Team Management

How to Scale Company Culture

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 

Your company is growing. Fast. (Keep in mind that growth is relative; if you had one employee last month and now you have four, that can feel like explosive growth—because it is.)

Rapid growth can be great. It usually generates greater revenue and (eventually) profits. It can help you to build a bigger, better business quickly.

But rapid growth can also destroy your company’s culture. Even if you don’t think you have one.

Every company has a culture

As HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah once told me, even the smallest business has a culture. The only variable is whether you intentionally create your company’s culture—or whether your employees create it for you.

Keep in mind, that “culture” isn’t fun slogans, bring your pet to work days, or Taco Tuesdays. Culture is how people work, how people interact with customers, and how people interact with each other. In other words: culture isn’t what you say it is, culture is what people actually do.

Ideally, culture speeds up and improves decision-making. For example, if taking care of customers is a core mission, deciding whether or not to expedite shipping when an order is late is easy. Culture can also make recruiting easier because people who want to work for a company that embraces their perspectives, values, and goals will be more likely to self-select. Culture can make establishing roles and expectations easier, too, because if people don’t think in terms of job titles, they’ll be more likely to pitch in and help out wherever necessary.

So yes: culture matters.

But, as with most good things, a great culture is hard to build and easy to erode.

Who you promote has a significant impact on culture

One decision—determining which person to promote—can have a huge impact on a company’s culture, which in turn affects how well a company operates. A survey of over 400,000 people conducted by the research firm Great Place to Work revealed that when employees feel promotion decisions are managed effectively, they are more than twice as likely to give extra effort at work. 

Not only that, when employees feel promotion decisions are managed effectively, they are more than five times as likely to feel the people making those decisions act with integrity.

But wait, there’s more: employee turnover rates tend to be half that of other businesses in the same industry. Metrics like productivity, innovation, and growth also tend to be higher.

Culture is what you do and what you allow to happen

Growth often results in “easy” shortcuts. When you’re extremely busy, looking the other way can be tempting. It can be hard to take the time to address a comment, a behavior, or an attitude when rapid growth makes it seem like keeping your leadership head above water is all you can do.

But this is when company culture is most at risk. If I work for a boss who appears to have made a promotion decision based on seniority, I’ll worry less about productivity and wait my turn. If I work for a boss who just allowed a substandard product to ship because we’ve already missed the delivery date, then I’ll worry less about quality and more about hitting the numbers. 

As a business owner, you might say that your company values efficiency, quality, customer focus, and teamwork—but beware if your actions indicate otherwise. The things you do will create your company’s culture.

If productivity drives your business, recognize and reward the people who excel at getting the right things done. If teamwork drives your business, recognize and reward the people who excel at leading and following. If you only have a few employees and versatility is key, recognize and reward the people who jump in without being asked.

But keep in mind the things you don’t do create culture, too. And so the things you allow.

If you look the other way when your longest-tenured and most skilled employee uses his or her status to treat other employees poorly, then your company’s culture will turn into one where professionalism, courtesy, and respect are not valued. If you look the other way when an employee takes credit for another employee’s work, then the culture will become one where managing perceptions are more important than individual performance. If you look the other way when a person higher on the organizational chart uses his or her position—instead of reason, data, and logic—to “win” a discussion, then the culture becomes one where who speaks matters more than the quality and value of the message. 

Culture is also what you do that no other company does

Psychologist Adam Grant recommends that every job candidate ask a version of this question during job interviews: “What is something that happened at this organization, but wouldn’t elsewhere?” The answer can reveal what really matters to the organization, and whether the organization’s values, norms, and practices align with the candidate’s.

The question also works in reverse: What happens at other organizations that wouldn’t happen at yours? The answers will indicate key behaviors that drive your culture. For instance, the answer may indicate whether the company focuses on hierarchy and job titles, or whether pitching in to do whatever needs to be done matters more. Whether seniority matters for promotions, raises, and opportunities, or whether a meritocracy truly exists. Whether mistakes, missteps, or inexperience are punished, or  whether the company is truly a learning organization.

Think about what happens at your company that truly makes it unique. That—for better or possibly worse—is your culture.

While growth is (usually) good, it does create problems. When your business is in rapid growth mode, hiring, infrastructure, customer relations, and managing financial complexities can be all-consuming—but don’t let culture be the last thing on your mind.

Protect it if it’s positive. Work to fix it if not.

Bottom line? If you want the culture you’ve built to grow with your company, you need to be extra vigilant. Keep a close eye on the words, actions, and values you encourage. Keep an even closer eye on the words, actions, and values you permit. 

What you espouse and encourage creates a framework for your company’s culture. Likewise, what you fail to discourage—what you allow to happen—may come to truly define it.

Updated: November 29, 2021

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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