Leadership · Company Culture

How do you best capture the culture of a small company that is about to go big?

Bartlomiej Skorupa Vice President of Leadership Development at Figur8

February 15th, 2016

After successfully transitioning my organization to another, I have now been given a role as VP of Leadership Development at a quickly growing startup. We are 24 people now, quickly marching towards 120 by 2018. At the very early stages of launching my previous org, I once got wise advice from Tony Hsieh to document core values ASAP to capture our culture. This proved to be transformational for our growth and I was lucky that I learned that so early in my career. Yet now, the current company I joined is a bit older and steadfast in some ways. There are also multiple offices across the US & Canada. People are remote. Outside of staging empathy interviews to capture what people think about our culture, what other methods work to capture, document, and reflect culture to a growing movement?

Marlina Kinnersley

February 15th, 2016

Culture is organic and evolves over time with growth. As you mentioned it's important to capture the cultural footprint (values, beliefs and actions) as it stands now amongst the team. My suggestion is multi-pronged.

1. Assess the culture of the entire company - find out what's important to the team and their interpretation of the company's current culture. Talk to early employees #1-10 and see if and how the culture has changed.

2. Ask the leadership what they think the culture is. Now compare the two. Do they line up? Share the results with the leadership team. If the entire leadership team doesn't live or manifest the culture they aren't nurturing it - and culture needs to be nurtured. Employees are following the lead of their leaders so it's important whatever the core values, belief system and ideal behaviours they need to "walk the talk!"

3. If the current cultural profile aligns - AWESOME! Now monitor and track it over time because culture changes with growth. If not, then the leadership team will want to create an action plan to get things back on track. To be an exceptional organization connect strategy with culture, goals with engagement and values with actions. 

Regarding monitoring and tracking tools you can create your own but when you use a 3rd-party tool like Fortay.co you are more likely to get honest and unbiased responses across the team. You want an honest picture, not a painted one. 

Feel free to message me, I'm passionate about culture as it truly has the greatest impact on a company's success. I can share some links with you as well.

Good luck!! :D

Jerry Joyce Improving Operational Performance

February 15th, 2016

I started my professional career from college at HP when the old "HP Way" was very much alive after 42 years since its founding.  I can say without question, that this renowned culture (at that time) was maintained because the management (at all levels) lived it every day.  For decades, only individual contributors that embraced the characteristics of the "HP Way" were promoted to the first level of management and the same for each successive level.  I'm not sure I ever saw it written anywhere, but it was blatantly obvious and observable in over 90% of all managers' day to day behavior and leadership.  My point, 90% of a company's culture is driven by the character, communication and behaviors exhibited by the entire management team.  All the values, platitudes and other fluff displayed on the walls, website and handbooks stating the "culture" are irrelevant if the management team does not exhibit them all day, every day.  Management behavior IS the culture.    

Bartlomiej Skorupa Vice President of Leadership Development at Figur8

February 17th, 2016

Hi all,

Thank you so much for the encouraging and detailed responses. I printed them out today and consolidated notes. Some quick feedback:

  1. @Jose, we already have an annual retreat and that is a great callout.
  2. @Peter Jackson, I agree that old leadership will have to cede control to new leadership. Value will ensure that doesn't cause friction.
  3. @Brittney, I am not sure about the difference between a climate survey to an empathy interview. I am following the latter due to familiarity and that it makes me focus on deep listening.
  4. @Stefan, I will look more at HCD framework.
  5. @Phil, agreed that culture is already separating and we feel fine with that. For now.
  6. @Marlina, already on interviewing employees #1-10!
  7. @Jerry, 100% agree that 90% is driven by character at the top. Leadership behavior IS culture of a movement. Lead by example from the top down. 
  8. @Liza, I need to improve on being an amazing host when interviewees come to the office.
  9. @Lonnie, agreed about deep listening. It's the major "why" behind me starting with the empathy interviews first. 
  10. @Tony, agreed we need to LIVE your mission and values
  11. @David, I will definitely check out engageyourteam.com
  12. @Vanessa, we are already huge fans of Google Docs + Hangouts. We also use Chatter instead of Slack to centralize comms and having socially virtual convos. Good call on creating 
  13. @Gerhard, that quote was already in my deck before I made this post! It's been my guidepost on this trek.
Finally, my own point to this matter: I view this task like a vision statement challenge. A vision is unattainable yet worth striving for. Capturing the zeitgeist of a culture that will inspire, motivate, and lead people to better is impossible. Yet is an endeavor worth striving for so am amped for this challenge.

Yours in Progress,


Bart Skorupa

bart.skorupa@gmail.com | 415.298.9570

Peter Jackson CEO

February 15th, 2016

B- Some quick thoughts: In my history, the culture swing from 25 to 100 was dramatic on the culture. New leadership often takes the ownership away from the original owners, the space changes and the growth pressures are to stay pace with. As the leader three times in my career of this occurring, I found myself forgetting names and roles. Knowing everyone at 65 staff members was doable, but after that I really had to work at. Knowing anything about them was impossible (pre facebook, linkedin) To answer your question, I think it is key of executives to know everyone. Attempt to make it part of the staff meeting. Where he or she is from, where they went to school and where they worked. Questions like: What is our goal for them this year and how do we help them make that ?Forcing a slide show of new staff followed by a quiz can make it easy later for your CEO to walk down the hall and say "Hi Doug from Duke". How are we doing here in making you successful?". vs a big smile and "I'm not sure who that was...." All the execs knowing more about your people top to bottom will add to making the All Company Meeting. Staff can really make an impact when I contact and addressing people by their name is done in front of everyone. You are now big and the little culture is gone: I once broke a company of 280 employees in to 5 teams. There was a mix from every division on each team (sales, marketing, accounting, HR etc). I created a set of competitive matrix and kept score for everyone to see. These included sales, customer service time turn arounds, hiring days out standing, turnover etc. The contest lasted 6 months and the winning team went to Hawaii with significant other. We tripled our sales that year and everyone benefitted. Good luck Peter

