How to scale while keeping your company culture intact

Many companies are looking to scale up as they emerge from the COVID pandemic. Yet, one of the biggest concerns they have is being able to scale with their culture intact. It’s entirely possible with a team-first focus, rather than a top-down approach.

May 20, 2021 5 mins read

We’re finally on the road to recovery. 

After so many businesses were forced to shut down and downsize due to COVID, I’ve been fielding questions about how to scale back up again as the US and UK economy begins to pick up speed. The biggest concerns I hear from clients is that they’re worried that they’ll lose their company culture when new people come in. 

There’s an adage in Sun Tzu’s Art of War that applies to leading an organization through change: Control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few. It is merely a question of dividing up their numbers. 

It sounds simple enough, but many companies fall into the trap of thinking of company culture as a uniform thing that is fixed and needs protecting from on high. The truth is that culture is co-created by all the people in a business. Cultures evolve, just like products and business models. Maintaining a healthy culture means being able to move with the times and adapt to new challenges. 

The best way to do all this? Adopt a team approach that is fluid, responsive, and scalable. Here’s why. 


A company’s micro-cultures are a source of strength

My research over the years has revealed that a company is made up of smaller microcultures. Because no two people are ever exactly alike, no two teams are either. Teams are made up of a patchwork of different individuals and relationships, and ways of associating. Top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches will, at best, be hit and miss and, at worse, annoy everyone. 

This isn’t to say that there is no room for senior management to influence culture. They are there to set basic cultural norms and expectations, and hiring for culture is a good way to ensure a good fit. This comes with a caveat though. As my friend, the late Tony Hsieh, used to say, “If you hire for culture, you must fire for culture too.” Senior leaders are the gardeners and must take time to prune carefully. 

Top-down approaches are good at defining strategy and outlining major initiatives. However, execution of strategy is always done at the team level. The day-to-day activities of the business don’t happen in the C-Suite, but rather on the team level at a real-time pace. 

In this light, the role of a senior leader is to act as a catalyst. They must bring in the right processes, people, meeting rituals and goals together for success. By acknowledging that a company is made of microcultures, leaders can ensure more human experiences — especially as they start to scale. In so doing, they will empower their people to make changes and not force them into changes. 


How companies scale with their culture intact

I’ve said before that teams are the engines of change in a company. It’s where the real heavy lifting gets done and where employee experience really happens. Team health is also important for employee wellbeing. People’s experience of work is influenced much more by the people they work with (including a line manager) than they are by the whole organization and culture.  And as the saying goes, people join companies but leave managers

That means you must get the team level right.

It’s possible to use teams as a foundation in scaling up. The Dutch community healthcare provider, Buurtzorg was founded in 2007 by Jos de Blok, a disenchanted nurse. He felt the industry had become like a manufacturing assembly line, with nurses assigned specific jobs and given strict quotas of how many minutes they could spend with each patient. Instead of a top-down approach, he championed small teams of self-organising nurses – with a strict rule that as a team grew to 10+ people, it had to split into two.

The result? Buurtzorg grew from zero to turnover of $275million in 8 years. It now has over 9,000 employees and is the largest healthcare provider in the Netherlands, 3x the size of its nearest competitor. Buurtzorg’s approach shows that positivity and success are contagious — they were also voted best employer across four consecutive years in the Netherlands.  

Another business that championed the team-first approach with significant growth is the UK High Street shoe repair chain, Timpsons. Their CEO called it the ‘upside down’ management, a method where frontline employees (often from challenging backgrounds) are actively encouraged to take initiative at the store level. They are given the empowering instruction, “If something works, tell me; if it doesn’t, stop.” Their approach yielded great commercial success, growing from 300 branches and £40m in sales in 1998 to 2,120 branches and over £330m in sales by 2018.

When one team does well, it influences the other teams around them. Creativity spreads and invites more innovation, quickly becoming a virtuous cycle. Top-down directives seldom achieve this. Buurtzorg and Timpson show that the team is the building block of any organization. Any organization looking to scale and keep its culture intact would be wise to focus on the team level and establish company-wide rituals and simple rules. Ideally, these would stimulate conversations and generate actionable insights on the team level. 


The five ways for happily scaling up 

It’s easy for me to say, “Adopt a team focus.” But how can your company go about scaling with the team in mind? My Five Ways to Happiness at Work framework gives us insights on how you can scale up while focusing on the team:

Connect

If the team is the foundation of a company, then the relationship between team members is the building block of the team. Take time to get to know new people and welcome them into your ‘family.’ Without this extra touch, scaling efforts can fall apart very quickly as new people become isolated and left out. 

Be Fair

There’s nothing that can cripple scaling efforts more than the feeling that things are not fair. Whether integrating recruits or welcoming back old colleagues from extend furloughs, the risk of perceived fairness is very high at the moment. To combat this, ensure everyone has a voice and encourage them to use it in their teams. 

Empower

Scaling is a period of growth and trying new things. Don’t be afraid to give your teams the freedom to experiment — and especially don’t punish them for it. There are beautiful ideas out there. It’s as important to celebrate the learnings from mistakes as it is the wins. 

Challenge

Scaling needs feedback to guide the growth. As everyone is learning quickly and things are in flux, it’s important to set up cultural boundaries and give guidance on processes and whether things are going right. Remember, one of the best things you can do in a company is to build a positive feedback loop. 

Inspire

New faces and new places can be a bewildering part of scaling for employees. It’s important that you lift the vision of everyone involved, so they know what they are building. They shouldn’t just see the bricks, but the cathedral as well. Communicate the social purpose of your company. What problems are you trying to solve? Where are you trying to go? People get more excited about their roles when they know the vision and that they’re not just a cog in a machine to make investors rich. 


Preserving culture with Friday Pulse

Regardless of industry or size of company, every business must learn how to help its people work together at the team level. And when they learn how to do this well, the lessons will bubble up through the organization and bring success, productivity and happiness for all. 

Friday Pulse is designed for senior leaders to track the wellbeing of all their teams as a company scales and provide real-time, actionable insights on the teams that are struggling. With our Culture Profiles, you’ll be able to see how well new people are integrating into your company. 

Learn how Friday Pulse can help your business grow. For more information on how we can help, please reach out to us today.