You’re on a mission to win. To get that next funding round in, beat the competition, be huge. You’re a start up — and you’re in a hurry to take over the world.
The way tech companies see growth has created a norm that is extending far beyond their own industry. All businesses now believe they need to get somewhere as quickly as possible. Success is determined by the size of company we can build at rapid velocity. There’s also a common belief that scale happens through a prescribed formula. Build product, get funding, amass as many people as possible, require more funding, grow out of office space, get even more funding … etc. And do this fast.
This pace brings with it many opportunities and yet it can also hinder our long term capability to sustain the kind of growth that allows us to create the business of our dreams. The majority of founders that I speak to are suffering from growing pains — feeling out of control, unable to manage growth, and losing track of what success actually means to them and the business.
Could it be that in our eagerness and excitement to grow we are missing out on important stages that are critical taking a leap forward?
As a kid I wanted to grow up fast. I wanted to get as quickly as I could through the pivot moments from junior high to high school. I counted down the days to the end of term when I could leave school altogether and start university, where FINALLY I would be free to do what I wanted. Each leap forward came with a new set of expectations (from myself and everyone around me) and a change in my identity. From child to teenager to adult — growing up means we have to behave in different ways.
It’s remarkable how we see ourselves so differently when we step in to those new stages of our growth. Being a high school senior was like being number one. And yet how small and insignificant I felt walking on campus of university, and how much more I needed to grow up to handle life in that new environment.
And once we join the working world, how funny it feels to look back and wonder where that time went, and how much growing up we did in such a short period. The whole point of being an adolescent is to take that giant leap into adulthood. Most of that time we spend rebelling, caught in a time warp between the child we were and the person we are becoming. That process of maturity is awkward, painful, and full of challenges that everyone before us has had to go through.
Maturity: the ability to respond, behave and know when to act — according to the circumstances one lives in
Most companies today are getting bigger quickly, but they haven’t grown in themselves. They are caught in an awkward adolescence — wanting to hold on to the fun and magic of their start up years and “win” as quickly as possible. They have some maturing to do in order to actually unleash the full potential of what they have created. And as a company, understand what is needed to be able to “grow up” into the next stage of their journey.
This is cultural maturity — a measure of how well a company’s culture can help fulfil its vision for growth.
Companies with higher cultural maturity know what they stand for, have aligned leaders, and empower teams to work collaboratively and creatively, which enables them to change and grow.
Companies with lower cultural maturity tend to find change and growth is blocked by misalignment, disconnection, and the inability for people to work together in ways that create value.
How do you know if your business has some growing up to do? In working with founders and CEOs around the world who want to use culture to scale, we have mapped key indicators that point to areas of low cultural maturity in the business. This supports leaders to understand where they need to work with their culture to prepare the business for the next stage of growth.
Business is growing up
We recently brought leaders of tech and creative companies together for a working session at the Ace Hotel in London. We asked them to explore where they were on their own journey, using Within’s cultural maturity check to give them insight.
Some common themes emerged from the discussion. These were businesses of all sizes, ages, and stages of growth, each discovering where low levels of cultural maturity was holding growth back. Here’s just a few insights that came from our discussions — with quotes from clients and participants on the day:
Cultural maturity is low when values are not understood or lived by everyone…
If your values are only referred to at certain times, and not used to measure performance or create the conditions for greater collaboration, they are merely a set of meaningless words. Most start ups think they are living their values and have a great “culture” when people have access to the best perks and everyone seems happy. But few have found ways to embed their values into every day rituals and use them to guide the way the business operates.
“On reflection, I would have taken more time at the beginning to define our culture. I would then have enabled people to become our ambassadors.” — Founder, Creative Agency
The values gap can be spotted at businesses of all ages. As a result of an employee perception study that revealed that less than 5% of employees could remember their values, British Land realised it had some work to do to make values meaningful in the business. Although the company is over a century old, it still had some growing up to do if it wanted to attract the next generation of talent and continue to develop a high performing culture. Investing time in getting values right so that they were meaningful has been critical to British Land’s next stage of growth.
