It’s a challenge that all growing businesses face: as we grow and evolve, how can we stay true to our culture and the things that make us who we are?
The question is particularly relevant for technology start-ups and scale-ups because, by their very nature, these organizations are bound to experience the most dramatic growth. For a more mature organization, there isn’t a huge difference between going from 5,000 people to 6,000. But going from 50 to 500 – a lesser numerical increase – is actually a massive multiplication in company size. .
It’s something I experienced first-hand at Nash Squared, albeit in the context of an already established company rather than a start-up. When I joined the company three years ago, the group had 2,500 employees; today, this represents more than 3,300 people. We have grown both organically and through acquisitions. We also initiated and implemented a major group rebrand, evolving from Harvey Nash Group to Nash Squared. It all added up to the biggest investment in people and technology in the company’s history.
While the magnitude of the change differs depending on where you are on the growth curve, the underlying principles and best practices remain the same.
Be guided by your goal
The first point is that you have to stay true to your main objective. You cannot evolve and grow successfully unless you do. It’s about establishing your “north star” that will guide you on your journey: why are you in business and what is your underlying purpose? Why will people want to work for you? Why will customers and customers want to buy from you?
This goal does not change. If you lose sight of it as you grow, there will be a disconnect and, sooner or later, your fortunes as a business will plummet.
Culture and values can change
The purpose and vision of the company play an intrinsic role in shaping organizational culture. However, culture can evolve and change subtly as your business grows. You may have a culture of innovation and risk-taking in your early days – but the element of risk-taking will almost certainly diminish as your proposal matures, your accountability (to staff, customers, suppliers ) increases and the business becomes established. on the market. It’s not betraying your culture, it’s changing it to reflect the stage you’ve reached.
Values are extremely important. A successful business stays true to its values. But, like the culture as a whole, these are not static and may require revision over time. At Nash Squared, for example, we realized it was time to refine our values to ensure they were still truly relevant to our evolving organization. We therefore undertook an in-depth collaborative exercise that involved broad staff input and genuine listening to their views. We updated our values accordingly and I then made sure that the leaders of our companies truly took ownership of these values to integrate them into the way we work and operate. The new values weren’t radically different from the old ones – they’re all about respecting each other, listening, collaborating and being guided by our customers’ needs – but they were refreshed and more relevant to where we left off. . Going through the consultation created great engagement with our employees and gave them renewed interest in the way we work.
Accept change as part of growth, including among your employees
A theme you can probably already see emerging here is that sustaining a thriving culture as you scale is NOT about stubbornly clinging to everything that characterized your business on day one. Rather, it is about keeping faith in your fundamental qualities while adapting to the changes that occur as you grow and become more complex. In some ways it’s like a person. You will still be you – but you are different as an adult than you were as a child.
With that comes another crucial achievement for any start-up: people will leave. You won’t keep everyone forever and indeed you probably won’t. You have to be comfortable with that.
Some people love the excitement and firefighting of a new start-up, the improvisation as you find your way, the problem solving, the freedom to make decisions in the moment – but as the business grows and more processes and governance inevitably start to be introduced, it becomes a less attractive environment for them. Others simply enjoy working in a small organization where they know all the other staff and can figuratively “touch all the walls” of the company; they feel uncomfortable as it escalates.
What’s vital is being open, honest and transparent with people about where the business is and where it’s heading. If some people feel their time is up, that’s completely normal and acceptable. They will have played an invaluable role in the development of the company. Thank them and part on good terms. There will be other people who want to come and bring new skills and talents with them.
Keep a crop lens on everything
Your culture should be a key perspective on all aspects of the business. For example, recruitment is a vital area. Make sure your leaders, managers and HR team have a clear framework of technical and soft skills to look for (and why) so that newcomers integrate well. You also need to underpin your culture and values with learning and development resources available to everyone. At Nash Squared, we have created a learning portal as well as a wellness portal. These play an important role in keeping us all connected and part of one team.
When it comes to inorganic growth, culture should also be a major factor in any acquisition decision. Will the target company fit well with your culture and vision? If unbalanced, the deal may actually destroy far more value than it creates. Business history is littered with deals that failed on the rocks of cultural mismatch.
Another part of the scaling journey is investor support and/or listing. If you attract investment, for example from a private equity firm, or if one PE funder sells their stake to another, this can create new dynamics, such as a greater focus on profitability rather than the turnover, for example. Becoming a publicly traded company can have a similar effect. All of this can have an impact within the company – and again means that honest communication with staff is essential.
Three Guiding Principles
Maintaining a strong culture as you grow is a complex area, as you are likely to be determined to keep some aspects unchanged while others need to evolve. My three general tips are:
• Stay focused on your North Star – don’t lose sight of the vision that inspired you to start the business in the first place.
• Be honest and transparent – you need to take people with you on the journey. Communicate and engage. Be upfront if something needs to change and explain why.
• Ensure people, processes and governance are fit for purpose – these will change as the business grows. Your technology, systems and processes must