People and culture advice for founders

by Matt Grimshaw
May 16, 2017

Lots of growing businesses want to make their people and culture a source of competitive advantage. If you’re one of them, here’s a few bits of quick advice that might help you on your way…

1. It’s ok to buy things with a bit of growing room, but don’t put your toddler in clothes for an 11 year old…

As you grow, your people management practices will need to change, but resist the temptation to over-invest your time and money in solutions that won’t really be appropriate for some time to come.

It’s better to invest little and often and to focus on the most immediate challenges/opportunities.

2. Watch out for Dunbar’s number

In the early days, everyone gets on, everyone’s passionate, sociable and working hard – you’re more of a tribe than a company.

Then you get to the point when it all becomes a bit chaotic (in theory at c100-150 people)… no one knows what’s really going on or who to ask and it becomes much more difficult to co-ordinate work effectively.

Why does this happen? As you add people to your company you create social complexity. When the team was small, everyone worked well together because they knew what everyone else was thinking. Once your company gets to a certain size, people simply don’t have the mental capacity to keep on top of so many relationships. The informal, intuitive way of working that helped you grow so fast, now starts to slow you down. This is a challenge you just can’t ignore – you need to implement some structure, without compromising your culture or the pace at which you operate.

3. Resist the temptation to copy the people management practices of your bigger rivals

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to ‘grow up’ by simply copying the people management practices of your bigger rivals. Most established or traditional HR practices have no scientific basis or evidence base for their effectiveness.  Investing in ‘off the shelf’ people management systems and practices will kill the culture and dynamism that has fuelled your success.

Continue to be brave and aspire to be different. Instead of copying stuff that doesn’t work, innovate, test and experiment with new ways of working to find the right answer for you.

4. Invest early in data

If you want to blaze your own trail you need to have accurate data. If you don’t have a history of accurate measurements, you’ll forever be ‘guessing’ or acting on intuition when you come to judge whether a new management practice has been successful or not.

Investing early in systems that enable you to capture data on your people’s mindsets, behaviours and performance enables you to make informed decisions and to continually improve over time.

5. Find a way to capture what you learn

Last year I was speaking with the MD of a business that has grown rapidly to over 20,000 employees. In his view “We grew so fast, we never stopped to think. Now our growth is levelling off and people don’t know what it was that made us so successful in the first place”.

As you grow, find ways to consolidate insight and learning so you can share it with new joiners. You might want to write things down, you might want to create wikis or videos or diagrams. Whatever you do, try to periodically consolidate the wisdom and knowledge in your company so it doesn’t just reside in the heads of a few key individuals.

6. Keep telling your story

One of the biggest risks of growth is that emotional engagement falls away. Don’t let this happen. Amongst other things you need to keep telling your story about why you started in the first place, your core purpose and vision. Use this story to inspire and align new employees and keep connecting new initiatives, breakthroughs and specific customer experiences back to this overarching story so people can see a clear connection between what they’re doing and how the company is moving forward.

7. Be conscious that not everyone will be with you for the whole journey

This is undoubtedly the hardest challenge facing founders. Some of the people who’ve been with you since the beginning, who’ve worked really hard for you and who’ve made a massive contribution to your success won’t be the right person for the next stage of your journey.

It’s a tough one, made more difficult in the long run if you don’t have honest, objective and dispassionate conversations about performance and potential. But unfortunately, if you want a high performing team, you can’t carry under-performers.

If you’re interested in creating a people and culture growth engine for your business, click here to find out how we can help.