How to Grow Your Company Without Losing Its Culture

Hiring dilutes your culture unless, along with resumes and skill sets, you look at a candidate’s personal alignment with your company’s core values.

The concept of startup culture, which is synonymous with open innovation, agility, risk-taking and bootstrapping your way to success, has become the antithesis to traditional corporate hierarchy. Most small businesses (and even some large corporations like Samsung) want to emulate the success formula of startups. That begins with defining a clear company culture around the core values of its founders.

It’s a process that happens almost organically in any startup. What’s challenging later is preserving and scaling your company culture as your business grows, as more people join the team and it becomes more successful.

Facebook is one of the most highly valued companies in the world, but it hasn’t forgotten its roots, even designing its now much larger workspaces to have the same feel as when it was a scrappy startup. Its corporate headquarters still has cement floors, an open layout and walls the staff is encouraged to write on.

However, staying true to its culture has been a very deliberate process, something that often eludes other companies experiencing rapid growth. As your hiring ramps up, and funding rounds come in, that’s when your culture is most at risk. So, to avoid diluting the true nature of your company culture, follow these strategies:

Never deviate from your mission.

Would it surprise you to learn that Netflix still uses the deck created in 2009 to define its culture today? Despite the evolution of its business model, Netflix still values the same nine key behaviors and skills in its workforce (judgment, communication, impact, curiosity, innovation, courage, passion, honesty and selflessness).

Think about the value set your team members must have, and circle back to it often in team meetings, company outings, employee reviews and elsewhere.

Don’t neglect cultural fit during the hiring process.

Bringing a mismatched candidate on board can disrupt the entire ecosystem of your company, becoming a costly mistake. That’s why Joshua Reeves, CEO of Gusto, says each hire, whether it’s the tenth or the thousandth, should meet the same rigorous hiring standards. The job interview process should be less a sales pitch than a search for alignment between the company and a candidate, he says.

Stick with a strong onboarding process.

During the early days of a startup, each hire is a big deal, garnering the personal attention of the company’s C-suite. But as time goes on, HR departments take over the process of getting new employees up to speed. That’s practical, but it doesn’t mean that company leadership should be disconnected from the process altogether, writes Matt Barba, cofounder, and CEO of Placester, a real estate marketing platform. “Leaders in particular should remain active, making appropriate introductions and injecting a personal touch in order to attract top candidates — all while conveying and preserving your work culture.”

Make sure your people own the culture.

Facebook culture has scaled so successfully because it doesn’t just belong to the executives, says Lori Goler, Facebook’s vice president of people, in an interview. “If we have 10,000 people who work at Facebook, you would have 10,000 people tell you that they own the culture. We hire people who are like that. We express it to them during the hiring process and the recruiting process. We talk about it on their first day and their first week.”

Look for long-time employees to preach the culture.

When subscription beauty box company Birchbox expanded rapidly, and as a result, sought to hire people with expertise that was even beyond the company leadership’s, they realized their early employees had a critical task — to keep the culture of the company thriving. “The old guard didn’t come in with as much industry experience, but they are super-skilled at ‘Birchbox’ — at our vision and practices,” explains cofounder Katia Beauchamp.

Identify the gaps, but fill them carefully.

Bringing in specialists as a business grows is a best practice, but you shouldn’t sacrifice cultural fit in the process. As Doug Bewsher, CEO of San Francisco-based tech firm Leadspace, explains: It’s not just about hiring someone with a dazzling skill set. You must be clear about who you are as an organization and what you’re trying to do, so that you can find people who align with your goals.

Staying true to your company’s roots is challenging, but definitely doable if you keep these strategies in mind — just ask Facebook!

A version of this was first posted on

Your Employees Are Engaged…REALLY?

A while back, I dropped in on an innovative workspace for one of my software technology clients– it’s a very cool office space. An open-plan, communal space with worktables in rows, very low partitions between areas, and no private offices. Note that I said workspace, because it wasn’t very clear to me how a vast room offering little in the way of private work areas could become a workplace – somewhere to get things done.

Of course, I can’t forget the large sunny cafeteria and the designated area for Foosball table and other games. Ok, call me jaded but….this hip tech culture seemed a bit year 2000 to me, but which the office manager touted as contributing to a happy, productive and engaged workforce.

Part of me remains unconvinced. How can this be?

Some of the teams that I represent as a recruiter for technology talent have ‘thinking’ jobs in the software development realm, which means that they need time, space, and quiet to do their jobs. Sure, they collaborate as team members and absolutely love games and free coffee, coke and popcorn—who doesn’t? These bennies don’t, however, make them engage in their commitment to their employers. It would be great if employers could throw in a few video and board games and get happy employees and top productivity, but that’s not how it works.

Engagement is forged with different tools: trust, loyalty, open communication, clearly articulated goals and expectations, shared values and well-understood reward systems. It really isn’t about how the office is set up, or the toys gathered to distract restive employees, that build engagement. Turns out, employees engage with employers and brands when they’re treated as humans worthy of respect.

