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Thursday 21 August 2014

The High Growth Challenge: Are You Winning on the Cultural Battleground?

Every business has a cultural battleground, for most the battle is little more than a skirmish. Even that, for many businesses, is something they struggle to win. For High Growth Businesses, winning on the cultural battleground is vital to their survival.

,Are you winning on the cultural battleground?
Are You Winning on the Cultural Battleground? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first question you're probably asking is "where is the cultural battleground?". The answer is anywhere a new recruit comes into contact with your company. So in a small start up it is most likely to be the founders of the business. For a larger company it would most likely be their direct reports and for a business that is bigger still it will be the next level down. In general, it tends to be at the lowest levels of the company hierarchy where most interactions take place.  The cultural battleground is where new recruits come up against your company culture and will try to add their own influence the intensity  of the skirmish will be based on their own history and closeness to your business's culture. The further away the recruits culture from yours the more intense the skirmish.

For the business, winning on this battleground is vital, after all if it cannot integrate new staff into its existing culture readily, then individual skirmishes will persist and the existing staff will become battle weary and be even less effective in protecting your culture. More importantly for a High Growth Business, at some point this new recruit will become the company's face for other new recruits, who will want to push their own cultural norms. It is easy to see on this basis, how quickly a company's culture can be undermined and changed. Very often this can happen without the senior management being aware of the issue. It will only become apparent as they see employees become less committed not only to the company's values but also those processes put in place to make sure the culture remains embedded in the business.

So far we have only looked at this issue on an individual basis, now let's imagine the problem from the aspect of numbers. For example, over the next 18 months you expect to grow from 32 to 44 people. That assumes a growth rate of a little over 20% per annum. It involves taking on 12 people at a rate of 1 person every 6 weeks over 18 months. 

This strategy carries a risk to your current culture and customer experience; unless you can convert your new recruits to buy into your culture quickly enough, to prevent them from being polluted by other new recruits.  So in this case time is of the essence. Using our previous example, if it takes you 18 months to integrate a new recruit, you'll have a business with potentially up to 12 heretics in a group of 44 as none will have yet been integrated.  Under those circumstances it would be almost impossible to preserve your cultural values and you'd certainly lose the cultural battle. However, if you can integrate your new recruits in say 6 months then you'll only have 4 heretics in a group of 44, that's a much more manageable number.  Better still with the short integration time certainly 1 and possibly 2 of those five will be very close to integration giving you a great chance of winning on the cultural battleground.

As a High Growth Business it may be that you will be taking on new people about every month for the foreseeable future. Then this becomes a real concerted and incessant battle. No doubt your success has in part been achieved by the application of your cultural values and you’ll want to protect them to ensure your continued success, then winning on this battleground is a matter of survival. In which case to support your side you need to provide your “troops” with the best equipment. That will include:

1) A clear and strong recruitment process that seeks to take on only the best talent with the best cultural fit.
2) A comprehensive operations document which describes in detail “the way we do things here” and is what I call "The Big Colouring Book" of your business.
3) A well thought out and considered statement on your cultural values. Or what might be described as “why we do things the way we do things here”.
4) An induction and integration process which enables new recruits to understand “the why” thereby making it easier to accept “the how”.

The better prepared and supported your troops the more new recruits you can manage. If you get this right you can cope with almost any number of new recruits. I can give you two examples based on my own experience:

1) A company with a planned growth of 7 new starters per month for a year with a starting number of 120.
2) A subsidiary which, on the back of a big contact win, grew from 28 to 81 staff in a little over 10 months. 

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business.