Companies that are led by passion are remarkable places to work because they hold the potential for greatness.
When most of us think about start-ups, we build pictures of smart, young, vibrant entrepreneurs with technology to sell.
When I think about start-ups, I am excited by experiencing passion that is so palpable it infects me too.
Start-ups and early stage growth companies are places fuelled by possibilities and unlimited opportunities. They face many interesting challenges, from building systems just ahead of the business need, to working with fewer people than needed to get the job done comfortably, or satisfying customers who are only just discovering they have a need.
There is also an important, and often hidden, challenge how to hold on to the ethos of the business as it grows.
It doesn’t matter if the pathway to growth is organic and through acquisitions, scaling-up creates new problems that won’t we solved with technology. These new opportunities are largely organisational and interpersonal which is why founders who have been successful understand that the most critical capability they needed to successfully scale-up was leadership.
When starting to lead the change program that will see your company transform, take a little advice from Meg Whitman “… figure out what that company’s doing right, and do more of it.” The real challenge when growth happens is holding on to the essential ethos of the business. The first step I ask founders to take, is to protect the culture their passion has created, because this is their secret weapon. I tell them take time-out to understand what you have created; why it works? And why it is important to the people that have made a choice to join you?
Looking at what is great, and understanding what makes people happy, will tell you what to focus on as a starting point.
Most founders fall in love with the technology or the idea that they saw as the opportunity for their business. Once teams are in place, and the products are being delivered to customers, it’s time to shift attention. This move can be tough, but it is essential to the successful transition into sustainable growth.
Skyscanner, a company that has enjoyed fast growth and success understands this shift and has managed to create awareness throughout its management layers. Filip Filipov, Director of Product in 2015, blogged a quote from Peter Drucker, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ highlighting the philosophical shift from logic to the importance of the emotional element of leadership. He then went on to write “…. the watershed that splits good companies from great ones will be the culture and the leadership behaviours that shape it.” Filip humbly signed off with an apology for not exhibiting the right leadership behaviours as often as he would like to have.
The Skyscanner leadership team understands the value of this shift as the source of its success.
It’s not beanbags and pinball machines
Culture is the feelings you share working in a place; it’s the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular group of people working for a common purpose. It’s unique. It can’t be faked into being by buying pinball machines, or painting art on walls, or having beanbags and cool furniture. The authentic nature of any group’s culture is observable. How they treat each other, what they share, how they look, the documents they create, the meetings they have, the things they talk about and what they produce are clues to the culture at work.
Cultural artefacts also include myths and stories that tell how the company became a success. These stories have heroes and heroines who have been key to the business; they (the stories) become a system of metaphors that tell people what is expected of them. The same too can be said of physical attributes, such as, how the office or factory looks, the interior and exterior design, the equipment used. Fuzzball tables, beanbags, coloured walls, and slogans, are valuable artefacts or rituals that work for a business when they are genuine expressions of a core culture that is aligned with the future ambitions of the business.
Words and actions count
When Meg Whitman tore down the wood panelling of the old executive offices at HP, it sent a clear message of a change in culture. She commented “… we never actually had to publicise this; 330,000 HP people knew [it] within about 32.5 seconds.”
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
His words are remarkably relevant to today’s leaders and founders creating new value for a future world. Beliefs and values shape how things get done, announce what is important and dictate how people are treated. Keeping the culture, relevant, aligned, vibrant and enabling takes care and attention.
Howard Schultz, the man who founded the most successful coffee company in the world, Starbucks, has lived through start-up to a high-growth company and offers this lesson “Success is not sustainable if it is defined by how big you become or by growth for growth’s sake. Success is very shallow if it doesn’t have emotional meaning.”
Belief is an emotion that expresses who we are in the world. If you are the leader what you believe matters because it can shape the way your managers handle your business. When Schultz left Starbucks, managers lost their way over time and nearly destroyed the business he had started. When he returned his first order of business was to re-establish the values to get back to the core ethos that shaped the company in the first place. He then took the bold, and expensive, step of closing every outlet worldwide to train each member of the Starbucks team how to make a great cup of coffee.
He wanted Starbucks to be known, once again, for the quality of its coffee and not for the size of the company.
Understand – Shift – Symbols – Breed
Growth is a good thing that can make your company great if you understand what you are doing right and do more of it.
Shift your attention to building your leadership team and take care to tell the stories that matter.
Create positively authentic symbols of your culture and care about your beliefs enough to breed a great leadership culture that will take your company into the future.