It’s funny but when you look at early stage companies, they all seem to have a strong corporate culture. When you look at them again several years later after much growth, the original culture has usually died and been replaced by another less appealing one. What’s going on here?
First, a definition of corporate culture. To me it’s the set of values and beliefs that a group of people hold, it’s how they communicate, and how they make decisions. Now why is this important? Well all the research seems to say that a strong culture of leadership, client service, and innovation results in much better financial performance than where those cultural elements are weaker.
For a company of below 10 people, it’s really easy to develop a positive corporate culture. A passionate founder with a strong personality, the ability to talk to everyone in the company every day, and the greater use of group decisions means a stronger culture. Employees are more engaged, customers are closer to the company and everyone is passionate about the next product.
Take that company out a few years and give it more than 25 people, a plethora of products, and a new CEO and you have the recipe for cultural stagnation. No longer is there a passionate founder leading the charge. You can’t talk to everyone every day and with that many people, who knows who makes the decisions? The result is unfortunately, less engaged employees, a weaker link with customers, and less radical innovation.
One key to success in a startup is to keep your culture strong as you grow. That is possible and you can even regain it even after you lose it. Google is a positive role model for maintaining a strong culture and Apple is a great case in point of a company that lost its corporate culture and managed to regain it.
To keep your corporate culture strong you need to work at it every day. An annual retreat won’t work and neither will a sporadic program or two. What does work is having the CEO take responsibility for culture, defining that culture in written form, getting a buy-in from everybody, and talking about and reporting on culture on at least a monthly basis.
If you force yourself to assess and report on cultural changes on a regular basis you’ll be able to keep it strong and vibrant and keep being a high performance company.