Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once said that “an organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage”. As small businesses grow, they also must continue to learn, apply new insights, and renew their organisational culture. Changing a business’ personality, however, often takes far more effort than increasing revenues or market share. In fact, it demands constant evolution on the part of business leaders – testing various options, identifying what works, and pruning what doesn’t.
Growing a workplace culture without affecting its integrity requires much more than just cutting-edge technology or best-practice processes. It’s a long-term journey – one where business leaders must recognise that the goal isn’t to keep everything the same, but retain essential values even as the organisation evolves.
Here are three ways in which business leaders can preserve organisational culture during growth:
- Redefine ‘good talent’
In a growing workplace, employees tend to be involved across more areas of the business. This strong commitment to the business increases productivity, profitability and internal competition amongst employees.
When done well, growing businesses inevitably evolve to be stronger, more well-rounded and responsive to customer needs. To facilitate this growth, the first step a company can take is to evaluate, or re-evaluate what they see as top talent.
In some cases, that may mean bringing in new skillsets or upskilling high-potential individuals who want to grow personally. In others, it may require business owners to reconsider how they deploy their employees, provide further training, re-allocate tasks or seek talent that best suit the organisation’s culture and vision of the future. All of this will ensure that staff are utilised to their fullest potential.
Radical changes can be a challenge, but it often proves necessary to adapt to and accept change – both essential for any company that’s growing into new territory or new markets.
- Encourage open communication
Secondly, companies can do more to encourage two-way communication between employers and employees – not just via emails and in meetings, but through genuine, face-to-face interactions. The more the leaders can communicate ‘why’ there is a need for habits and behaviours to change, the greater the buy-in from the teams that help the business grow.
This involves connecting with employees at every level to create authentic working relationships, not just focusing on those in high-profile roles.
Business leaders must also allow employees the right and autonomy to choose how their workplace culture grows, at least within the limits of the business’ vision and values. At online retailer Zappos, for example, CEO Tony Hsieh asked for the input of every employee when the company, then just leaving its start-up phase, was trying to define its corporate culture. Hsieh and his leaders eventually derived a list of what the company’s values should be, based predominantly on employees’ opinions.
Following this, every employee was tasked to change something about the company’s policies and processes to align them better to the new corporate values. Hsieh’s strategy was a success and gave his employees joint ownership of the brand’s identity, helping turn employees into passionate defenders of their culture as the business grew worldwide.
- Allow subcultures to grow
Finally, growing businesses inevitably give rise to smaller subcultures in teams. While companies can maintain an overarching culture, smaller teams within the company will create their own version of the company culture, each with unique practices and behaviours. Such subcultures may seem threatening and at times, if in direct contradiction to core business values, put growth and cultural cohesion at risk. But business leaders should not treat these subcultures as a nuisance; in fact, the opposite should apply.
When encouraged to flourish, they do two things. On the one hand, they add new dimensions to the company, humanising their brand in a way that strict guidelines rarely allow for. On the other, multiple subcultures allow leaders to figure out what works and what doesn’t, offering them ways to gauge whether certain practices or processes might in fact help the broader organisation. When that happens, the best thing business leaders can do is to hail the teams involved as an example of good practice and to spread what they’ve learnt throughout the organisation.
As businesses grow, they can’t afford to let their culture go stale or lose relevance. Often, the culture is precisely what drives growth in the first place. By taking a fluid and collaborative approach to maintaining the culture, leaders can make sure their core values remain not only intact, but well-guarded by their people – even as other elements of the business go through new challenges and changing market conditions.
Business growth comes with a range of logistical, technological, and procedural stumbling blocks. Technology can certainly help smooth the path – but a strong, constantly-evolving culture can do far more to ensure businesses reach the next level, and the next, and the next.
Lee Thompson, Group Vice President & GM, Asia Pacific and Japan, Oracle NetSuite.