by Harold Hardaway and Shannon Hernandez, Co-Founders of Cardigan Communications Group
One of your most important roles as a business owner is defining and curating the culture of your organization. A good culture ensures a strong connection between your product, purpose, people and work environment to support your long-term strategy.
When we started Cardigan Communications Group, we talked up our company to our friends and told them how we help organizations find their voice and bring their culture to life. Many of them said, “My company could really use help with this.” After receiving several of those comments, we realized something all of these friends had in common — they all worked for startups.
Knowing a lot about culture and a little about startups, we did our research to understand their unique challenges and interviewed friends who either lead or work in startups. Though most founders would agree culture is important in an organization’s success, it often takes a back seat to product development and generating a profit in the early stages of an organization’s life.
This is especially true for startups that experience periods of rapid, sometimes exponential growth and increased expectations for financial performance with each series of funding. There are several infamous examples of startups and even established companies that have allowed cultural issues to linger too long. These organizations, and sometimes their customers, suffer from damaged reputations and pay the price for their mistakes.
It’s much easier to correct your culture as you go than to try to right the ship years later. Alongside the growth of your product and profit, set the foundation of a strong organizational culture to prepare for the next stage of growth.
What Do We Mean by Culture.
Culture is “the way we do things around here.” It’s “the right thing to do.” To paraphrase Edgar Shein, culture is a way of doing things that is learned over time and it shows up in our environment, what we say, and what we believe at our core.
Think of culture as an enabler, and when culture matches strategy an organization will experience improved organizational alignment, engagement, decision-making, and ultimately, performance.
Something like that is surely not easy to achieve. For startups, we recommend focusing on a few foundational cultural “building blocks” (and getting it right) at each stage of growth.
Series A – Define Your Vision & Values.
It’s definitely possible to articulate the vision and the supporting values at the beginning, or seed phase, of an organization’s life, because much of your cultural DNA is based on the principles and values of the founder. By the time a start up reaches Series A, there’s enough history for the founder to become clearer on their vision. The founder and first hires have overcome obstacles and understand the behaviors that prove to lead to success.
This is the time to create or recalibrate your vision statement.
A vision statement is a “north star” of sorts that guides everything the organization does. It needs to be unique to the organization and aspirational enough for everyone in the organization, regardless of their role, to find their way to it.
The same can be said for your core values. We casually refer to these as the “words on the wall.” They are the guiding principles or behaviors that, if stuck to, will lead to the achieving the vision.
It’s important that you give this step the time needed to get it right, as it is foundational for everything your organization does and will often serve as a litmus test for knowing if you’re doing the right thing or determining your next step.
For leaders who are currently in the process of trying to define your vision and values, I would recommend “Find Your Why” by Simon Sinek as a great resource to define who your organization is at its best.
Series B – Develop Internal Communication & Recognition Programs.
Internal Communications & Internal Brand.
In the early years of a start up, it’s the founder and first hires working together day in and day out. Everyone is working in close proximity, or at least frequent communication with each other, so it’s easier to build and maintain camaraderie and connection.
But as the organization grows in Series B, the distance from the founder becomes greater and systems for communication and connection become paramount.
The key to an effective communication plan is to determine the communications vehicles (i.e. delivery method) you will use and timing (e.g. daily, weekly, quarterly, etc.) of each communication. We call the combination of vehicles and timing rhythm.
Your audience and the content you are trying to communicate determine the rhythm you choose for your organization. If your employees are all in one location you can do a weekly face-to-face team meeting, or if you have telecommuters, you can have a videoconference. For information that is more pull than push, a weekly email from the founder can be effective.
When you begin to create your vehicles and make collateral pieces, having an internal brand and style guide brings your culture to life in a tangible way on your intranet site, email, PowerPoint, and Word documents.
Recognition & Rewards.
As a startup grows, the equity position offered to new employees goes down as the number of employees goes up. This means there’s less skin in the game for second and second plus hires.
Recognition programs are great ways to reinforce the values of your organization and provide real life examples of what good looks like to your other employees.
Not all recognition programs have to be incentive based programs that require payouts to employees. Peer-to-peer recognition or years of service celebrations are meaningful, cost effective ways to show appreciation to your employees.
New Hire Orientation.
New hire orientation is a great way to take the magic created by the founder and first hires and teach new employees what makes your organization special.
An introduction to your vision and values and the way work get’s done in your organization can help reduce any missteps new hires may make along the way and will speed up the acculturation process. Besides, no one is going to know how you like things done unless you tell them.
Series C – Leadership Development & Employer Branding.
The increased distance from the founder also means that the organizational hierarchy gets a little taller. It isn’t possible for founders to manage all employees, so there is a need to create another level of management.
Series C is the time to develop clear expectations of leadership.
People leave managers not companies, so giving managers the tools to develop their employees and a framework to reinforce the culture you want for your organization is important. It’s also important that managers live and breathe the organization’s values.
Change is a constant in today’s work environment, but even more so for startups. Train management to keep your company values consistent while managing change within their team.
In this phase of funding, the organization is looking to scale. Establish a strong employer brand to communicate why you are an employer of choice. Your employer brand quickly and accurately sells what’s best about your organization to potential hires. This messaging, look and feel can be used on print materials and your company’s careers website.
Dr. Harold Hardaway built his career navigating executives and organizations through change initiatives and helping them turn their culture into a strategic advantage. He serves as Principal Consultant for Cardigan and also shares his expertise as a speaker and writer on organizational development, organizational research & assessment, team building, corporate culture, professional development and more.
Shannon Hernandez is a gifted communication and marketing strategist who, over the last 15 years, has made a name for herself creating game-changing communication & health and wellness initiatives that facilitate organizational and personal growth. Today, she serves as Principal Consultant for Cardigan, and also shares her expertise as a speaker and writer on personal branding & professional presence, HR communications, health & wellness promotion, social media strategy, and more.