Culture in a fast growing company

Things have really changed a lot since I started here.  If you are part of a fast growth company, you have probably heard these sentiments or some variation of these at some point.  I feel fortunate that our company doubles in size every three to four years and that we work on furniture projects for companies with similar growth curves.  This has given me a good deal of experience with fast growing companies.

For every 20-40% of revenue growth, systems and processes that previously worked well start to break down.  This often means that fast growing companies are continuously tweaking or tearing down and rebuilding processes to maintain a consistency of results.  While the processes are being redesigned, there can be a lot of frustration.  Frustration by clients and staff that are dealing with an old process that isn’t working well or transitioning to a new process they are still learning.

In addition to this turmoil, you have consistent growth in new hires.  This can leave people feeling very unsettled.  Some of the staff that have been with the company for a few years start to grumble.  The truth is growing can be painful and frustrating.  Growth often changes culture.  Every time you hire a person, your culture is going to change a little with that person quirks and personality traits.  If you double the size of the organization and the culture doesn’t change, you may be part of a cult.

Culture is important but culture like systems and processes needs to evolve with the company.  In my company’s early days, many of us worked 60 hour plus every week for not a lot of pay.  We had no health insurance or 401K.  We developed a culture of doing whatever it took to get the job done.  There was no set meeting schedule, and everyone interrupted each other whenever they had anything they wanted to talk about.  I could tell how everyone in the company was performing because I interacted with them every day.  It was fun, collaborative and incredibly inefficient.  As we grew we developed a set schedule of meetings and performance measurements for individuals and the company.

Some people could not make that change and at every stage of company evolution some people have struggled to adjust.  This meant that on occasion key team members were no longer able to or willing to do the new tasks required to keep up.  Having to part ways with these team members is one of the most difficult parts of growing a company.  Our team has made huge efforts to keep the family atmosphere, I have made great efforts to stay approachable so anyone in the company can talk to me.  I make sure to walk through the facility every morning and greet each person on the team by name, shake their hand (I also like fist bumps and high-fives) and ask them how they are doing.  If someone looks down, I do my best to see what is wrong and help them.  I take time with new employees to learn about them and let them know about company history and our vision and values.  I take an individual employee from different departments out to lunch every couple of weeks to connect with them personally and see what ideas they have for the company and how I can help them implement the ideas.

We are very intentional about culture, but culture like everything else changes.  That’s not a bad thing.  It took me a while to realize that. My tendency is to romanticize about what was and to empathize with the frustration of our team.  I have come to understand that if we are true to our vision and values the culture needs to evolve with time and growth.

I realize that if I were the same leader I was 5 years ago, the company could not grow or survive.  For example at this point with over 50 employees, I cannot be involved in solving every issue that comes up.  I have learned to empower and coach my people to solve their own problems.  When someone comes to me with an issue, I ask questions to help them think through the issue and come up with their own solution.  In the short term, this takes more time and can be frustrating for everyone.  Generally, I know how to solve the issue and could quickly give a solution that would work well.  However, that would train my team to rely on me for solutions rather than teaching them to think through issues on their own.  In the long run this approach saves me time and creates a team of problem solvers.

Realizing that our people are our most valuable resource, I see my job as leader to provide the team with parameters and vision, coach them to think through issues, and allow them the space to come up with creative solutions.  Often times the solutions that they think of are much better than the solutions that I would have offered.

One other important tool that I have picked up in evolving culture in a growing company is the whole company survey.  A word of caution: don’t do this if you have thin skin.  Staff can be brutally honest in bringing up the issues the company needs to work on.  It is very easy to explain away the issues that are brought up or feel like a victim.  It’s hard for some leaders to reconcile the staff that they work so hard to keep happy feels certain ways about their company.  However, these are great opportunities to improve.  Seize the opportunities, own up to the shortcoming and communicate to your staff what you are doing and why.

We all need to grow and evolve and to expect a culture to remain constant in a fast-growing company is not realistic.    If you want to continue to grow and succeed, grow your thinking, seek feedback and stay true to your core values.

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