ways to combat the corporate feeling when the automation of things occurs. Make sure the company culture is communicated not once but throughout a person’s early days. Don’t hammer it over the head by repeating the values of the company; instead let them know about the things that support the culture of the company.
For example, talk about the program you have to reward staff when they do something above and beyond that exemplifies the culture of the company.
When you are walking them around the office explain to them how the office design was to encourage the openness of the organization or that it supports the collaborative culture of company.
When the new hire is going through their benefits, point to how a particular benefit is important because it shares an important ideal with one of your cultural values. For example a very generous maternity and paternity policy supports your work/life balance or your family is important value.
Also, be sure you hire the right Human Resources people. You want to be sure they are not your cookie-cutter HR professional who does what 99% of other HR professionals do, which is hire a third-party benefits company that has cookie-cutter policies that don’t speak, and worse, don’t support the culture of your company.
It’s ok to hire a third-party benefits company but if they try to push their cookie-cutter Employee Handbook, tell them no, or work with them closely for weeks to make sure it’s a handbook that supports, highlights, and embraces those things that make your company the great place that it is.
5) Reward your culture
For me this is one of the fun things about being in business, rewarding people for doing great things!
This is the time you reward people not for what they do, but for how they do it. I say if you can reward 95% of your staff within a year, one, it’s a great rewards program, and two, you are hiring the right people!
Try to make the rewards program lightweight and try to make it so co-workers can reward each other because who sees more of how a person does things than those working beside them every day. It’s not about the monetary either, it’s simply about publicly thanking people for doing awesome things.
The rewards program needs to be done in the manner that speaks about who you are as a company. If you are a not-for-profit agency working in social services then the rewards program should be very hands-on, maybe by having coffee and pastries once a quarter and the Director handing out different awards to people who exemplify the culture of this agency. For example one employee may receive a framed award stating “Most Outstanding Customer Service” or “Best Team Player” and these might have been decided upon by running a quarterly staff vote or by managers during a monthly managers meeting.
If you are a technology company the program should be online where people can reward co-workers with a $25 gift and a statement as to how they exemplify a particular value.
I prefer the lightweight programs over the heavy ones where only 1 or 2 employees are recognized in a year. Values should be supported and rewarded regularly and often because you want people to be living them every day so you need to support them and reward them as often as possible.
Company culture is unique at every company but most don’t ensure it remains over time. This is detrimental to the health and growth of a company and can lead to it changing from THE place to work to A place to work, and who wants to be part of A company when you can say you work at THE company.
6) Give people a reason to trust you
Probably one of the biggest is create and retain an office of trust. It’s actually quite simple to do but probably one of the hardest. It ties with Lead by Example in that it is hard when you may lose face sometimes but it is imperative if you want your staff to have your back and if you want them to devote as much energy and effort as the founder.
Do what you say you are going to do. This is in everything the executive team does right down to following up on things you said you would follow up on in a meeting with a person. This means when you say you will go to lunch with someone because they need advice, you go to lunch with that person when you say you would, you don’t reschedule it, not even once.
And this is not limited to the executive team, all leaders in the organization need to know that every word, every promise, every appointment is important in retaining an environment where people feel supported, important and trusted.
So when you have a 1-on-1 with someone about their work, their career, you better be sure to follow through on what you said you would. Don’t promise an outcome; promise your time and efforts.
When trust is a part of an organization you will have a culture that is strong and will survive any and all surprises. Trust breeds risk-taking. Trust breeds passion. Trust breeds teamwork on a level you never imagined – where the camaraderie is palpable. And trust breeds innovation, the lifeblood of any organization. Don’t underestimate the power of following through and investing in the small things, like time, with the people who are integral to your organization’s success.
Culture is talked a lot about now. Everyone talks about the importance of culture but what are companies doing to really instill a certain culture? Are they really supporting it or are they just corporate speak to try and make themselves look like a cool place to work?
If you really love the culture of your company and you want to ensure it remains, you better put as much effort into retaining it as you did in creating it.