IN GOOD COMPANY: How 5 successful business leaders approach culture in growing companies

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Maintaining a high standard of culture in a business as it grows can be a challenging task. Ensuring staff remain happy and motivated, while sticking to the company’s goals and aspirations is no easy feat.

Business Insider asked five different business leaders who’ve faced that challenge head on at different stages of their growth about the lessons they learned along the way.

Knowing when to add layers to the business

For Mitchell Harper, co-founder of Bigcommerce, it was all about learning to add layers of management as the company grew to ensure every employee was heard and represented.

“Like most founders, when Eddie [Machaalani] and I started Bigcommerce in 2009 we had no idea what company culture was,” Harper admits. “My view was that if we lead by example and tried to hire the best people we could find, and afford, we’d be OK. And to a certain size that was true.

“At a macro level there are dozens of ways to get insight into how your company culture is changing as you grow – you can send quarterly or annual surveys using SurveyMonkey. You can ask for feedback via email. You can do anonymous Q&A at your all-hands meetings, etc. But the problem with a macro level view is that it’ll tell you, on average, how your culture is and how your employees feel about the company. It’s the average you should be worried about. You should focus on the whole picture.”

Harper says the biggest lesson he learned from this is “that as you grow, it becomes necessary to add layers of management to effectively scale the company”.

“While it’s fun to have 30 direct reports in the early days [2009], no one really likes doing that – founders tolerate it because we have to, but seasoned executives won’t. More growth means more layers: C-levels manage VPs, who manage directors, who manage managers, etc.”

He says culture is at the centre of Bigcommerce, to the point “that every member of the executive team obsesses over [it]”.

“They each have their own ways of keeping their finger on the pulse,” he said.

“My approach simply involved meeting every month or two with about 6-8 different people in the company that 1) were not members of the exec team, 2) were individual contributors or managers, 3) were a good representative sample of the mojo in their team or department and most importantly, 4) would tell it to me as it is and not sugar coat problems.

“Doing this has led to all sorts of actions – people being promoted, fired, moved from one project to another (for good reasons or bad) and even me forcing people to take leave to just rest after a huge project was completed.”

Harper admits it isn’t “textbook” and takes a lot of time “but man, it’s effective”.

With an office like the one Bigcommerce has in Austin, Texas who needs to worry about company culture! Photo: Facebook/ Bigcommerce.

United team, united vision

Mark Thompson, CEO of Nude by Nature, agrees that company culture is important if you believe that people are the main ingredient to business progression.

“How people interact with each other and work towards common goals are all based on a culture where people feel valued and back themselves in offering solutions. If you truly believe that staff are your number one asset, then allowing them to be a part of big discussions is a prerequisite for this,” he says.

At Nude by Nature the team has adopted a culture of “whatever it takes”, says Thompson.

“Most staff look to push the boundaries on making our brand stronger and more desirable to consumers. This genuine care and passion for success is a major asset to the company.”

When it comes to maintaining culture while expanding, Thompson has relied on three strategies to be successful:

    1. Trust in the ability of your employees and give them enough autonomy to show what they are capable of.

    2. Make it clear who is the project lead on all tasks. This creates ownership and eliminates confusion for all staff.

    3. Involve the right people in discussions and meetings to ensure there is more than one opinion on any major decision. Be prepared to listen to everyone. They are invited to a meeting for a reason.

“Culture is something that is built and not inherited or inducted from the company,” he says. “The way people feel about their work and how they are valued, is as important as how a consumer feels about your brand.

“In a fast paced environment and with a global expansion plan that focuses on numerous markets at the same time, the challenge for employees is how to keep up. When it’s a fast moving train, you need to buckle yourself in and prepare for the ride. This can create time management challenges and knowing what to prioritise and what’s classified as the non important tasks. A motivated team is one that knows they are on the right track and who are aligned with the rest of the organisation on the key actions that help move the dial.”

Positivity is the key.

Daniel Flynn, co-founder and managing director of Thankyou, renamed his HR department as the “People & Culture”.

“We wanted to create a place where staff are seen as people, not resources,” he says. “Fast-forward seven years, and we hear team members tell us how refreshing and empowering our culture and environment is.

“From the beginning, it’s been our collective goal to create a culture where people can be themselves… We see each employee as a person with the capacity to add to the business in multiple ways – we don’t box them into a position description alone.”

Flynn says he’s seen organisations fall into the trap of seeing the employee/employer relationship as a take-take transaction when, he says, it needs to be to give and take to achieve the best for the employee and the organisation.