When companies like the one I visited tell me their workplace culture and trendy furniture builds employee engagement, I try to make them see that they’re focusing on the wrong part of the equation. They’re focusing on what, not why. What can tell you a lot about a company, but it’s why that tells you it’s a good company to work with. I consult with these organizations and hiring leaders to consider the whys of employee engagement.

Here are my top 5 questions which help construct the WHYS of employee engagement for leaders.

1) Why am I here? An employee will never get to an answer if you don’t communicate a shared sense of mission, vision and goals. Tell people why you want them to work at your company, and why you think they’ll be successful. Then you can focus on what they need to do to be successful.

2) Why should I trust you leadership? Open communications build trust, which is essential to engagement. Respect is essential to mutual trust, and also builds engagement. Communicate clearly and openly about goals and expectations. With open communications, you’ll be able tell the why, then move to the what: what are the tasks and actions necessary to be successful.

3) Why should I be loyal to your company? Engaged employees know why they’re loyal – they are treated with respect and honesty. Companies which rank mutual respect and honesty below procedural activities, such as tracking time, will see engagement and productivity drop. Tell employees why you’re loyal to them.

4) Why don’t you communicate your company values? Fail to show employees your organization has core values and you might as well forget about engagement. Even worse, if you talk about values and then behave in a vastly different way, you’ll telegraph just how little management actually believes in and practices those values. Explain why a value system is important to you, and the what – the actual list of values – will follow.

5) Why aren’t you clear about the rewards of working in this company? People need to know what to expect – not just what’s expected of them, but what they can expect in return. If you’re very clear and open about the rewards system – which includes everything from pay to benefits, bonuses, vacation, and the path upward in the organization. Explain why you have the rewards you do, and people will sign on and believe. Be crystal-clear, consistent and unambiguous in creating and distributing rewards, or engagement will go out the window.

Innovative workspaces have their own place and some employees that I’ve spoken with love these creative places. If you have a multi-generational workforce, focus on the whys of working for your company before you spend a moment on the whats: what desk, what chair, what computer. Engagement is innovative when it looks at why people behave and believe as they do rather than what might motivate them.

So break it all down—focus on the why, and the whats will come. If your employees cannot answer these five questions above all the cool workplace culture in the universe will not make a difference. Please let me know how it goes leaders and employees alike. I’m listening and engaging in the interim.

A version of this post was first published on on 10/14/12

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The Core Qualifications of HR for 2016

A respected colleague of mine wrote a piece that posed the question, “Are you qualified to be in HR?” This thought provoking article argued that being caring was of essential importance to being an effective HR practitioner. I couldn’t agree more.

The definition of ‘qualified,’ in the context of HR, is a hot debate. On one hand, it can mean formal education paired with a certification and some letters at the end of your name. On the other hand, it can be defined as entirely experiential based — lived, learned, and ‘been in the trenches’ qualified to be in HR.

Whatever side of the fence you reside on, there are some basic qualifications that I think we all can agree on. If ‘caring about people’ is the nucleus of being qualified to be in HR, then what other core qualifications are there to this profession?

  1. Be Heart Driven

Whether you fell in love with HR or you fell into HR, be absolutely clear on why you’re in it. Because our product & service is people (real, living humans!) and people are sensitive, fickle, and dynamic, it is of the utmost importance that we are heart driven professionals. Being heart driven means choosing HR because it lights you up, you believe in it, and you genuinely love people. HR is the ultimate service industry so if being of service to others drains you – you should get out of HR. Being heart driven is also good for your heart — it will help you live longer.

  1. Be Empathetic

If caring about people is the essence to being qualified to be in HR, then being empathetic is the behaviour that shows up on the day to day. Great HR people feel with people (note: compassion → I feel for you, empathy → I feel with you) and this act turns up in all areas of our business from candidate and employee experience to departures. Empathy makes human resources human. According to research, empathy (linked closely with emotional intelligence) is of the top three essential skills for leaders today.

  1. Be Reliable

Being reliable means you do what you say and you G.S.D. From basic follow through with employees and candidates to advising on ethical matters, HR has got to be the Moral Compass for the organization. Reliability means “consist and dependable” and it’s exactly the type of behaviour you should expect from your HR leader. As cited earlier, people are fickle, sensitive, and dynamic so the person leading your People programs should have a consistent and dependable nature.

  1. Be Helpful 

If I could predict a trend for 2016 it’d be this: HR is going to be helpful this year. This is our new value proposition. To truly make an impact on people, culture, and strategy it starts with pledging helpfulness. Helpfulness is about focusing on being effective, over efficient. It’s taking the human into consideration and striving for authenticity and genuine interactions with candidates, employees, and people in general. Helpfulness is about becoming the bridge, connecting people and services, people and knowledge, or people and people. Helpfulness is the edge that can turn the business of HR around.

If HR’s #1 philosophy were to be helpfulness, what kind of change would we see?

Your career in HR will be what you make of it, as will be your brand as a HR person. Even if I wiped the board of my other four attributes, if I could be known as a caring, then I’d say I’d be doing a pretty good job. 

What other essential attributes would you add to this list?

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