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Create an Organizational Culture That Helps You Scale


By Elizabeth Pun

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From Zappos to Warby Parker to Southwest Airlines, successful businesses known for their company cultures prove that it has become a key element of how today’s organizations are run and scaled.

Your organizational culture establishes the core values that drive your actions and the way you complete projects. These values inherently embody the qualities and behaviors that are desired and expected from your leadership and team members.  Culture is also your staff’s north star when it comes to making decisions, especially when there’s any ambiguity about what to do next.

It only becomes increasingly important as your team begins to grow. In fact, culture is a huge determinant of whether or not you can build and sustain momentum and achieve the best results for your organization.

The Importance of Organizational Culture as You Grow

When you’re a team of five or 10, it’s easy to communicate with each other and make decisions together. It’s easier to be on the same page about how to get things done, and the behaviors and personalities of a small team often demonstrate the unspoken, collective values across the group.

However, as your team grows, this cohesion becomes harder to maintain. For example, before becoming the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh experienced this struggle to maintain culture at his previous company, LinkExchange. When he started LinkExchange after college, the workplace was enjoyable and productive because he hired friends, or friends of friends. But once the company started to grow and hire people who were qualified but not as aligned with their core values, the culture trickled away and Hsieh found this loss negatively impactful.

In his post on Forbes, Todd McKinnon of Okta says something similar happened to his team when its size grew from the single digits to over 100. The collective understanding of how to act and prioritize began to dissipate, and they realized they had to nail down the organizational culture if they wanted to keep their company laser-focused, fast-moving, and recognizable. He says,

This inflection point is different for every fast-growing company, but the good ones all get there eventually. As you grow, it becomes harder to communicate everything, to get consensus on every decision or to create a process and procedure for everything. A strong and clear culture can give everyone the proper framework to work within.

A well-communicated organizational culture keeps everyone on your growing team on the same page, making it possible to move efficiently and effectively even as you add more members. This allows you to keep up your progress—even quicken it—as you advance your mission. In this way, your organizational culture becomes your organizational strategy.

When Great Organizational Culture Means Less Control and More Context

While every team member has a role in upholding your organizational culture, leadership is responsible for creating and driving it. But this doesn’t mean that you need to bring the heavy hand down on your staff to get the message across. There are subtle, positive tactics you can use to fuel this process.

The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, not by trying to control their people.

Netflix, a household name and organization revered for its company culture, speaks to this in their famous 124-page document outlining their work culture. Patty McCord, the company’s then-chief talent officer and mastermind behind the document, puts it like this: “The best managers figure out how to get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, not by trying to control their people.”

Leaders are responsible for establishing an environment in which people are driven, motivated, and clearly understand both their individual roles and the organization’s objectives and strategy. Rather than relying on top-down decision-making, leadership can offer the information and understanding needed for individual employees or teams to make smart decisions on their own.

The Netflix document states, “Our model is to increase employee freedom as we grow, rather than limit it, to continue to attract and nourish innovative people, so we have a better chance of sustained success.”

Chris Fussell, the chief growth officer at The McChrystal Group, observes that more organizations across the board are implementing this culture approach in 2016.

He says,

We have seen an emphasis on empowerment in the workplace. Organizations are recognizing the importance and value of pushing ownership and decision-making to the lowest appropriate level. As a result of this, employees at all levels of an organization are motivated to perform to their highest ability and are consistently engaged in their work.

When you make a point to hire employees that fit your organizational culture and give them autonomy in their individual roles, you nurture a culture that empowers and motivates employees and eliminates decision-making bottlenecks. This is critical for organizational growth, as everyone becomes informed and engaged participants capable of creating solutions.

Tips to Cultivate Your Organizational Culture

Here are some tips on how to build and sustain an effective organizations culture as you grow:

Start by hiring the right people.

This often solves culture problems before they start. When you hire individuals who fit your culture and match your core values—and release the ones who don’t—you nurture a sense of trust between leadership and employees, and employees with each other, that enables sound decision-making across all levels of staff. Because everyone is aligned to the same values, people can rely on each other to uphold them.

Reflect on your own leadership when employees make questionable decisions.

As Netflix observes, a team member’s lackluster behavior could reflect a leader’s failure to establish the appropriate context for their team. Do all of your team members understand the organizational values? Does everyone understand and feel aligned to the organizational goals?

Encourage creativity.

As you empower everyone on your team to make decisions and contribute their best to your organization, remember that good solutions can come from anywhere. Encourage and motivate your staff members to become problem-solvers.

Adopt communication tools.

Messaging platforms like Slack or HipChat can improve communication and efficiency across teams and break down departmental silos. Not to mention, they lend a fun element to the otherwise traditional workplace communication via email. Slack, for instance, teams up with Giphy to allow users to easily send each other GIFs within the chat client.

Your organizational culture plays a large role in determining the speed and direction of your growth. When you hire the right talent and create a context in which they feel driven and valued, it can move your organization to new levels of success.

Have any tips on how growing organizations can build and sustain effective organizational culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

A Leader’s Guide to Motivating Employees

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