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One of the toughest aspects of growing a business is scaling your culture. It’s difficult to retain the same values as you rapidly add more people. This article will explore some approaches to scale your agency culture along with your business.
A group of people led by a fearless founder starts an agency. They build a culture that thrives on collaboration and competence. Eventually, success comes their way. They win industry awards, land new clients, and add more employees.
But something changes. The collaborative culture disappears as the agency grows. People start operating in silos. Trust is replaced by petty politics and competition. The culture that once fostered the agency’s growth now actively hampers it.
This is the story of so many promising businesses. Their operations scale, but their culture doesn’t. The values the founding team enshrined get lost as the company adds more people.
Company cultures are hard to define, even harder to scale. New hires and new clients can rapidly change the things your company believes in. To scale your culture with your business, you need to clearly define your values and reinforce their adoption.
I’ll show you how in this article.
The Four Aspects of Culture
‘Culture’ is an organization’s tacit social order. It is a collection of habits, beliefs, and values shared across the company. Your culture defines what is encouraged, accepted and rejected within the business.
Culture is unlike strategy, which is top-down, deliberate, and hierarchical. Rather, culture is organic. It grows as much from the experience of low-level employees as the diktats of C-suite executives. CEOs can influence culture, but they can’t completely control it.
By and large, culture has four aspects:
- Culture is a shared phenomenon. It always exists in groups, not individuals. Culture manifests itself in the beliefs, values, norms, and practices established by the group - both explicitly and implicitly.
- Culture is pervasive. It isn’t merely isolated to a single department or team. The company’s established culture affects every group, just as the group’s culture influences the company’s beliefs.
- Culture is enduring and self-perpetuating. There is a circular quality to company culture. Employees who share your values are more likely to be drawn to your business. And you’re more likely to select people who have the same beliefs as you. This makes culture resistant to change.
- Culture is implicit. While you may have explicitly stated beliefs, much of what qualifies as your company’s culture is implicit. It is “felt” and “lived” rather than stated and explained.
This is precisely why culture is so difficult to scale. Once a set of beliefs become established within the business, it can be incredibly hard to change them. Even documenting your company’s culture can be a challenge, given how it exists in the margins and unsaid beliefs.
Given these aspects, how exactly do you scale your culture? I’ll share a few approaches below.
Define Your Cultural Beliefs Early
In an interview, INC Magazine asked Zappos founder Tony Hsieh what he would do differently if he was to start all over again.
His answer? Formalize the company’s core values early.
Company cultures are obdurate. Beliefs, once accepted, are hard to change as the business grows. What you establish as the norm at your agency’s inception will stay with it for years.
The sooner you can define your cultural values, the better. The moment you have your first hire, you should have a clear idea of why your company exists and what are its core beliefs.
Get your founding team together and ask them to introspect about their core beliefs. Ask:
- What mission should the agency serve?
- What values should it encourage?
- What should it discourage?
- What change does it hope to bring about in the world and in business?
These initial values should be based on things the entire founding team can agree on. If there is any disagreement over a value, it shouldn’t be a part of your cultural ethos. Else you risk “cultural fragmentation” where different teams believe different things, pulling the company in opposite directions.
Once you have a list of shared values, condense them into an easy to share document.
For example, YourCreativePeople.com has a dedicated page for sharing its seven core values:
UK’s Status Digital has the same approach - a dedicated page to share its most important values:
Define and Adopt a Common Vocabulary
In their 2004 founders IPO letter, Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote:
“Our employees, who have named themselves Googlers, are everything....we have discussed our desire to create an ideal working environment that will ultimately drive the success of Google by retaining and attracting talented Googlers.”
Look through any Silicon Valley stalwart and you’ll find similar nomenclature. Facebook employees graduate through a bootcamp, celebrate their faceversaries, and hang out at the hacker square.
This isn’t just happenstance; sharing a common vocabulary is a proven and effective way of creating a sense of culture. People feel a stronger sense of belonging when they can share a inside jokes and a shared language.
While much of this emerges spontaneously, you can also encourage its growth by defining and adopting it. Just as Larry and Sergey did in their IPO letter, it helps to formally cast your people as Googlers, Tweeps (Twitter’s employees), or Amazonians (Amazon’s employees), especially as you scale and add more people.
Here are two things you can do:
- Document shared terms: Identify and document common terms people are already using within your teams. Introduce new hires to these shared common terms and encourage their use. The sooner you can get people to be a part of a team’s in-jokes, the faster you can give them a sense of belonging.
- Create shared physical spaces: Affix a shared identity to common spaces, such as meeting rooms and cafeterias. Give these spaces names people can remember, instead of “meeting room #1”. Facebook’s people, for example, often say they’re “Livin’ the dream” - the name for the on-campus cafe.
For example, We Are Social named its meeting rooms after its internal Skype group names - perhaps the ultimate manifestation of an in-joke.
(Image credit: DigiDay)
Identify Your Foundational Value
Identifying your agency’s values can help you scale your culture. But culture is a dynamic, organic entity. It will evolve over time.
