how to keep a “small company” culture as your business gets bigger

When a company is just starting out, its leaders often don’t think that much about culture. After all, in a small business, the culture is generally simply you — your work style and preferences. But as a company (or a team) grows, it can become more challenging to preserve the very cultural elements that have been key to your success.<

And culture does matter. It’s the invisible force that sends signals about “how we do things here,” and as a result, it can have a major impact on what you get done and how you do it, whether you’re managing a single employee or a large team. So as that team is growing, it’s important to be thoughtful about how you can preserve your culture along the way. Here are three ways to do that.

1. Lead by example. Modeling the culture you want to create or maintain is easily the most powerful way to transmit the cultural values and behaviors you want your company or team to embody. In fact, your culture will look a lot like you. For example, if you mention in a meeting that you’re going to email a sales report around afterwards and then don’t follow through, your staff is likely to notice that and feel less obligation to take their own next steps seriously too. On the other hand, if you send an email saying, “I know I said I’d get this document out today, but I realized I should wait for input from a funder, so it’ll be tomorrow instead,” you’re modeling what it looks like to take details and commitments – even small ones – seriously.

2. Talk explicitly about your culture. Rather than relying on people to figure out your cultural expectations on their own, you can articulate your values through explicit discussion. For example, when you’re training new employees, you can discuss your values and what they mean in practice by talking through hypothetical scenarios and how the values would play out in them – as well as what behaviors wouldn’t be consistent with your culture’s values.

3. Reinforce your culture with feedback when you see cultural alignment – and when you don’t. If you see someone acting in a way that isn’t consistent with your cultural values – such as not paying attention to a client or dismissing their concerns – give feedback in the moment, and explain explicitly what you want to see instead. You can do the same thing when you see someone exemplifying what you want in your culture – for instance, you might praise people for strong examples of persistence or integrity or being extraordinarily helpful to a client or coworker.

4. Hire for culture fit. No matter how skilled someone might be, a hire is unlikely to be successful if the person it out of sync with key elements of your culture, such as treating people with respect, having a sense of humility, or being open to new ideas. That means that it’s wise to screen for candidates who are aligned with your organization’s core values and to include a discussion of your culture as part of your interviewing process.

Remember, too, that you’re sending messages about your culture from the moment a job applicant first contacts you: How responsive are you? Do you ask thoughtful, rigorous questions rather than typical interview fare? Do you convey a warm and positive tone during the interview? After all, the hiring process is a microcosm of your culture, and smart candidates – exactly the people you want to hire – will be picking up loads of messages about how you do things, and will carry those impressions with them if hired

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. The IT Manager*

    Oops! Don;t know how fast you can fix it, but there’s a typo under item #4.

    a hire is unlikely to be successful if the person it out of sync with key elements of your culture … “it” should be “is”.

  2. Stephanie*

    Oof. OldCompany was going through the transition from small company to medium-sized company. It was rough. OldCompany won a big contract and was able to hire a lot more low-level staff. Because of that, there was a very big divide culturally between who had been there less than two years and who had been there when the company was an eight-person outlet with beer on Fridays.

    We also had a lot of managers who were good at their jobs, but not great at managing people. A lot of the time, they had just been there for a while and got promoted automatically when the company started expanding.

  3. Vicki*

    Be careful about how you define “culture”.

    For many companies, it means “everyone knows everything and we don’t need QA (testers) or documentation (writers) because we all do it all”. That doesn’t scale and you discover, to your sorrow, that you should have hired testers and writers a few years ago and now the software and the docs are a mess.

    Or it means “everyone knows everyone” which translates to “we don’t need maps, org charts, official reporting structures, names on cubicles, or names on meeting rooms”. But when you have 200 people and 5 buildings, you do need those things.

    Or it means “we’ve always had a company lunch on Thursday” but when you’ve cross from 80 people to 150 in a few months, the catered company lunch doesn’t scale.

    Or it means “we buy our furniture at the used office furniture store and the company “look” is “Second Empire Garage”.

    Or it means that you’ve always been able to hold all-hands meetings in the lunch room, but now you can’t. Where do you put the people? How do you handle an all-hands meeting?

    When the company is small, the company is nimble. All for One and One for All. When a company grows, the _company_ can no longer be like that. Now you have departments, divisions, teams, groups. You can’t all get together for lunch or a meeting. Some divisions will create their own culture; the IT folks don’t have the same needs that the graphic designers have.