…the vision of growth is unclear or too narrow…
Ask most start up founders what growth means and they will give you a financial goal, or proclaim market dominance. That kind of vision can take the business on a growth trajectory with serious consequences. If leaders do not have a rich, holistic picture of what growth looks like, it becomes very difficult to respond and adapt to the inevitable uncertainty that every business will face.
Simon Sinek’s new book The Infinite Game points to this level of cultural maturity. He states that wanting to be #1 demonstrates a finite mindset, as if business had fixed rules. But in business today the rules are constantly changing. As Sinek says — “there are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.”
Getting to “number one” at whatever cost is the story of companies like Volkswagen — where the self-serving ambition of senior executives drove the behaviour of hundreds of thousands of employees.
A myopic vision can lead people to act against their values. In VWs case — create a culture dominated by fraud and deception in order to win the game, damaging the reputation and destroying trust while harming the lives of the customers they are meant to serve.
Cultural maturity is about alignment. Growth requires a plan of the cultural shifts that need to happen — to work through the decisions required at each stage to embed change. — COO, Media Group
Leaders who are able to create a vision that encompasses more than revenue growth or beating the competition are better equipped to take their people with them to the next stages, and create a business that can live up to its purpose.
…people are doing their jobs but aren’t delivering….
Every growth business wants their people to be working faster and harder. There’s an element of nostalgia to the good old days when things were scrappy, just a few people around the table, and when everyone seemed to have more energy to “get shit done”.
“Autonomy is a symbol of a high functioning culture. When people have the permission to make choices about how they use their time.” — Chief of Staff, FinTech
A business with low cultural maturity can suffer from a lag in delivery for many reasons (outlined in this recent article I wrote) and find itself getting stuck as the decisions bottleneck — either at the senior level, or with managers who are new in role and struggle to delegate to their teams. When asked how people feel about the culture (often in the ubiquitous “engagement survey”) these businesses will score low for “communication” and “collaboration”.
…it feels hard to attract talent…
From our very first hires culture is being shaped. Everyone who joins the gang feels like they are an integral part of the quest. There are high levels of trust and everyone makes a contribution. But as we grow, and need diverse talent with more experience that can take us to the next leap, finding the best people feels increasingly difficult in businesses that are growing up.
“I have a strong sense of the family around me and of what we want to achieve. I see that even without a huge team, I’m building a community that is becoming the foundation of our culture” — Startup Founder
When a leadership team resembles the founders, we probably haven’t created a place of inclusion where diverse voices are respected and challenge is accepted. This makes it even harder for teams to recruit the skills needed for growth. Cultural maturity involves understanding how diverse teams work at their best together.
And if people outside the business don’t know what you stand for, or how they can add value by joining, they are less likely to choose to work with you. Your employer brand will be strong when you act with integrity through your values, and demonstrate that people who come to you will be free to bring their passion, talents and make an impact.
… and success is rarely celebrated
The big question we ask our clients is — why are you invested in your own business? What does success and growth mean to you personally? Why not grow the company you want, rather than the nightmare you think you’ve built?
When we can be grateful for where we are, rather than impatient for where we think we should be in comparison to others, we can really celebrate what we’ve been working so hard to create.
But when cultural maturity is low, nothing feels good enough. All we want to do is win, but winning seems impossible when the goal posts keep moving. So there’s little to celebrate.
“High cultural maturity is when you celebrate even the mistakes and can take them as positive learning experiences.” — Director, Media Group
Cultural maturity is reflected in the growth of the leader. As leaders grow, so will the business. Investing in the space to learn together, admit what is really needed for change, and step into the challenge means you are ready to take that next leap. Our businesses grow up when we let go and allow for everyone in the culture to flourish.
Growing up doesn’t mean we lose the magic we had when we were starting up. It means we are better equipped to face the challenges that will inevitably come as we scale. It takes a healthy level of cultural maturity to recognise what might be holding us back, and have the courage to take that next leap into our potential.
Thank you to the founders and leaders who attended our event in London. And to Natalie Orringe and my fellow Within partner Charlie Lyons for contributions to this article!