Small company super-glue: how to grow up without growing apart

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A micro business doesn’t need to talk about culture to have it perfectly formed. When you are a bunch of folks starting-up, you’ll have found a very natural super-glue. As a business owner scaling up, sticking together is altogether harder.

Here is how to navigate from micro-business into fully-fledged SME without losing the magic of your firm. This descent into ‘corporate’ behaviour is often regarded as inevitable. I argue not so. I’m proud of a success story at Phase 3 Consulting from start-up in a portacabin to a stage of maturity where we nonetheless retain a pretty special feel.

How do you know it’s time to think about culture?

Here are a few clues that you are at the stage in which you need to be contemplating active steps to make sure your growth doesn’t start to derail you, your plans or your teams:

  • People are missing out on information; or you realise you don’t want everyone to know all

  • You no longer know where everyone is and what they are up to; quite probably you can’t afford to hold that information in your head

  • Actions and emails are at cross-purposes; you notice that people seem unsure of the status of ‘to do’s’

  • Consulting a full team isn’t viable; nor is a decision possible that pleases all

  • Basic kit isn’t robust enough to support you; personal phones, supplies from the local supermarket, shared co-worker space

  • New recruits don’t at once ‘get’ you, your business, your key messages; and yet you’d like to convey these things

  • Somebody drew up an organisation chart, which depicted a hierarchy that had changed with increased levelling

  • Somebody else asks what the rules are!

Consider these your early warning signs that more deliberate decision-making about the style in which you wish to further grow is called for.

Catching culture in practice

Here are five practical aspects of the business environment that engender a particular feel for work, with some pointers on how to keep your small company super-glue continuingly cohesive through growth.

1. Communications

In micro-teams information and ideas flow freely and easily. People are close; results are responsive and agile. Grow up and you’ll need to get your head tightly around the difference between Chinese walls (deliberate) and Chinese whispers!

  • DO: use new collaborative tools. Email isn’t the best for continuing conversations characteristic of effective mini-teams

  • DO: decide how to share your updates. Keep it simple. The right format is best judged in your context (ask people!)

  • DO: notice the danger of top-down. In a portacabin or ‘coffice’, talking doesn’t tend to be like this. When you start your deliberate sharing, be wary of the direction of information flow.

  • DON’T: forget to communicate about growth itself! Let current team members know about your next plans.

2. Reward

Motivating and rewarding is easy to judge for one individual. Keeping an individual approach works for a few co-workers but not beyond. HR professionals see reward in tangible ways (pay and benefits) and engagement (our sense of feeling a committed and enjoyably so) as closely linked. And linked to performance.

  • DON’T: ignore difficult questions in early days of growth about equity of pay. Many very small businesses are used to offering jobs to match previous salaries. Decide if your view is that attracting talent in your context means prioritising external matching or how fair things are internally.

  • DON’T: feel bound by standard arrangements for terms and conditions. You can keep some of the special nature of tiny business by offering team members atypical weekly hours, place of work, trading of time against money, or learning opportunity.

  • DO: remember reward is not just money. Find out about what matters to your growing team.

  • DO: if you do want to give gifts or bonuses, strike an effective balance between company-wide mini-treats that are all the same and unexpected, and individual gestures of a “thanks” or “well done”.

  • DO: create innovation space, if ideas and development are key to your world. The intrinsic motivators are just as powerful for many as the money.

3. Office Life

Life with 50 as opposed to 5 simply doesn’t work in the same way day to day. Avoid a sudden sense of physical silo in the office and manage the different behaviours that a larger team will bring:

  • DO: offer flexible working. Flexibility means choice. We tend to link this to part-time, working at home or flexi-hours arrangements. Others in the team will notice what you offer. As things grow, differences are fine, as long as you have clear and consistent messages to give.

  • DON’T: assume that open-plan space is ideal. Design your growing work-space with both quiet and closed areas and open space too. Or let people go home.

  • DO: take seriously a new responsibility you have towards an increasingly diverse group. If in doubt as to what people need, I suggest you just ask them.

4. Policy and procedure - the rules

A benefit of the micro-work world is, of course, that you can enjoy a freedom to work without explicit rules – and to save yourself the time to worry about them.

Does this need to change?

  • DO: make available enough guidance that employees feel safely empowered to do their jobs. Keep guidance open to all – and leave it in an online or physical place that everyone can refer back to.

  • DON’T: be fooled by misperceptions about what the law says on procedure and policy. If HR and employment law is significantly out of your comfort zone, there is good sense in sticking to bog-standard templates (access ACAS materials, for example).

5. Leadership and management

Leadership here is last but not least. Leading and managing on a different scale is a new challenge to a business and a final say in many senses.

The buzzword of business leadership that convinces me is authenticity. Authenticity allows you to be consistent. Consistency creates trust. We know that trust is a vital differentiator between high-performing and low-performing teams. Continuing and captivating trust, when it can no longer be seen in the whites of your eyes day-to-day, is perhaps the hardest part of growing up but keeping together.

Here are some clues to help you:

  • DO: give opportunity to those who started with you first and gave you the opportunity to grow. Delegate your responsibilities, and try thinking about the things that you really are the best at and the things that quite possibly others could do better.

  • DO: relinquish line management at the right moment. I recommend that a truly supportive and coaching line management is only possible for a business leader for a team of 10 or less directly. Go for creating some open diary space to be available yourself if you’d like the business to feel you are approachable still.

  • DON’T: set out values, mission statements, visions that are not translated into answers about what employees should actually do each day.

  • DO: distinguish management, which is about control and organisation, and leadership. One way to structure an expanded team is to set up project or task-related management structures and to provide development and support in a different way.

Summing the super-glue of small success

Growing up without growing apart is not an unrealistic idea. But it is unrealistic to expect that a team of 50-odd connected people not to require a greater effort at feeling good than a few friends in a van/portacabin/coffee shop/pyjamas.

Culture is a very real thing, albeit hard to get a handle on. If you do just one thing, then take time to pinpoint how you and your most trusted colleagues want your business to be. With this set of values identified, you can act through a growth stage with a consistency and credibility that engenders trust and understanding.

 

About Kate Wadia

Kate Wadia - Phase 3 Consulting

Kate’s passion at work is for bridging the gap between technology and people at work, translating for HR professionals the language of HR systems and making meaningful their potential.

She believes that success with people technology is through people and that people are the differentiator. Using simple techniques drawn from HR experience, project management, business psychology and analogy with everyday life, Kate presents and explains how to work well with technology and technology projects in an HR leadership role.

With a background in contrasting private and public sector HR management, Kate developed her thinking in seeking for herself to understand her first HR systems project-work.

Currently she leads the Service Delivery for Phase 3 Consulting, offering an independent take on the HR systems market in the UK, through a network of experts. Kate’s guiding principle is that openness offers knowledge-sharing, credibility and trust.

Incorrigibly enthusiastic and up absurdly early for a working morning, she swears that she only drinks three good coffees a day, but nobody believes her!

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