    Perhaps the better question isn’t how to keep a “small company” culture as your business gets bigger but how to grow your culture along with your company.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      Yes to all of this. I work for a large company that has been around for about 80 years. 15 years ago, it was acquired by Very Large International Corporation (VLIC).

      The company had never been too strict with policies and procedures, and everything had a real “entrepreneurial” feel to it, meaning that if someone wanted to do something like start development work on a new project, they just went ahead and did it. No formal budgets, approvals, or anything else. In many cases, costs just spiraled out of control, and the only solution seemed to be to continue throwing money at problems.

      When we became a part of VLIC, they were the ones who would grant funding for the year, we had to submit financials to them each month, and so on. So we tried to put some controls into place, and people took it very personally. “Why do I have to get my budget approved? Don’t you think I know what I’m doing? Don’t you think I know how to run a project?” I tried to explain to people that this was not about them, specifically, but that we were now accountable to VLIC, and they want to see results, they want to know how we’re spending the money they allocate to us, and black hole projects where money just disappears and nothing is ever produced would not last very long. I even told people, “If we don’t get this stuff under control ourselves, VLIC will take it upon themselves to do it for us. If you think I’m a pain in the backside, just wait until someone from VLIC is here onsite, and everything has to be OK’d through their approval chains.” In one ear and out the other. And now, about 5 years down the road, exactly what I said would happen has in fact happened.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That stuff isn’t so much about culture though; it’s about structure and procedures and how you work. Culture is much more about the feel of the place, what behaviors it values, and how people operate in a general sense.

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        What I’ve observed though, is that when you try to put policies and procedures into place that weren’t there before, people push back by saying things like, “That’s not how we do things here. That’s too “corporate.” Our strength is that we still feel like a small company,” and so on. Really what’s going on is that people don’t like it when they’re going to be held accountable when they weren’t before, and they’re trying to figure out how to avoid it.

        Now it’s entirely possible that I’m just an overly cynical curmudgeon…that’s just what it always smacks of to me.

        1. Chinook*

          “What I’ve observed though, is that when you try to put policies and procedures into place that weren’t there before, people push back by saying things like, “That’s not how we do things here. That’s too “corporate.””

          I am seeing the opposite where I am where I am boggled at how they could have been in business for decades and federally regulated and not have policies and procedures in place (and even though they have been acquired by two different VLIC, these thigns were never codified).

          Now my department has gone through a major work growth spurt and the lack of this organization is starting to show. Even two years ago, one guy could remember all the details about everything going on but now it is impossible and everyone is scared of something falling through the cracks. As a result, different people are asking for standardized procedures and they are being accepted whole heartedly (though I dont’ know if head office has an opinion). Heck, when I, with no industry experience or engineering training, can create forms and procedures to go with those forms and have them accepted without any backlash, you know things were very casual (even thoguh i am open to feedback and embrace it wholeheartedly because I am not sure what it is the others do though I know it is very important).

          My point is that, if procedures are implemented with a distinct purpose and explained in a clear, concise way, even the least likely person may embrace it.

      2. Dan*

        Ann is right. To use some of your words, structure and procedures certainly shape how I *feel* about the place.

        Adding structure and process can’t not change the feel.

  4. Riki*

    Agreed! I used to work at a start up that had a very difficult time with this. The founders desperately wanted to keep the original small company culture, except with VCs on the board, new executives and six times the staff, it just was not possible. It caused a lot of problems that took a couple of years to sort out.

  5. Lora*

    The one thing I see companies doing wrong as a consultant, which is hard for the accounting folks to hear, is not putting enough work into the planning and budget for the implementation/growth process. If you do more work on the front end, when the company is still small-ish, and you put effort into process development, it will absolutely pay off big time in the end. Instead, there’s a “we are not certain how big the market for Product really is; we guesstimate that it is X but it could be 50% of X. Therefore we do not want to take a risk on building a giant factory with a lot of automation or hire process development folks or even really contemplate how any of this will happen let alone make a plan or platform for scaling up and hire project managers able to deal with sudden market needs for scale-down or scale-up. When we have a better idea of the market, maybe we will revisit the issue of process development and capital expenses.” 5 years later, when the market is in fact 200% of X, they are STILL using the same old secondhand, leaking, crummy equipment and relatively unskilled labor, and they’ve hired cheap supervisors who fancy that yelling more at people makes more product. Out of thin air or whatever. And they think they don’t really need anything new and shiny and scaled appropriately, because they’ve gotten by OK so far, even if they have only a tiny slice of the market and since then competition has popped up, whereas initially there was no competition.

