Product/Market fit? Tick. Secured funding? Tick. Now what? 

If you’re the founder, CEO or People Director of a start-up that’s looking to scale, your success now depends on your culture. If you don’t get it right, more people will just = more problems.

Without the right culture you won’t grow successfully or sustainably. It’s that simple.

But fear not, this blog signposts you to all the great content you need to be able to develop the culture that will drive your growth…

The best place to start, is to understand what you’re actually working on…

It might sound a bit basic, but bear with me because there’s an awful lot of waffle kicking about the People and Culture space…

If you want to create a culture that will drive the growth of your scale-up, the sensible place to start is understanding what exactly is company culture? 

Now there’s no ‘one right answer’ to this question (there’s not a World President of Company Culture whose job it is to define what it means), but there are loads of bad ones.  And if you want an insider’s tip — the litmus test for telling a good culture practitioner from a bad one is to ask them what they mean by ‘culture’. Good people can disagree on the answer to this question. That’s as it should be. But ask a bad practitioner to define what they mean by culture and they’ll do this…

So watch out for people who think culture is the same as “vision, mission & values”. 

Or tell you it’s “all about leadership” or the “employee experience” or “diversity and inclusion”.

Or who answer your question by listing companies with cultures they admire.

Don’t work with people like this. Anyone who tells you your culture is going to be critical, but hasn’t spent the time to think about what exactly they mean by culture, isn’t going to be a critical thinking partner as you grow. They may be well-intentioned and enthusiastic, but these types of practitioners know just enough to be dangerous.

So what do we mean by culture?

At The Pioneers we follow a definition of organisational culture taken from Edgar Schein:

The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel and behave in relation to those problems. 

This accumulated learning is a pattern or system of beliefs, values and behavioural norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.

Organizational Culture and Leadership; Edgar Schein (2017)

Let’s try and translate that from business guru to plain English… 

For your business to survive and grow the people who work for you need to learn how to do two things: how to engage successfully with the outside world (users, customers and investors) and how to work together effectively as a team. 

When you’re a start-up you try things. If they work, you stick with them. If they don’t you try something else.

The more something seems to work, the more integral it becomes to your culture. By the time you’ve evidenced product/market fit and you’re ready to scale, things that may have started off as experiments will have been reinforced into social norms that define what people need to notice, think, feel and do in order to fit in or belong to the company – that’s your culture.

It might help to think of culture as a kind of distributed learning. A wiki that sits in the heads of everyone that works for you. Some people may have more influence over what that wiki says than others, but no single individual “owns it” and no two versions are exactly the same. This cultural wiki has the instructions for what your people need to do for your company to survive and flourish. It’s something that’s constantly being edited, affirmed and adjusted, but over time, the most important and influential elements ‘solidify’ and become harder to change. 

And the reason culture really, really matters to scale-ups is…

  • Your culture is the biggest (but not only) influence on your team’s day-to-day decision making and behaviour – it’s what gets work out the door
  • As you grow, you’ll need to change some aspects of your culture and you need to fiercely protect others… and it’s not always clear which is which!
  • With a great story and a great recruitment team you can get people to join your company… but your culture will determine whether they actually latch on and thrive… (and if they don’t you’re just burning cash) 
  • And if you’ve taken VC funding, you’ll be growing faster than the ‘natural adaption’ rate of a human system… it’s a bit like pumping your body with performance enhancing drugs. If you know what you’re doing you can get stronger and faster. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a very unhealthy place to be!

Ok, no shit, culture’s going to be critical to my success… so what should I do about it?

Step 1: decide what you mean by ‘culture’.

Step 2: have a think about the extent to which you can (and can’t) influence your culture. What are the levers you can pull?  

Step 3: you’ll  probably have found that a lot of the advice for scale-up leaders is framed around ‘how to protect your culture as you grow’… well, that’s actually the wrong mindset. In fact it’s one of the 4 ways scale-ups kill their culture. Don’t make the same mistakes!

Step 4: at this point, you’ll have grasped that you’re trying to curate a culture that’s unique to your company. Your culture needs to resonate with your purpose, your operating context, your value proposition and brand, your strategy and vision for the future. The best way to make sense of this is to start by consolidating your company narrative

Step 5: your narrative will give you a better sense of the journey ahead, now you can start to design and build the engine that’s going to get you there… your peopleOS. 

This blog explains what we mean by a peopleOS. Here’s what we think a great peopleOS looks and feels like and how to go about designing and building your peopleOS.

If you’re the sort of person who likes to dive right in, download yourself a copy of our peopleOS canvas, take the survey to find out whether your peopleOS is fit for purpose… and above all get in touch with us! We like helping. We’re not sales-y. And we love fellow pioneers – people who are trying to build stuff and who want to change the world. 

So if you want to attract, engage and retain the people you need to grow. If you want to create a company where your people are happy, fulfilled and engaged in their work. And if you want to do it in a way that creates a demonstrable improvement in customer experiences and business performance then we really ought to speak… trust us, it’s quite a tough nut to crack and you might want some help. 

Why don’t we start by having a quick chat.