At our recent Geekup in Atlanta, we had a fascinating panel discussion on the topic of scaling culture across organizations of different sizes. Our speakers came from a diverse range of backgrounds - some working for startups with a few hundred employees and others at large corporations with thousands.
The panelists included:
- Kyle Stapleton, Manager of Culture and Experience at Turner Studios (moderator)
- Kate Atwood, Executive Director of ChooseATL
- Aynn Collins, Director of Talent Strategy at MailChimp
- Christine Kaszubski, Chief People Officer at SalesLoft
- Art Evans, Director of Culture and Talent Development at Atlanta Hawks
During this conversation, we learned some of their best tips when it comes to scaling and building great “places to be from” through strong company culture, regardless of company size.
Tip #1 Find common ground
To build and scale culture across any organization, there needs to be common ground - whether it’s a shared purpose, identity, or value - to serve as the glue that holds people together. Every company has a different approach to finding this shared bond. Our moderator Kyle Stapleton, Manager of Culture and Experience at Turner Studios, gave an example of what this means.
“I came from the agency world where there were around 100 people, where everybody knew each other and wanted to have a beer with everybody else. I now work at a legacy company where some people don't even know who works down the hall from them. But there’s a shared identity around our purpose, which is that we want to make great stuff that fans get psyched about. So maybe I don't know you at all, and we've never had a beer before, but I’m still so excited to see what you’re working on.”
Regardless of what the common ground is, the most crucial part is to make sure those values are seamlessly infused into all facets of a company’s culture - from recruiting to mentoring to recognition.
Tip #2 Don’t be afraid of micro-cultures
While finding common ground is important, every aspect of a company’s culture doesn’t have to be exactly the same. Part of building and growing a strong culture is also being able to nurture the micro-cultures that will inevitably emerge among different offices, locations, and communities. Christine Kaszubski, Chief People Officer at SalesLoft, is a huge advocate of embracing these variations.
“It’s absolutely acceptable to build a culture on a culture. If you’re a global organization, each office should have its own individual look and feel to reflect the makeup of the community you’re in. It doesn't mean that we let go of our foundation or what makes us a company. It means that we understand that, as a team in Atlanta or India or wherever it might be, we’re celebrating our individuality.”
There are many best practices out there to encourage the development of these micro-cultures across offices, while also maintaining a strong broader company culture. For instance, facilitating collaboration across various time zones. Or giving global teams the means to connect through products like Donut, which enables coworkers within Slack to schedule an in-person or virtual outing among themselves.
Tip #3 Tell the story of your company’s culture
Storytelling plays a huge role in shaping a company’s culture. Having a strong, cohesive narrative is crucial, for companies of any size, to ensure employees feel connected to the company’s culture and recognize what they stand for. Kate Atwood, Executive Director of ChooseATL, agrees.
“Everyone at your company should be part of the story that you want to tell and own that culture going out to the world. This type of storytelling is really important and can be applied to any size organization that's going for growth.”
This narrative is also a great opportunity to align the company’s brand identity with its culture, according Aynn Collins, Director of Talent Strategy at MailChimp.
“When you set up a framework for storytelling, you’re honoring the values that got you there. Our purpose at MailChimp is to empower the underdog, which is small businesses. But it applies to a lot of the people we hire at MailChimp too. Aligning that brand identity with the culture through storytelling is so huge.”
Tip #4 Secure leadership buy-in to company culture
We hear a lot about the need for leadership buy-in with employee-related initiatives. But what does it really mean? All the panelists agreed that this type of commitment needs to go beyond a simple verbal promise and should be reflected by active engagement by the executive team. Aynn shared a great example of this in action from MailChimp.
“Just last week in our quarterly town hall, our founder, Ben Chestnut, said: ‘We’re bringing new people in all the time. As we grow, our culture may change. But there are things that are not negotiable. And those are our values, being mission-driven, and making sure all of our leaders are aligned on this.’"
Culture Amp’s CEO, Didier Elzinga, is a champion for executive involvement in building and scaling culture as well, which is why he spends an hour with every person who joins the company to walk them through Culture Amp’s values. Art stressed the importance of making sure the entire leadership team - not just the CEO - is on board.
“If you're not walking the walk and you're not talking the talk, it doesn't matter. Our CEO Steve Koonin took this to heart. In order to impact culture it is important that all leaders are fully engaged and participate in leadership development sessions to become better leaders for their team members and the organization. Steve is committed to 100% participation for all management team and executive leadership.”
Whether your company is undergoing rapid growth, or you’re in the process of changing jobs from a few hundred-person startup to a large corporation (or vice versa), these concepts can be applied in any direction to help you build and scale a strong culture.
Thank you to our panelists for the lively discussion, and to the attendees for a thoughtful discussion after. If you enjoyed the learnings from this event, be sure to register for our upcoming global Culture First conference for even more People Geek knowledge sharing.