How to maintain a good culture amid high growth

Leaders won’t be successful if they’re propping up values that don’t ring true for everyone

How to maintain a good culture amid high growth

‘Move fast and break things’ may have been the mantra of the past decade – one that witnessed the rise of high-growth startups, scaleups and unicorns. Innovation, after all, entails not just agility but also an openness to making mistakes (and the humility to learn from them).

Airbnb, one of the most celebrated hypergrowth companies from the era, knows this all too well. A pioneer of the ‘sharing economy,’ the home rental business was privately valued at US$31bn before the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the travel industry was ground to a halt, the company lost $1bn.

The crisis has revealed cracks in Airbnb’s system – and cast the idea of hypergrowth in a new light: “We grew so fast; we made mistakes,” said CEO Brian Chesky in a recent interview with The Times.

Even in the early months of the pandemic, the CEO had chosen to ‘overcommunicate’ and be transparent with his staff in the midst of what he called the “most harrowing crisis of our lifetime”.

Read more: How HR leaders are responding to disruption

When Airbnb announced in May it was laying off 25% of its global workforce, the culture of transparency Chesky had championed enabled him to confront the crisis head on.

“For a company like us whose mission is centred around belonging, this is incredibly difficult to confront, and it will be even harder for those who have to leave Airbnb,” he said.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the ensuing social unrest – and now, the recession – organisations are beginning to see how the values they’d cemented during periods of high growth are standing the test of a complex and multifaceted crisis.

For many, like Chesky, it’s an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategy. 

“Airbnb needs to change. We need to go back to basics – to what really made us successful in the first place,” he said. Now, the company looks to start a new chapter as it prepares to go public.

Pledging to ‘do better’
In recent months, more companies have vowed to “do better” to recalibrate their working culture.

Pinterest, which has long been a darling of Silicon Valley, is one example. The image-sharing platform saw customer loyalty grow in the middle of the pandemic. In July, its monthly active users worldwide rose 39% to 416 million.

But while Pinterest continues to scale up on the commercial side, questions about the company’s own employee culture – posted widely on social media by former staff alleging racial and sexual discrimination – have prompted corporate leaders to reaffirm its commitment to “advancing work in inclusion and diversity by taking action” both within the company and on the platform.

“In areas where we, as a company, fall short, we must and will do better,” Pinterest said in June.

What might be missing from these pledges to “do better,” however, are acknowledgments of how leaders are investing in their own organisations; diagnosing problems and “making bold decisions” that drive change at home, shared Deb Muller, CEO at HR software company HR Acuity.

“Organisations must hold themselves accountable and come to terms with their current reality,” Muller told HRD. “Commitments and words are easy. Data, metrics and progress take work – but will drive real change.”

“Upholding corporate values often falls in the hands of the C-Suite but doesn’t work without buy-in from staff, HR, employee relations and the entire organisation,” Muller said.

“Leaders won’t be successful if they’re propping up values that don’t ring true for everyone within the company. That is why it’s important to constantly touch base and reaffirm that your values and culture are making themselves evident within your work.”

“Leaders must ask themselves: What processes contradict our values? What processes affirm them? Have our values shifted in priority? It’s also essential to make values real – how does my role connect? Tell stories and equip team members to see values as actions, not just words,” she said.

Read more: How crisis will define your employer brand

Values versus virtues
Employers must also understand how the values they had as a startup are iterative and likely to change in a period of disruption.

“Values are the bedrock of an organisation and its culture. Ideally, they’re simple and authentic enough that they need to change very little, if at all, as an organisation grows,” Muller said.

However, as companies go from tiny startups to large corporations, some values could become threatened. Transparency and openness are among them, she said.

“It’s easy to share everything if you’re working with 10 people, less so when you’re a 1,000-person team scaling fast, going public or being acquired, which requires information being kept confidential,” Muller shared.

Another is the notion of “ownership,” which might evolve as cross-functional teams become the norm. “However, even in these examples, the sense remains the same – it’s the execution of the value that changes,” Muller explained. 

Rob Catalano, chief engagement officer at survey software group WorkTango, echoed the same sentiments.

“Let’s face it: your culture and values as a startup may not be the same value set that’s required at 500, 1,000 or 10,000 employees. This is even more true as organisations get dispersed globally in remote work and culturally different environments,” Catalano told HRD.

“At WorkTango, we took a different approach and challenged the concept of ‘values’ so that it would mean more to employees. We instead created our WorkTango Virtues,” he said.

“Why virtues? Bushidō is a Japanese collective term for the many codes of honour and ideals that dictated the Samurai way of life. The ancient Japanese Samurai created a culture code of virtues instead of values, as values are what you believe, whereas virtues are what you do.”

“This concept resonated with us, where we strive to act on our virtues aligned to our passion: improve (work) lives. With critical input from all employees, we developed our WorkTango Virtues together. It’s very likely that these virtues will change as we continue to scale,” Catalano said.

“If an organisation is losing sight of their values and pledges to ‘do better,’ it starts with identifying what the cause is. Is it leadership not living the values? Lack of clarity? Do different values compete with each other?” he said.

“Once the cause is understood, it’s much easier to establish a plan of action. But a plan of action without a definition of what success looks like is challenging. Companies need to set the vision of success, and establish a plan that will get them there.”

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