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Few things are more difficult for a founder than relinquishing control of a company built tirelessly, often throughout his life. However, nothing is more necessary if the founder plans to scale his business. And while entrepreneurs usually understand at a basic level that the culture that took them “here” won’t take them “there,” they worry about how to grow while preserving the essence of their organization.
As a human capital consultant who specializes in workplace cultures, I can say with absolute confidence that maintaining a company’s “secret sauce” as it grows is both possible and often necessary. However, this does not mean that cultural nuances, such as decision-making paradigms, cannot and should not change. Founders who allow and participate in the act of deliberately developing their cultures will inevitably see their companies grow faster and become more sustainable over time. Most importantly, they can achieve this by maintaining their mission and values, carving out the essential elements of their organizations that must remain.
Better understanding of the nuances of culture
For many, the misdefinition of organizational culture boils down to whether it is simply positive or negative – a great place to work or one that scares away good people. The reality is that culture is much more complex. It is defined by a range of behaviors related to areas such as power, perspective and creativity along with time, interdependence, communication and inclusion. Every organization is made up of these standardized behaviors that actually exist across the spectrum. This means, for example, that the organization does not allow or allow creativity, but rather does it gradually.
With this in mind, founders should understand that the act of evolving their culture for growth can involve both subtle and dramatic changes. Moreover, it can change the norms of their companies in a much more complex way than most initially understand.
To illustrate, a leader who achieves rapid growth may decide that he wants to retain most aspects of his company’s culture, but must ensure that isolated team members work more as a team. In addition, expanding into new geographies may require organizations to become more committed to better support team members who bring increasingly diverse perspectives, local knowledge and life experiences.
Providing data and analytics to culture-building initiatives
As with human capital-centric work, building culture is often considered a right-brain soft-skill area, leading to a misconception about the evolution of organizational cultures. In fact, there are smart, data-driven ways to approach this job, always reaching for a big-picture strategy.
For example, careful analysis of institutional materials—from mission statements to engagement data to interview transcripts—all form the basis of rigorous, purposeful culture-building initiatives. This analysis – coupled with in-depth interviews with founders, as well as in-depth conversations with board members and employees, surveys and walks – reveals a wealth of contextual information, providing organizations with the data they need to map their current and ideal culture and design work streams that will facilitate the desired transition cultural.
This rigorous, context-based approach helps take the guesswork out of your culture-building initiatives. In addition, it ensures that founders feel heard, respected and confident that the companies they built will retain the most important cultural elements, even with a potentially different look and feel in phase 2.0 of their evolution.
Acceptance of the act of remission
There is no denying that significant organizational expansion usually requires founders to step back from many responsibilities that they previously championed and often enjoyed. Understanding this, it would be wise to prepare for moments where handover of control creates a complex mix of feelings, including fears that their organizations and their respective cultures are also changing too radically.
At my own company, our founder, Dr. Foster Mobley, lived through this change. Reflecting on his experience, he advises other founders to maintain a healthy distance from organizational departments or areas designated for transition. He also believes that external experts can help distinguish situations where the founder’s involvement is justified from those that only fuel his emotions. For Foster, who himself went from CEO to president emeritus, nothing gave him greater peace of mind about his company’s culture and heritage than knowing he shared the vision and values of the leaders he brought into the organization to guide its growth.
Given the blood, sweat, and tears that founders pour into their organizations, it’s more than understandable that they feel protective of the direction of their companies, even as they try to take a step back from predefined roles. Fortunately, it is possible to honor these heroic efforts and build them into well-established origin stories and corporate narratives, even while building a culture to help usher in new eras of growth.