9 Questions to Discover If Your Culture Will Scale

Expansion is a team effort. Whether you’re entering global markets, diversifying your operations, extending into new categories or trying to reach new customers with new products and services, you’re bound to need new people on board; sometimes, entirely new offices. Cultivate the right culture and you’ll find it creates significant competitive advantage: Improved talent attraction and retention, outstanding customer service and happier, more productive people.

However, when you’re faced with aggressive growth targets, it’s easy to make the mistake of running the urgent at the expense of the important. In the rush to scale, many businesses underinvest in the cultural underpinnings required to deliver their business strategy, and see performance suffer as a result.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re in growth mode, here are 9 big questions to answer if you want to scale successfully.

Score yourself and let us know how you get on.

1. The magnetism question — Are you a talent magnet for candidates and employees, with really persuasive answers to the big questions: “Why do we exist? Why join, and why stay?”

Clarity on your employee value proposition, employee experience and employer brand is essential if you’re scaling your workforce. As you make your company as attractive as possible, use your distinctive brand to establish an emotional connection, this way you’ll hire people who don’t just do what you do, they believe what you believe.

Example: Musgrave is a 140+ year-old family-owned food retail and wholesale business that continues to go from strength to strength. Their purpose – “Growing good business” — sits at the heart of an employer brand set up to attract people who share the company’s entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to long-term success.

2. The code question — Is your desired company culture (purpose, beliefs, values, behaviour, way of working etc.) captured and easy to pick up, share and apply? Is it an operating code for your people?

In the early days, founders are ever-present, controlling hiring and knowing everyone by name. As companies expand, it’s no longer safe to assume your culture will be understood or meaningful to all. If you’re facing this issue, take time to codify your culture, bottle it and hardwire it in. And when things change, don’t be afraid to update it.

Example: Netflix’s manifesto on organisational culture was first published as a slide presentation in 2009. It has been viewed over 18 million times and was once praised by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as “The most important document ever to come out of the Valley.” In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced an update, saying the new document “Reflects the emphasis we put on global thinking and inclusiveness, and maintains our joy of working with stunning colleagues.”

Note: Last week, a report in The Wall Street Journal examined the application of these cultural values in an article headlined “At Netflix, Radical Transparency and Blunt Firings Unsettle the Ranks.”

3. The proof question — Beyond words on the wall, does your brand’s culture and ethos come to life in very tangible, obvious ways (e.g. distinctive people policies, practices, internal initiatives, social rituals etc.)?

Culture is best defined as “the way we do things around here.” Actions, as ever, speak louder than words. If you are trying to replicate your culture in a new location, translate it into a distinctive people experience and practices that are easy to replicate, emulate or talk about.

Examples: So many examples – here are just two: At online retailer Zappos, their “WOW” culture is reinforced by offering employees $2,000 to quit because they only want people who absolutely love the job to stay. Ethical cosmetics retailer Lush puts their passionate people front and centre, featuring ‘Made by’ illustrations of their factory staff on product packaging. What are your equivalents?

4. The leadership question — Do colleagues have faith in the leadership team and share their vision for the brand and business? Would they follow them anywhere?

Great leaders set the tone in any culture change process. As things evolve, keep the confidence alive by demonstrating the CEO and executive team are in touch with needs on the ground, personally committed and putting the interests of the business above their own personal agendas.

Example: Amazon’s leadership principles are published online, the most distinctive being, “Have backbone: disagree and commit.” They say: “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.” When you’re moving at the speed of an Amazonian, this is an essential behaviour.

5. The team question — Do you have the right people on board – i.e. a team with the right attitude, capabilities and blend of perspectives to drive growth?

Growing headcount can be a headache, but try to aim for precision over speed; the wrong hire can be costly and do a lot of damage. Consider your brand’s target audience and reflect their make-up in your team. Strive for “culture add” not just “culture fit” to stimulate a more diverse, creative working environment, and ultimately, better results.

Example: Like many tech brands, Facebook has been heavily criticised for its lack of diversity – too white, too male. In response, it  banned the term “culture fit” when giving feedback on candidates. They’ve also updated the interview process to align with their values and rolled out training to help mitigate unconscious bias.

6. The freedom question — Is yours a workplace where people feel free to be themselves and empowered to learn, grow and do their best work?

The enemy of growth is excessive control – particularly micromanagement, which, distracts leaders from the big picture while stunting colleagues’ personal development. When things turn toxic (Elon Musk’s Tesla, anyone?) intense control-driven workplaces become unattractive. That said, as online retailer Zappos found with its holacracy experiment, balance is key. The role of management is shifting from controlling to supporting success – setting expectations, offering insight and resources, before stepping back to allow autonomous, self-organising people and teams to work their magic.

Example: In music streaming pioneer Spotify’s workplaces, they organise for autonomy. Self-organising teams work towards the company mission but are free to focus on chosen projects. This high alignment / autonomy culture means leaders focus on what problem to solve and let the teams figure out how to solve it. They liken it to jazz, of course. Which means it’s not without its glitches – there has to be a balance of autonomy and accountability – but when it’s good, it’s really good.

7. The engagement question — As things change, are you good at communicating with colleagues and creating a feeling of togetherness?

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Engagement is an outcome, not a process. In engaged cultures, people understand and believe in the course the business is on and know how to play their part. The starting point is a clear narrative, swiftly followed by a good conversation. If you’re changing tack and you want to bring people with you, always make room for questions and invite a wide range of views and ideas.

Example: When LinkedIn was bought by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2B, CEOs Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn) and Satya Nadella (Microsoft) took the opportunity to write notes to their people, explaining the rationale and what it would mean for them. Weiner’s letter was an optimistic, persuasive piece, designed to move hearts and minds. By publishing it on his own site he underlined LinkedIn’s belief in being “open, honest and constructive.”

8. The incentives question — Are you incentivising and motivating the right kind of behaviour?

The science of motivation tells us paying people well and fairly is a given, and additional financial incentives or emotional pressure (“I’m counting on you”) can have unintended consequences. If you want a healthy culture, apply the trifecta of intrinsic motivators: Make work enjoyable and meaningful (purpose); Give people the freedom to self-direct (autonomy) and; Support them to keep improving something they’re good at (mastery).

Example: Shane Snow, co-founder of content marketing company Contently, has spoken candidly about his company’s challenges. Despite a relentless focus on culture from day one, when the company hit five years old and 100 people, it became clear that the practices they had in place were the exact things research said would kill company culture, eventually, productivity. Read the full interview here.

9. The killer question — Would you fight for your culture, if you went head-to-head with a rival in the war for talent or in an M&A situation?

You know you’ve got something special going on, if your culture is something you believe is worth fighting for. If you’re scaling, get ready to promote it, even defend it. But one final warning: sometimes, we humans have a habit of holding onto things that are no longer fit for purpose. If growth presents an opportunity to rethink your culture, don’t shy away from the challenge; get it right, and culture is a real enabler of success.

Stephanie Matthews

Stephanie Matthews leads BrandCap’s culture practice, building brands from the inside, out. She specialises in brand-led culture change programmes, employee engagement, magnetic people experiences and employer brands.