To truly scale your culture, you need a core belief that guides all your decision making. You can call it your mission statement, mantra, or even your calling.
Think of Google’s “Don’t be evil” philosophy or Amazon’s mission to build “The world’s most customer-centric company”.
This foundational value unifies every aspect of your culture. Every important decision you take must be seen through its lens.
In The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, the authors identify 8 foundational values:
Each of these foundational values imbue different qualities to your company and its culture. An agency that emphasizes caring would focus on building a collaborative, friendly atmosphere. One that focuses on learning would encourage curiosity and innovation.
Take some time to identify where your agency falls in this foundational value chart. Do you want to build a culture where learning and enjoyment are prioritized? Or would you rather give your employees and customers a caring, secure environment?
Once you’ve figured this out, condense your core value into a single sentence. Use it to guide your decision-making.
In 1930, a sixth grade dropout and former insurance salesman started selling fried chicken from his tiny Shell gas filling station. The chicken proved to be so popular that he soon had to move to a larger location. Then another. And another.
Today, you know this chicken joint as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
There are stories aplenty in the business world. From Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard to Ray Kroc’s early struggles with McDonald’s, they’re a part of business folklore.
These stories are critical for grounding business activities in a shared identity and sense of purpose. When done right, they can elevate the business from a mere profit venture to a mission and even a “calling”.
Consider the “Little Red Book” that Facebook gives out to new hires. It's meant to orient employees on Facebook’s values. But its most important goal, as it directly admits in the opening pages, is to ground them in Facebook’s mission.
Storytelling has a powerful role in building your agency’s culture. The stories you and your employees tell each other shape your identity. What your people believe about your business will impact their behavior far more than rules and protocols.
As Kathy Klotz writes in Convince & Convert, “To change your culture, start by changing cultural behavior and the stories that define it.”
This is particularly true for agencies looking to scale. As you add more people, you’ll often struggle to emphasize what it really means to work at your agency. A story can drill down to the truth quickly and memorably.
Here are some tactics to use storytelling as a culture building tool:
- Onboarding: Your onboarding program should introduce all new hires to your values, mission, and beliefs. Encourage existing employees to share stories about your work culture, your company’s origins, and key achievements.
- Reinforce stories: For your stories to be memorable, they have to be reinforced. Repeat them at company-wide events, conferences, and memos. Share them with the media. You can even consider creating documents similar to Facebook’s “Little Red Book” or TransferWise’s “The Wise Way”.
- Share client stories: The results you deliver to your clients is perhaps the most accurate representation of your values. Give all employees a chance to partake in them by sharing client stories. Tell them about the time you helped a client win that big award, or that time you saved a family business from closure. Make these client stories a part of your agency folklore, quite like how people still talk about DDB’s “Think Small” campaign.
Live Your Values
For every one of your stated cultural values, you should have a way of evaluating and reinforcing its implementation. Else, your values merely exist in an academic sense and leave no impact on your culture.
For example, one of Buffer’s stated values is “transparency”. To ensure that this wasn’t just a marketing footnote, Buffer created a “transparency dashboard” where anyone - employees or otherwise - can look up the company’s metrics, salaries, equity, etc.
Embracing your values in such a way sends a very clear signal to all employees: that your values matter. For an agency looking to scale its culture, such public reinforcement matters a great deal.
Here are some ways you can live your values:
- Employee recognition programs: Internally recognizing employees for upholding the cultural beliefs you care about is a great way to reinforce values. Disney, for example, has a “Spirit of Fred” program that celebrates the caring, helping nature of Fred, a contractual employee.
- Incorporate values in hiring: Every new hire whose values clash with yours, will chip away at your culture. Make value alignment a priority in your hiring process. Don’t just look at skills; look at how the person behaves and what he/she believes as well.
- Penalize violations: If an employee violates any of the values you deem important, don’t hesitate to penalize them for it, regardless of their seniority. You can’t really reinforce your cultural rules if no one gets punished for flouting them.
- State your values at every opportunity: Internal meetings, team building activities, memos - every time you interact with your employees, make sure to reinforce your values. Add your value statement to your signature, make it a part of your marketing collateral, and throw it into your press releases. The more you place your values “out there”, the more your people will believe them.
- Incorporate values in performance reviews: Your employee performance reviews shouldn’t just evaluate them on their job results. It should also factor in their values. Was their behavior in line with your cultural beliefs? Did they do anything that exemplifies your values? Make sure to recognize and reward them for it.
- Client value alignment: This one is tricky but crucial for any agency to scale - consider your client’s values when you take them on. Are there any industries you’d rather not work in? Does the client use business practices you find questionable? If there is no clear alignment between your values and a prospective client’s, you’ll struggle to preserve your culture.
Over to You
Scaling your agency culture means defining, adopting, and reinforcing clear values. Your employees and your clients should know exactly what you stand for. The more mission-oriented your agency, the easier it will be to attract the right kind of clients and employees.
The faster you grow, the more important it is to focus on your cultural practices. Use these five approaches to start the culture-scaling process.
What tactics and best practices do you use at your agency? Leave an answer in the comments below!