Founders and VCs share 6 tactics for setting and scaling company culture
In this series, “Founder’s Field Guide,” we’ll tackle topics that are top-of-mind for entrepreneurs and offer candid, tactical advice from our founders (who have been through it) and our team (who advised along the way). Previous posts tackled lessons for raising a seed round and how to deploy early-stage capital.
Whether a founder is managing a team of two or two thousand, one concern that should always remain top of mind is company culture. Across an organization, culture is both seen and unseen — manifesting in everything from decision-making from leadership and how employees treat each other to the ways they interact with customers and the larger vision for the company.
Prioritizing culture from the very beginning has a number of clear short and long-term payoffs, such as the ability to attract top talent, form favorable partnerships, and reinforce the connective fabric that brings and holds the company together as it grows.
How can entrepreneurs think strategically about codifying and communicating what their companies stand for? To help entrepreneurs develop an action plan for setting and scaling culture, we asked the experts: our founders who have guided this process for their organizations and our team who advised them along the way.
Here’s what they said.
From our founders
Elisa Steele is the CEO of Namely, the all-in-one HR platform for medium-sized businesses. The company has more than 600 employees across offices in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Austin.
Elisa’s advice: Create an actionable (not abstract) value system.
Your values are most powerful when they are rooted in your purpose and are authentic to what you believe as a person and a leader. Once you have a working document that articulates your values, test them against your purpose. Make your values actionable. It’s great to have high-level inspirational statements, but back them up with the specific behaviors that you expect those values to drive. This makes it easy for employees to understand and live your company’s values.
Jonathan Salama is the Cofounder of Transfix, a freight marketplace for the trucking industry. The company is based in New York and has more than 150 employees.
Jonathan’s advice: Build a team that will set you on the right trajectory.
As your company reaches a certain size and stage of growth, you realize that you can no longer be a part of every decision. When your team believes in the same values, it allows everyone in the company to move forward as one. Our company values have allowed us to instill trust in decisions that are made by our employees.
Kurt Schrader is the CEO of Clubhouse, a project management platform for developers. The company has 40 employees, and a portion of its staff works remotely.
Kurt’s advice: Be extremely clear about what you stand for.
I’ve made sure to write our values down and be explicit about what I want our culture to be. I’ve found that if you leave any whitespace in how people interact with each other, they’re going to fill it with whatever they want. Then your culture will start to grow in a direction you might not want it to grow.
We have figured out some simple practices that help people embody and support our values. For example, we ask the team to tie positive mentions/shoutouts back to them. These value-based acts of recognition are used in town halls and for employee awards.
Nikki Kaufman, Cofounder of CAMP, a family experience store. The company has around 50 employees in roles such as store associates, managers, and experience leaders.
Nikki’s advice: You’re never too busy to forget about culture.
Your people and your culture is the most important asset you have. There is always time for this to be a priority, no matter how busy or resource-strapped you are. Focus on hiring and developing people that you want to share your life with and create an environment and culture that fosters this for all.
Amanda Mulay, Senior Talent Manager at LH, supports portfolio companies’ HR and recruiting efforts from their first employee to their 500th and beyond.
Her advice: Create a strong feedback loop that scales with you.
As your company scales, you need to have open communication and make sure that, as you grow, you find ways to reinforce your values and ensure that everyone is always in the loop — whether it’s through Slack, weekly all-hands meetings, or using Zoom to include other offices and remote employees.
You can use employee performance management and engagement platforms such as 15five, Lattice, and Reflektive. These tools increase productivity, real-time feedback, reviews, check-ins with teams, 1:1’s, goal management and company-wide surveys to keep the communication open and captured.
Ben Lerer, LH Managing Partner and CEO of Group Nine Media, advises founders on creating a healthy culture and manages hundreds of employees across Group Nine brands Now This, The Dodo, Thrillist, and Seeker.
His advice: When it comes to culture, don’t just check a box.
There are people who do their mission and culture exercise and it checks a box, versus people who do it in a soulful, personalized way. Putting yourself into it, and really building a personal mission for your company is something you can only do when you can do it. You can’t fake it. Sometimes it’s going to come a little bit later, but when do you find it, you’ll be able to articulate what you stand for really clearly. Then you’ll figure out how to make it a part of your culture, onboarding, and how you review employees, which is really important.