Unless you’ve been living under a rock, every sensible startup founder knows that a strong company culture early on is essential to its success. But, as your company begins to grow, staying true to your founding values is far easier said than done.
As your headcount starts to increase and you start to expand across borders, the risk of diluting your culture becomes so much more real. Companies with weaker cultures not only find themselves struggling to attract and retain top talent but also battling to do business with the best organizations if values and expectations aren’t aligned.
So, how exactly do you ensure your core values are kept intact? And how do you make sure these values are actually internalized by everyone in your organization?
To find out we asked three experts from Adyen, Booking.com, and KPMG who’ve witnessed thriving cultures, even through rapid growth. Here are three of their best pieces of advice to help you preserve your culture, no matter your company’s size:
1. Stay true to yourself and don’t lower the bar
“It sounds very cheesy but it really does work,” said Maikel Lobbezoo, Head of Growth at payment company Adyen. “If you want your culture to stay the same with the people who share your values, just be honest about it, continue to look for it, and don’t accept anything less.”
Maikel believes Adyen’s culture resembles the personalities of its founders. “In the early days, there were lots of people who joined Adyen who were great people but didn’t really have that entrepreneurial spirit,” he explained. “Perhaps the most significant decision for our culture back then was that we weren’t going to ‘manage’ our staff, which I think implied we were only looking for people with mindsets comparable to ours.”
Adyen didn’t have an official HR department until it had a headcount of 250 and offices around the globe. “When we grew larger and expanded internationally, people really wanted to understand why Adyen was successful and wanted concrete examples. That’s when we started to define our culture,” Maikel explained. “We’ve captured our culture in what we call ‘The Adyen Formula.’ This is eight characteristics unique to Adyen which we discuss thoroughly during every interview.”
Letting people go is also something Adyen doesn’t shy away from. “We’re very vocal about our values,” said Maikel. “We have a culture of feedback, therefore we make sure we’re transparent regarding what’s working, and what’s not.”
2. Keep your values simple so people internalize them
“Keep it simple,” explained Roderik Jongbloed, Senior Consultant at KPMG who’s worked closely with Adyen and witnessed their growth first hand. “What I noticed while working with Adyen was that having values and principles only works if they match your behavior. Make sure your values are easy to understand so everyone can really internalize them and apply them in their day-to-day work.”
For a company that considers trust and integrity to be of utmost importance, values are also the main point of discussion during KPMG interviews. “We have a set of seven values that we explicitly discuss. Once you join the company, we have a three-day introduction event based on our values. We also have regular training, and use our values throughout our work as much as possible.”
Roderik also emphasized the importance of finding a balance between providing enough guidance, but not over-regulating. “I don’t think culture should be up to one person. It should be up to the entire company, from trainees to board members,” he explained. “It’s important to encourage positive behavior and to be able to openly discuss when people don’t live up to the organization’s values. I think in the end, leading by example is the most important thing, otherwise, culture just remains theoretical.”
3. Don’t over-monitor your culture, go with the flow
“You should never compromise on values. But, trying to keep a culture intact also means never giving it a chance to mature into something better," said Emmanuel Goossaert, Manager of Infrastructure at Booking.com. “Just go with the flow. Trying to keep your culture intact is a symptom of being afraid of change, and if you’re small, trying to stick to something might be what’ll make you fail as you won’t be able to react fast enough to changes around you,” he continued.
“If a company starts to strictly monitor its culture, that speaks for the culture itself, suggesting trust has been broken at a deeper level and the culture has become toxic,” he explained. “A culture of mistrust only leads to cynicism and burnouts, and no great companies have ever been built on such shaky foundations.”
To make sure employees believe in Booking.com’s values, a number of processes are in place. “During the interview process, we look at whether or not someone will fit into our working culture. We also have training that mixes people from different departments so they can build working relationships across reporting lines,” Emmanuel explained.
“Our People Department also runs a regular Cultural Assessment survey across the entire company to understand where Booking’s culture is at now, because, as our CEO Gillian Tans said, “our culture is our most powerful asset.” Emmanuel continued: “You can’t improve what you don’t measure. From that survey, we learn a great deal about how people understand and apply our values internally, and we identify themes to improve on.”
So, while a culture that works in one company may not work in another, it’s clear the steps to nurture it as you scale are the same. By staying true to your values from early on, keeping them simple so people internalize them, and by not being afraid to change, you should be able to create a culture that will stand the test of time. Just remember to go with the flow.
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