Culture is Not Status Quo
A Self Help Guide for High-Growth Startups
Originally posted in Bennie's HR Advisory blog on July 15, 2021.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, bringing with it the disruptive force of digitization, innovative technology, and a rise in the need to make data-driven decisions. This advancement in our capabilities as a society has opened the door for many forward-thinking entrepreneurs to find creative ways to solve problems and do so quickly and efficiently. Take, for example, healthcare. Traditionally known for its cumbersome processes, bureaucratic environments, and sometimes inefficient and time-consuming care methods, the industry is now a hotbed for opportunity. Telemedicine and virtual healthcare options have taken hold, and according to Becker's Hospital Review, "telehealth will be up 64.3% in 2020."
In come the eager, driven, and intelligent entrepreneurs that have grown up in an age of technology and the equally eager investors that support their business models and missions. It's quite an exciting time filled with endless possibilities and a chance to impact millions in the process positively.
While this revolution is largely based on innovation, creativity, and digitization, all of which are challenging the status quo with an eye toward the future, the concept of organizational culture for some (not all) remains fairly stagnant. For a high-growth organization, it's not uncommon to go from a close-knit core team of five to a robust and dynamic team of 100 in a short amount of time. While this in and of itself presents unique challenges, one that is largely misinterpreted is culture. To be clear, when referencing culture, this is not potlucks, employee engagement, or happy hours. As said best by Jessica Neal, former VP of HR at Netflix, "Culture is the strategy of how you work."
Therefore, if culture is the strategy of how you work, then it only makes sense that the way a small team of five worked in the early stages is not how it needs to operate in a high-growth setting. At some point in the life cycle (hopefully sooner rather than later), the early founders of a startup will realize that the People related efforts have become too large and the scope too wide to be managed themselves. When seeking their first People leader, many founders set forth to find that diamond in the rough with the mindset that what they are looking for is someone who can help them "maintain our culture because we've grown so fast and we don't want to lose this." While this is a beautiful idea, it's not feasible for a high-growth company. Culture is fluid and should not adhere to the status quo.
Looking past the previous conceptual context presented, how does this look in practice for a Founder or a People Professional?
Take inventory of your earliest hires, and make sure one of them is a People Professional.
If you've ever said or thought, "people are a company's greatest assets," and you haven't prioritized hiring a People leader at the inception of your company, then you are not prioritizing people. A high-growth company cannot afford to wait to hire such a critical role. Humans are complex and dynamic, and just their general essence causes things to change rapidly. Waiting too long to hire a People Leader means that the organic opportunities of building a foundational culture have expired. Instead, it becomes a rescue and cleanup mission.
Be intentional at the onset to define culture.
Rally your earliest hires (please reference Step 1), and spend intentional time defining what your culture needs to be in this moment and over the next growth cycle to achieve your goals. Again, culture is not employee engagement or happy hours. "Culture is the strategy of how you work." It's defining how you get work done efficiently, quickly, and with the right talent to support this high level of growth.
Consistently reassess your culture.
As the founder of a high-growth startup, if someone were to ask you, "what is your strategic plan for the next 3 - 5 years?" a feasible response might be, "I have no flipping clue." This is often the correct response. The nature of the term, high growth, in and of itself means things are changing so quickly from a variety of different angles that even knowing what's going to happen six months from now is not possible. The same goes for your culture. It is fluid and must constantly be assessed and shifted with a lens toward the future, not the past. Every time you rally with your key leaders (see Step 1) to discuss strategic initiatives, make one of those a conversation around culture.
Accept the hard truths.
Starting a company is a beautiful thing. Watching it grow and flourish alongside talented people is not something everyone will experience. Reflecting on this time is nostalgic, and it's essential to know how far the company has come. However, while it's hard to accept, one cannot live in nostalgia if one wants to move forward. The way things were as a "party of five" won't be feasible for high-growth organizations. Becoming comfortable with making tough decisions and supporting change is critical. This is not to say that some aspects of what used to exist cannot be preserved because they certainly can. It's about finding the right balance and not being afraid to challenge the status quo.
See Step 1.
Just for good measure. :)