One of the most common questions I’m asked in my role as a small business mentor for the AIR MILES Small Business Achievement Awards is about culture, and more specifically how culture manifests and changes as a company grows.
In the early days of a startup, you employ a tight-knit group of individuals who forge strong bonds over countless late nights, investor pitches and the sharing of those particularly sweet early successes. As your headcount expands, silos form as different departments grow. Soon that early culture underpinned by Tuesday night’s all-company bowling seems a distant memory, as people begin to pass each other in the hall without even glancing up.
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LoyaltyOne now employs around 2,000 individuals across the globe, but it started off in 1991 as three men in a cramped hotel room sharing a single phone line and computer. When I joined in 1992, we were a mighty 25.
I certainly look back at this time with a great deal of affection, but I’m convinced that the early culture we fostered back then still prevails today, and has been the cornerstone of our success. We were authentic and had candid conversations. We were collaborative and yearned for ways to make what seemed complex simple, both in terms of how we solved our clients’ business problems and how we looked at our own company. And we were incredibly curious—there were not enough hours in the day in our quest to discover, learn, and build our success. All of this adds up to passion. With such a small team, our vision, culture and values were well understood.
Though much has changed as we’ve grown—for the better—we have maintained three guiding principles that have helped us get to where we are and will continue to see us navigate the future.
Hire for culture
Hire the right people’ might not sound like earth-shattering advice. But as a company grows, not only do the early founders of a business become removed from the recruitment process but expediency can trump selectivity because of the pressure to fill critical positions quickly.
In our early days, the length and number of our interviews during the recruitment process was a bit of a running joke. It’s pretty easy to quickly identify whether someone has the required skill-set and experience for a role, but what we took the time to explore was whether the person would fit into our culture. I’m not sure you can get a true understanding of that just from reading a resume and one 45-minute interview. Investing time to perform proper due diligence around cultural fit dramatically improves your chances of creating a cohesive culture.
Respect early rituals
Companies are ritualistic by nature. Some of the early rituals your company has developed—whether it’s about celebrating birthdays or company wins, or something else—are likely to feel the most authentic in the future.
Respect, protect and support these rituals. While some will undoubtedly need to evolve to reflect headcount growth, make sure to retain the original ethos or purpose behind them. For example, in the early days of LoyaltyOne we used to take turns each Friday to bring in breakfast for the whole company. It’s not exactly feasible for one person to do that any more, but we still believe in the importance of getting people together to “break bread,” so the ritual continues some 23 years later but mostly at a team level.
I would urge business leaders to keep track of your early rituals and, as your company grows, ensure you sponsor them with the required resources—they can be highly influential in ensuring the early baked-in values of your company endure.
Communicate, Grow, Communicate
Truly great companies are founded on the idea that they will make change by offering something entirely new or solving a critical problem for clients or consumers. If you have a clear understanding as to why a company exists, don’t be afraid to keep continually reinforcing this why’ so that the initial passion for solving a problem endures in the long-term.
Do whatever you can as a leader to provide clarity about the direction the company is taking and the role of people in it, so they too have the same passion and spirit of collaboration across the company. Empower your people and reward their curiosity by encouraging them to take everyday risks that help the company remain innovative. Be sure to clearly communicate that change, risks and new ideas are encouraged and valued.
Bryan Pearson is an internationally-recognized expert and author in the field of customer loyalty. As President and CEO of LoyaltyOne, a pioneer in loyalty strategies and data-driven marketing, Bryan has spent more than two decades developing meaningful customer relationships for some of the world’s leading companies. Bryan has spearheaded LoyaltyOne’s expansion into new markets across the globe and has grown the AIR MILES Rewards Program into Canada’s premier coalition loyalty program with more than 10 million participants.
MORE CULTURE CONSIDERATIONS:
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- The Truth About Corporate Culture »
- How to Scale Up Without Selling Out »
- A Neo-Shaman’s Gift to Corporate Culture »
- Secrets to Growth Without Chaos »
How have you maintained your early corporate culture as your company has grown? Share your strategies and experiences using the comments section below.