How to embed culture in a rapidly growing business

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The ability to embed values that shape business priorities and staff decision-making are crucial to scaling a company.

Speakers at the Fast Growth Forum, held in London in late January, highlighted the need for growth-stage businesses to embed values as they scale to allow the founders’ role to continue to evolve.

The relationship between company culture and growth

Titus Sharpe, founder and CEO of MVF Global, used a quote from the influential business strategist Peter Drucker to stress the relationship between culture and growth.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Drucker once said.

So, why is culture so important? Sharpe said it determines work ethic, behaviour and output, adding that it's crucial to formalise what this means to your business (you can read MVF’s vision and nine core principles here).

“When you’re starting out with five people sitting in the room the culture is implied by what they do. It’s so easy,” said Sharpe.

“As you grow, and the team is separated into different rooms or offices, and the management is making decisions about hiring and firing, it gets a lot more complicated.”

In his presentation, Sharpe said the company carried out a series of workshops with top performers to come up with values they could embed in this company, MVF, which has grown to 300 staff in five years and was voted number 10 in The Sunday Times best companies to work for in 2015.

The difficulty of embedding values

Alicia Navarro, founder and CEO of Skimlinks, highlighted just how difficult it can be to embed culture and values within an organisation.

“You need to repeat values more than you think for people to remember them and be able to articulate them within their teams,” she said. “It becomes a really important part of how you communicate and the visuals you use.”

Navarro used an example of a revenue diagram that the team named after the flux capacitor, a crucial part of the time machine from Back to the Future, and the team uses #skimlove to talk about company culture on social media.

Shane Corstorphine, CFO of Skyscanner, echoed Navarro’s sentiment about the difficulty of embedding culture.

Skyscanner’s aim is to “be the most trusted and most used online travel brand in the world,” so culture looms large in the company, said Corstorphine.

“You have to be absolutely clear about your vision. And, you have to hammer it home. It has to be inspirational internally and externally,” said Corstorphine, who added: “We are very prescriptive about what we mean about ‘trusted’ and ‘used’.”

Using the hiring process to guarantee fit

The interview process can be used to introduce candidates to the company’s values and check for cultural fit, according to Anthony Fletcher, CEO of Graze.

To do this Graze scores candidates directly against the company's values during the interview process and uses stories to provide practical demonstrations of how these values play out in the company.

Sharpe said MVF takes the same approach, adding that the company deliberately hired driven, entrepreneurial staff in the early stages of its development – candidates that were “street fighty” – but, when the business reached between 50 and 250 employees this dropped off, as the business moved the focus to people that could help build scaleable processes.

The toughest, the hardest people to get right, are the high performers with a poor value match.

In the early days, 100% of Skimlinks employees were interviewed by a founder of the business. However, Navarro said that the founders’ schedules have more recently made this impossible, particularly in London where the level of competition means they have to move quickly.

“If they can’t be interviewed by me or my co-founder we refer to cultural ambassadors to ensure we are looking beyond their skill set,” said Navarro, who added the company now has 80 people across its London, San Francisco and New York offices.

Adam Hale, CEO of Fairsail, who has a background as a headhunter, said he asks candidates what they’re best at – what he describes as their ‘spike,’ which is a term based on McKinsey’s management terminology. The idea is to demonstrate self-awareness.

Hale, which helped grow Fairsail from 15 to 70 people, said he intends to keep interviewing candidates himself for the foreseeable future.

However, as companies scale quickly they often reach a point where the founder cannot know everyone that works for them – or, at least, will be unable to interview every candidate.

Sarah Wood, founder of Unruly, highlighted this in a BusinessZone profile last year. She said the inflection point was around 40 employees, when they were hiring three to four people every month, and had to implement a “minimal viable process to be able to scale quickly and sustainably”.

Fletcher said the first time he was confronted by a new starter he didn’t know it felt “quite uncomfortable”, going on to say that getting the processes and the business’ ‘why’ in place was a big help.

Finally, Sharpe said that in some cases employees that don’t have a good cultural fit will have to be let go.

“The toughest, the hardest people to get right, are the high performers with a poor value match. You have to be very careful with that type of person, particularly when you’re starting out, but when it comes to it you really have to be prepared to bite the bullet and fire them,” he said.

Do you still live the company’s values?

Peter Goodman, co-founder and CEO HomeLyfe, said it’s crucial for a founder to take the time to step back and consider whether they are still running the business for the right reasons. Do they still embody and live by the values it has?

“All businesses start with a daydream. if you can’t forget that daydream you have to start a business or empower someone else to do it,” Goodman said.

“In the early stages you’re running. The people you bring on board are chasing a train and they have to run as fast as you. they As you start hiring people around them you have to take pause and think about that original daydream: it’s important to stop and go through what you want to do and who’s responsible for what part – how do we know we’re on track?”

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