The magic number that some anthropologists believe is the cognitive limit to how many people we can maintain stable social relationships is 150.
This number has added significance to me as a business owner. More than that and it’s suddenly impossible to have a meaningful relationship with every staff member. This is a troubling thought but a reality of success.
Our company, Funding Circle, has grown from 25 to 95 employees in the past 12 months in the US, and now has almost 300 team members globally. As the team continues to grow, one thing I’m focused on is keeping intact the culture the early leadership team worked very hard to create. Over the past the year, I’ve learned four valuable lessons about scaling culture in a high-growth business.
1. Never compromise on hiring.
With pressure to grow quickly, it can be tempting to cut corners and hire prematurely. Don’t. Hiring mistakes at very best are painful. At a senior level, it could be fatal.
Employees learn culture by interacting with other employees, so a thoughtful approach to building and developing the right team is vital. There are two important things to consider here.
First, build a relatively flexible hiring system that can scale because it can be taught and repeated. Second, invest heavily in hiring and training people who are going to hire the best people. Give them the tools to hire good people themselves, or the chance of culture drift grows.
Related: Top 7 Hiring Mistakes for Startups
2. Reinforce the core pillars.
As a team grows so too will its diversity. It will go from a small, tight-knit family feel to what, hopefully, will be a really interesting, diverse and large group of people united by a common goal, values and strong cultural fabric.
To make this transition successful, it’s critical the early founding team identifies and communicates the key pillars of your organization’s culture. The reality is, “good culture” is like “good ice cream” - there are plenty of different delicious flavors. The key is to identify your culture, understand what it is all about and make sure it is perpetuated as you scale. Root out “bad culture” as you see it.
As part of this, think about how your culture can be 'bottom up" as well as "top down." Sub-cultures may start to emerge, especially across teams or regional offices with their own personalities and quirks. This is okay. It’s good to have ways to stay small within a growing company, so long as everybody is acting in line with the “big” cultural pillars. For us, that is our values around openness or standing together).
For example, we have a network of employee clubs that have nothing to do with linear hierarchy or, in most cases, the work itself. From volunteer groups to the rooftop garden club, these emerged from the grass roots and play a very important role in creating a higher level of social inclusion, engagement and communication in the office.
3. Share your vision for the company and demonstrate its culture every day.
Jack Welch, the chairman and CEO of General Electric, once said that good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion.
Don’t worry about saying the same thing over and over. That’s a big part of the job. A good leader never gets bored selling their vision for the company and its culture. From “all hands” staff meetings to casual conversations around the water fountain, a leader’s job is to constantly reinforce their vision, and remind people why they come to work every day. Buying into the vision will help a team unite and connect on a deeper level, which will only help foster the cultural equity that formed when the company was smaller.
4. Show the team you’re not a corporate automaton.
There aren’t enough hours in the day to attend every club meeting and bonding event, so pick a handful of culture-focused social activities that you will personally enjoy. You’ll be more likely to attend them and, importantly, genuinely connect with people who enjoy the same activities.
For example, I try to never miss a weekly company basketball game, am excited about a new breakfast sandwich club at our office, and will usually be first out the door to grab a beer and burger at the local dive bar to celebrate a big win for the company. It’s also important to structure ways to interact with a broader set of people. Sitting in an open plan office, eating lunch in the kitchen and riding the same elevator as a colleague will help develop open communication, transparency and trust, each an integral characteristic of a strong culture.