Culture First: planting the seeds to grow a strong company culture

Foreshock
Foreshock
Dec 9, 2019 · 6 min read

This article is from Tori Oellers, Head of Operations at Alyce.

“It is too early to think about company values.”

“We are too busy to worry about culture right now.”

I hear these comments a lot when speaking with early-stage companies or new businesses. While I understand that every second can seem like lost revenue, culture is a core imperative — particularly for high-growth companies in fast-paced industries.

A strong culture is deliberate and purposeful. Sure, a culture will organically start to develop without much thought or attention, but I think of it like the garden at my New England home. What we deliberately plant, nurture and support will grow into the strong garden desired in the years to come. If we don’t focus on the desired environment we want early, we may not grow as quickly and purposely as we want, and consequently more susceptible to be overtaken by weeds.

An example: A couple of years ago I bought my first house, we had a blank canvas, we were creating this home that we could be proud of for many years. We put in energy, money, days, nights, tears and a little blood from a wayward hammer. Winter turned to spring and one day I went outside and noticed something for the first time. I had been so focused on working on the building structure that I completely neglected the area outside, I kept thinking “Oh I will get to that one day, I just need to finish this first”.

This was the first impression of the home that I had worked so hard on.
There were wilted plants everywhere, debris, and ugly weeds were overtaking fences. Had I planned ahead and taken advantage of the blank slate, I would be in a much better position that would have saved me time and money.

Businesses are the same.

If you plant purposeful cornerstone ideas early on, you have something to work off of as a foundation. Culture will grow whether you work at it or not — the question is if it will be a positive culture. If the answer ends up being no, the work to course correct or undo that will be 10x the task, rather than setting the stage from the get-go.

With years of first-hand experience, shaping and helping build a successful fast growing start-up (and a now amazing garden), I offer up these four core tenets to growing a strong company culture early on.

  1. Identify a few main core themes & values to describe your culture.

It’s never too early to start thinking about and identifying how to build your culture. This does not mean that what is carved out is set in stone. What it does mean is that you have something for your team to use as a barometer for the people you hire, the decisions that you make, the partners you have & the goals you set.

At Alyce, our core founding team focused on 4 Core Values, and we are sure to communicate them clearly — like in the graphic below.

2. Incorporate these themes & values into your hiring and procurement

As each new employee starts, they will have an effect on the culture and success of the company, particularly during the early stage of new staff joining the organization. They need to be rooted in the same culture and be given the tools to help foster it within their own teams and working with partners and customers. When you are interviewing, ask the candidate questions to figure out how they will fit with that culture: “What does your ideal work environment feel like? What environments do you have the most challenges within?”

This will provide insight into what they place value on and more importantly, what they don’t. Make sure you share the type of environment that you are trying to create after that initial conversation, to ensure you’re on the same page.

Another benefit: A valued culture not only helps you retain your talent, but it also increases the chance of referrals, helping mitigate some of the most expensive elements to hiring. And a team full of people with shared values is one that is likely to communicate and work together well. The staff and larger ecosystem you’re building will know what the company stands for, and more intuitively know how to address challenges and new opportunities within the culture you’ve created.

3. Everyone matters, including your remote teams and contractors

Remote teams have become a solution that is both practical, and when managed properly they add a ton of value to an organization. According to Inc. Magazine, more than 63% of companies employ people who work remotely, across states, the nation and globe.

Culture is not simply defined by the people who work in your office and see everyday. From day one, regardless if someone is remote, on a contract or in a temp position, every team member must be treated and regarded as part of your team. In some cases, your team may interact with them even more than the coworker sitting next to them. If you don’t ensure your culture is incorporated into these interactions and relationships, you run the risk of undoing any work that has been created before.Without a strong foundation across remote teams, you risk the chance of actions and values seeping in that you were not even aware of.

4. Highlight people and moments where core values are embodied

I heard some good advice a while back: the culture that your company grows into within three years is be based on what you recognize, reward and celebrate today.

It is not enough to establish a strong foundation to work off of as the company grows. You need to tend to it and nurture it as well. Incorporate it into your daily activities and seminal moments of the business. When you are scaling quickly and moving fast, this ensures everyone stays connected, better focused and aligned.

At Alyce, we printed cards that had each of our core values on them. We hand one of these cards to someone internally when we see they have embodied one of our values, the recipient of this card gets brought to our ‘Swag Select’ marketplace where they can pick an item of their choice. Making this part of our everyday conversation ensures that these are not just created and then forgotten. This also encourages the behavior and actions that we have placed value on.

Additionally, ensure your strategy for communication reflects the values you have set. At Alyce, we utilize our system of STACK Feedback: Specific, Timely, Actionable, Curious and Kind. Giving our team a framework to use when giving feedback has encouraged them to be open and candid, but also foster positive and productive conversations.

There are a multitude of challenges that all fast-growth companies will have to address over time. Many of them can be strategically supported by establishing a strong cultural foundation early.

With recruiting and attracting top talent becoming more competitive, retaining your strong performing employees is vital. Your culture is what will set you apart as you seek out top talent.

Be the place where people are proud to work at and work with.

By laying the right foundation, your team can stay focused on servicing your customers and not be distracted or misaligned. As your organization grows, decisions become more important and business moves quicker. By building a strong culture and purposeful sense of kinship very early on, we were ready to scale and simply maintain our strong culture instead of building it from scratch.

Ensure that you have an active hand on what is growing in your culture garden. If you neglect it for too long, you may end up with a field full of weeds.

Tori Oellers is the Head of Operations at Alyce. Find her on LinkedIn here.

Foreshock

Stories for high-growth startups.

Foreshock

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Foreshock

Stories from High Growth Startups.

Foreshock

Foreshock

Stories for high-growth startups.

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