“We used to have people here at 6:30AM everyday. How do we get our team back to that?”
“Mike, we’re bigger now. You can’t expect people to do that.”
I recently was having a discussion with an engineer at a growing medical device company about the issues her company has had scaling. Her boss was lamenting how they used to have a culture where he wasn’t the only person in the office at 6:30AM, with the underlying feeling being that it meant people just didn’t care as much or weren’t as driven.
Maybe the 6:30AM factor is defined differently at your company, but it’s such a common concern when scaling that I wanted to talk about it a bit. How do you make sure to keep the special something as you grow and aren’t afraid of shuttering your doors tomorrow? While I think it’s really hard to do, I think scaling that sort of drive (in this case) is possible if you are really deliberate throughout the process of growing your headcount. Here are some of the components you need to have.
Great hiring (and firing) practices. Your founders should define the characteristics they love in employees and the culture they want to have early on, then work with the HR or People Ops team to engrain them into the hiring process. The earlier, the better. You want to have it down to a science and learn from your mistakes before hitting a stretch of rapid growth.
Many companies wait too long to hire a strong person to build out the people infrastructure, so it’s not a surprise that it becomes an uphill battle. You should be interviewing for fit, work style, skills and experience early on, and exiting people who aren’t a fit for the culture you want to sustain. Your culture will naturally change as you grow, but you need to be vigilant about reinforcing the characteristics you want and avoid letting it slip into a bad place early on.
Purpose. Part of the reason you see such a vibrant culture in a lot of start-ups is that every person feels able to impact the company’s ability to sink or swim. Even the intern gets face time with the CEO to hear about the vision and strategy. How can you not be excited to come into work with that level of clarity and ability to impact great things?! As you grow, that doesn’t happen organically. Before you know it, you have a content writer writing about tax returns, who doesn’t see how what they does matters to the company and watches the clock until they can leave.
As you grow, you need to be much more deliberate about purpose and making people feel impactful. People further down the ranks are going to feel further and further from what the company is trying to do and top-level metrics. The content writer doesn’t see how this article impacts MRR or growth rate, but maybe they can see it impacting organic search results or customer satisfaction.
Your leaders should take the time to position tasks and initiatives very specifically, tie them up to department goals, and explain how that impacts company goals. Also, define the mission and goals of their teams. When you give people a task, show them the metrics it’ll move. Let them own it. People want to feel like they make a difference – it’s what gets them pumped to get out of bed in the morning and, maybe, show up at 6:30AM to try this new thing they think will move the needle.
Autonomy and growth. When you are a small company, it’s really easy for people to feel like they control their own destiny and get to take on stretch projects. It’s invigorating. When people are pumped about what they do, the time flies. As you get bigger, there’s less green field, more process, more specialization and things may move a little slower.
It takes a very deliberate effort by managers to distribute the boring tasks that nobody wants to do (and give them context so they are slightly less awful), and also distribute the stretch projects to members of the team so everyone still has something they are really excited about. No, your customer service rep probably won’t have a chance to run social media as you grow, but maybe they can be a team lead or run an onboarding program.
What happens more typically is that a couple of people get all the stretch projects, while others get the grunt work. So you have a smaller number of people feeling autonomy and the opportunity for growth. I think this adds to critical mass becoming less and less engaged. I think the only real way around this obstacle is good management. Unfortunately, many quickly-growing start-ups end up with a lot of first time managers (usually the people who got stretch projects and crushed it) who aren’t able to be as deliberate about divvying up work. Which brings me to …
Good management. Great managers are a differentiator. People join for them, excel under them, and stick around through the hard times because of them. They make work exciting. You need really good managers to hire and fire correctly. To give purpose as you scale. And to ensure autonomy and growth opportunities throughout their teams. If you have great managers, you can scale that start-up feel where people are invigorated by what they do. Every business struggles with this, but particularly growing ones where every day there are a million other things to take on.
The wrap. Even if you solve for all of the above, reality kicks in. When you are a small company, your demographics may be very different than they need to be as you grow. For example, with more experienced leaders, you likely will have more people who have families and other commitments outside of work than a fifteen person start-up with a lot of twenty-somethings. Having people in the office at all hours becomes less likely (and I’m not sure it’s the best measure of scaling success).
If your company grows, your dynamics will need to change, regardless. As a leader, you need to really get to the heart of what’s important, define it for your HR team, listen to their feedback (i.e. are you focusing on the right measures of success?), and let them get to work weaving it into the fabric of your company. That is, in my opinion, the best way to scale a really positive culture that reflects the wants of the founders while meeting the needs of the business.
Oh. And hire/develop good managers as you scale. That, too.