Gerhard Apfelthaler Dean, Educator, Entrepreneur, Author

February 17th, 2016

Hi Bartlomiej, very pertinent question. I have worked in small and large, growing and established organizations, and I can definitely say that you can't stress the importance of culture enough. Forgive me that I paraphrase Peter Drucker (as the Dean of a business school I can't help it), but 'culture does indeed eat strategy for lunch'; and, if you scale, culture is often under attack. In each case where you hire, you have exactly one shot to make a right decision. Making the right decision starts with really knowing your own culture first; there are tools that help in assessing your culture; and then you interview, hire, and onboard for culture, which is a matter of developing the right processes. I have written a little piece recently that was published by the Pacific Coast Business Times (http://www.pacbiztimes.com/2015/10/16/how-to-hire-for-company-culture-fit/), and if you're interested, I could connect you with one of the global experts on talent management in academia who happens to have his office next door to me. He has done this before and knows all the tools out there.

Jose MBA Journalist Super-connector PR/Marketing Leader Quadrant Two PR LLC & EVECAIN Network Founder Business Adviser

February 15th, 2016

Congratulations, I think that an employee retreat/training goes a long way for staff. I think this and a board of directors retreat should be held annually. JM de Jesus, MBA

Keith Brooks Increasing B2B Engagement via Technology Evangelism ☆ Product Marketing ☆ Technology Evangelist ☆ Trainer

March 29th, 2016

Maintain your values, and adjust them if necessary to the new company guidelines.
Culture I believe should be from within the groups or business lines with the company holding everyone together to a few prime guides.
Sales people for instance act and think differently from the tech side and it helps for each to expose their own individuality.
Just my 2 cents having been involved in SMB and large enterprises that M&A all the time.

Brittney Kraft Business Performance Advisor at Insperity

February 15th, 2016

Hi Bartlomiej, I see this happen often as I work with several growing successful companies. Have you tried climate surveys yet? We have found that asking good questions is always the best way to get feedback from your people and doing this by way of climate surveys can help with brutal honesty. I hope this helps and if you have any questions please feel free to reach out. Have a great night! Sincerely, Brittney Kraft Business Performance Advisor Visit my page at: http://www.insperity.com/brittney.kraft 4900 N. Scottsdale Rd #1200 Scottsdale, AZ 85251 Office: 480-406-6133 Cell: 480-227-5385 Fax: 866-383-1614 Committee Member| Junior Achievement of Arizona| https://fundraising.intelis.com/jaaz/?A=290663 Board Member| American Diabetes Association | www.diabetes.org/in-my-community/local-offices/phoenix-arizona/

Stefan Pagacik Innovation Catalyst | Impact Platform Development, Finance and Human Capital Advancement

February 15th, 2016

Dear Bartlomiej, Your post has come at a very fortuitous time. My colleagues and I have developed content and a methodology that addresses your concerns. And they are very real concerns that can undermine the success of an enterprise. If you are willing, I'd like to hear more of your story and share with you how Collective Alchemy (our work in Human Centered Talent Development) can possibly offer answers and a roadmap to address your issue. Please let me know when we can speak via phone or Skype. Next week would be better for me. Thank you. Stefan iAdvisor|"Imagination@Work" Cell: 774-454-6842 | Office: 508-224-3640 Twitter: @StefanIACorp www.iadvisorcorp.com Please consider the environmental impact before printing this e-mail.

Phil Hallenbeck Lead Information Systems Engineer at MITRE Corporation

February 15th, 2016

Bartolomiej, my experience in this area (mostly with nonprofit and volunteer organizations) reinforces Brittney's and Peter's thoughts!  A few perhaps-minor additional thoughts follow:

-the multiple sites are both a blessing and a challenge:  It's challenging to exercise leadership across many miles and time zones, and each site is likely to develop its own variant of the company culture (and sometimes even a literal counterculture).  (I suspect but am not sure that this phenomenon may be weakened by extensive cross-site collaboration, but would be very surprised to see it go away entirely.)  I see the multiple sites however as primarily a blessing in a small growing company, in that you can focus both climate assessments and leadership efforts on small, often-distinct teams, rather than being overwhelmed by a series of very large subordinate organizations.  Hence, you have an excellent near-term opportunity to shape the growth of the company along with its culture.

-I think the advent of better synchronous collaboration technologies such as desktop VTC and peer-to-peer video chat gives you a great opportunity to "manage by walking around" at much lower cost than face-to-face, giving you many inexpensive opportunities to both sample the climate and offer impactful leadership.  I suspect though you'll still have to do as much F2F as the budget allows,  especially given your particular leadership portfolio.

-I'll cede the floor on climate-survey and other methodology tools and work to Brittney, Stefan, and others:  Although I've crafted and successfully used these in the past on a limited basis, I count myself very far from expert in that area.

Good luck!