    If you have a good PD group, they can make everything modular for you, thus much more scale-able, but good PD people cost $$$$ because the big companies who have been doing this forever realized they needed us before the growing companies did. The big dogs can pay us big $$, which effectively makes a tough market for the small and growing companies to get what they need.

    But in my field at least, small companies are funded by venture capital, which is makes them highly risk-averse (even if the VC guys themselves are not).

    1. Chinook*

      “The one thing I see companies doing wrong as a consultant, which is hard for the accounting folks to hear, is not putting enough work into the planning and budget for the implementation/growth process”

      This x1,000! This is true for everything you do. If you are developing procedures or buying equipment or developing software, don’t jsut think abotu how it will work now but also how it will work if everything goes great and your workload sky rockets. Colleagues thought I was strange for thinking about a program I am helping develop from the perspective of using it 10 years from now and after a proposed expansion. When it was started, it was just to help monitor a few work orders. Now, our workload has trebled and what the program monitors is beyond teh scope of anything anyone, including me, imagined. But, because our IT programmer and I thought of the long term development, complete with room for unknowns, the growth is almost unnoticeable.

  6. Tiff*

    Very interesting, and timely to boot. I’m not growing a company but I am growing my work program and adding staff. Ideas are great, but I’ve always found that the devil is in the details and I have to work extra hard to make sure I account for those details.

  7. S*

    I’d be curious to know how you (and anyone else) define culture – all of these points are excellent of course, but they seem like things that are important at every company. I always thought “culture” wasn’t about things that are objectively good or bad, but instead about what makes sense for the particular industry/company/etc. Like whether a company/organization tends to be more collaborative or more tightly structured, more buttoned-up or more casual, etc.

    1. Dan*

      Structure, process, and rules heavily influence that.

      Old job used to let us flex our time within the pay period. As long as we billed 80 hours within a two week period, you could put them in however you wanted. You could work 9 hours days and then take every other Friday off and nobody cared.

      Then somebody changed the rule and said you could only flex time within a 40 hour week. That pissed a lot of people off. They tried to BS us and say that they had to do that because of some government rule.

      I’d like to know which one, because CurrentJob is a group of 7000 people who work on behalf of the government, and we can flex our time however we want within the pay period.

      Rules and procedures influence culture very heavily.

      1. Annie O*

        Perhaps the gov’t rule is about the overtime? Overtime-eligible employees must be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a week.

  8. Anonalicious*

    Oh, hello, #1. I like to refer to you as that thing my manager doesn’t do leaving all of us wondering if the project isn’t happening anymore/he just forgot/something else entirely.

  9. Lady Sybil*

    Do you have any posts about discussing workplace culture as part of the interview process?

    Currently I end up preaching a sermon and watch the candidate’s head bob up and down in agreement. They understand more about us, but I’m no wiser about them. How can I engage candidates in a meaningful discussion about workplace culture?

    1. Ruffingit*

      Dispense with the sermon and have a conversation instead. Ask them what they’re looking for in a company culture. Ask what their last company was like culturally and how they felt about it. Basically, stop talking and start listening more to what they say when asked relevant culture-related questions.

    2. Katie*

      This is so important when I’m interviewing as well. I ask the candidate questions like ‘What type of culture do you want to see in your next organisation?” “What kind of working environment are you looking for?” “Could you tell me your ideal personality or culture of your direct team?” “If you could change one thing about the culture in your current company, what would it be?” “What are you motivated by? What gets you out of bed in the morning?” (gives you insight into if they’ll fit the company drivers). The opposite: “What demotivates you? What frustrates you in a company or a role? What DON’T you want to see in your next company or role?” (What kind of person wouldn’t fit in here?)

    1. Ruffingit*

      You’re welcome :) A lot of candidates and interviewers don’t even really consider culture as an issue, though of course they should. If you bring it up in the way of just telling them what your culture is, you’re going to get the heads bobbing because they’re thinking “Yeah, whatever, what do you pay, that’s what I care about?”

      Having the conversation forces them to think about it more in-depth, which is good because money/benefits is what is most on the mind generally so bringing up culture and making them explain what they want in that area helps everyone to make a better match.

      1. Lady Sybil*

        You are right – it is probably low on their priority list, but it’s pretty high on mine, because I’ve seen what happens when there is a mismatch. Not ideal, but that’s a post for another day.

        Hopefully I’ll do better with my conversation starters/careful listening during future interviews.

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