Creating a Culture that Scales
One of the toughest challenges facing growing companies is retaining their unique culture as they grow. The faster that growth, the harder it can be to hang on to a strong sense of “self.” And it gets even trickier when employees are working remotely. So how do you build scalability into your culture?
It’s all about your people, says Christina Luconi. She’s Chief People Officer at Rapid7, a rising young security operations company that’s now home to 1300 employees. Lola.com CEO Mike Volpe recently chatted with Christina to get her take on the subject of scalability and culture.
Right off the bat, you know her approach is different. She disdains the long-popular term Human Resources. Equipment, she says, is a resource. “Human beings are not. They are really the lifeblood of any organization, and success depends on tapping into them in the most productive way.”
No shortcuts, sorry
You cannot merely apply generalized best practices for hiring and promoting employees, because they aren’t “best” for every company. There is no step-by-step formula you can plug in. Instead, you have to know who you are as a company, who you aspire to be, and what makes your organization unique, then focus diligently on those things to create your own best practices.
Successfully scaling company culture also requires keeping your eye on the big picture right from the start. That prevents creating expectations that will have to be rescinded later – free soda might be OK for 10 people, but it’s no longer viable when you’ve grown to 100 or 1000 employees.
Jettison formal performance reviews
Ah, the dreaded annual (or possibly semi-annual) Performance Review. The painful, time-consuming event that lets everyone feel the pressure to get things right, yet accomplishes little in the way of helpful critique. Managers feel they have to make the review perfect, says Christina, while employees worry about getting a perfect score.
No one even remembers the details of what happened months ago, so the value of any feedback of watered down. Employees miss out on the opportunity to learn right away from a mistake (or a good deed) and put that learning to use. That stalls their progress, and the company’s too.
There’s a better way: real-time feedback
At Rapid7, Christina has instituted a tech-based system to capture “moment in time” feedback about individuals. At least monthly, managers record comments, positive or negative. Employees can access their feedback instantly, plus there’s a running trail that can be reviewed at any time by employees and managers. Negative comments are discussed in person, as soon as possible. The system is quick to use, and much more effective because it’s less threatening to managers as well as employees.
“It weighs less heavily on someone to have a quick discussion about something that didn’t go so well, than to have an annual review where you’re sitting there sweating,” says Christina. The conversation and results become the main focus, instead of The Review as an event. To ensure managers actually use the system, the critical importance of ongoing employee feedback is a key topic at Rapid7’s manager boot camps. Senior level executives can track from above on an ongoing basis, to see whether and how well managers are using the feedback technology tool.
Intriguing, isn’t it? You can catch Mike’s entire conversation with Christina here. But there’s more.
Feedback that reflects and supports company values
Positive or negative, feedback must correlate directly with one of the company’s core values. Christina uses the example of continuous learning. “Hey, you really stepped up and tried something new with that project . . .” Giving feedback about what went well or not in the context of continuous learning helps people become their best – in service to the company values.
Startup consultant Jordana Valencia takes that a step further. “Define each company value or belief into two or three behaviors that people can observe,” she suggests. “For example, ‘respect’ can be defined as 1) being a great listener and 2) giving equal consideration to different ideas.” Clarity makes it easier to learn as well as measure and reinforce values.
Jordana Valencia also notes that managers are, essentially, cultural representatives for those who serve under them. When things get messy during times of rapid growth, “it is easy for managers to forget they have a powerful behavior-shaping tool at their disposal: recognition.” Calling out positive behavior is especially valuable because it’s easy, it’s free, and it works.
Whatever culture the company created as a start-up may feel ingrained to the original cast, but as more and more people join the team and bring their own personal and work-style differences with them, they can dilute or redirect company culture. Maintaining the vision requires constant reinforcement.
People-focused promotions and onboarding
Another cultural issue that can crop up as companies grow is political posturing. Managers maneuver to promote their own people over others in the company, or actively work to keep someone from being promoted. Christina Luconi says her company sidesteps this problem by convening their management team to make joint decisions regarding promotions for any position “director” level or above. (Anyone who has at least a couple of managers under them.)
But it’s not a simple discussion and vote. Selected prospects participate in a lengthy leadership development program that pairs them with a coach/champion from outside their department and also includes projects that foster cross-department collaboration so critical for company growth.
Maintaining cultural focus is essential even when it is necessary to bring in a new hire from the outside. Those in more senior positions bring their own way of doing things, based on their past experiences, which may not mesh with the new company’s culture. Rather than expecting people to adapt instantly, Christina stresses looking for candidates who are passionate, resilient, and adaptable, then giving them time to adapt.
Resilience for the long haul
It’s easy to create a fun or funky work environment and easy for individuals to shine when there are just a few people involved and things are going well. But when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does at some point, the team must have what it takes to persevere together, to keep the company growing forward.
Where to start? If you ask Christina Luconi, she’ll tell you people are the key, from Day One. “The CEO and others at the top don’t have to know how to do the people stuff, but they have to realize how important it is to the company’s future.”