“What’s really cool about Thankyou is the way we honour each other. There is genuinely no gossip or ‘secret water cooler chats’; instead, if there’s ever an issue that needs to be addressed, it’s done directly with the person it involves. It takes constant work and mindfulness, but remember it’s easier to create a positive culture than it is to fix a broken one.”

In 2013 Thankyou had eight staff. Two years later it has 33.

“No matter the size of the team, maintaining a positive culture will always be a focus for us because when a team of people that work together share the same values it brings unity and strength, empowering us to do our life’s best work.”

This is a shot of the Thankyou team getting together at the Thankyou HQ to listen to the co-founders share the values behind ‘who we are and what we do’.

Communicating with every part of the company

For Alyce Tran, co-founder and CEO of The Daily Edited (TDE), the journey has just begun.

“This time last year there was only me, and now I’ve got 6-8 people working internally – two are casual – and three external stakeholders,” she says.

For Tran the biggest struggle to maintain a balanced company culture has been communicating effectively with her team.

“A year ago I was just doing all of this and didn’t have to verbalise it. Now, a lot of my employees are like ‘you should just tell us so you don’t have to be doing it all yourself’. I unintentionally withhold a lot of stuff because I forget to tell people,” she says.

“Dividing tasks up now, and giving people areas of responsibility is quite a new thing for me,” she admits but says that by giving people a dedicated role and openly communicating with them about the health and direction of the business makes them feel as those they are a link in the chain of the company, and they are doing their part.

“I try to involve all of my employees about what my goals are and I am doing…. even if it doesn’t directly effect that person, even the girls who just pack boxes for us.

“I think it’s quite valuable for them to know… it lets them know how TDE is going and gives them a sense of responsibility.”

“Otherwise it becomes just really boring,” she laughs.

Another important aspect in the growth of TDE is building the team and giving them the freedom to have flexible working habits.

“I’ve been very lucky, that I have only employed women which is just a matter of coincidence.

“Six out of the eight are all mums, and I think that really adds to the culture because these women really get behind me. They’re naturally multi-taskers, they’re very dedicated and they’ve very motivated. That is something I would love to maintain as the business grows.

“To be a very pro-female workplace and be able to work flexibility with my employees. They are dropping their kids off at childcare and picking them up again, but because we’re online it doesn’t bother me that they don’t start until 10am and leave at 4pm.”

She said some of them choose to make up hours out of the office after they have done “the whole bed, bath dinner thing” at around 7.30pm.

“And it works,” she said, “it’s these things that you can do in a small business context.” She acknowledged that it would be a part of the business that will need to be reassessed as TDE grows but for now it works for the business, and more importantly her employees.”

Rewarding a job well done

Showpo founder Jane Lu. Photo: Facebook.

Jane Lu, founder and CEO of Showpo, has a different approach entirely.

“I’ve never consciously decide on a strategy of how to build our company culture, it has kind of happened organically,” she said.

“It wasn’t always so easy. The first people I hired were store retail assistants, and as the business was so new, I think most of the staff we hired just treated it as another way of getting some money. There wasn’t really much culture.

“I think our company culture first grew from hiring the right people who cared about what we were trying to do, and also from hiring full-timers.

“If you’re having doubts in interviews, then it doesn’t matter how good they look on paper, they need to be the right culture fit and also understand what it’s like to work in a startup,” she says adding that you are only as strong as your weakest link.

“If you realise we’ve hired the wrong person, it’s hard to let them go because we have to go through the rehiring process and retrain the new person and we’ll be one staff member down temporarily, but I’ve actually found that one bad egg can really slow down an entire team and you shouldn’t let an escalation of commitment make you hold on the the wrong person – just think of it as a sunk cost and move on.”

But her number one secret to ace the culture is to throw great parties, where she admits some of the best team bonding happens: “#showpodrinkingteam”.

“I’ve learnt from my corporate years that a lot of bonding happens over a few drinks and we’ve always found that after a big boozy night, the team gets much closer! We love to initiate new people in with starters drinks. Plus I love a good excuse for a night out anyway!”

But overall Lu says it’s always important to value your employee opinions, and to maintain open communications and a flat structure.

“It’s important to get everyone’s buy in to company strategy and directions,” she says.

“We currently have 10 employees, with another starting in two weeks, and currently hiring for another role. So hopefully 12 very soon.

“Everyone performs an important function in the business, and everyone we hire is super switched on, so we definitely want everyone’s involvement and buy in regardless of what division of the company they’re in.”

The Showpo team enjoying a communal lunch. Photo: Jane Lu/ Facebook.

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