The evolving culture challenge in fast-growth businesses has been a hot topic for a number of years with whole consultancies now focusing their efforts around this sector. Growing from 10s to 100s or 1,000s of people, to multiple territories and often moving away from a ‘founder-led’ structure brings a huge amount of pressure to an often ‘organically grown’ business culture.
One of our investors, AlbionVC did extensive research on the topic which found that culture is a critical factor influencing a company’s ability to scale. The impact of a year-long pandemic, living in the shadow of COVID-19 has tested company cultures to the max. There are many factors that make up a culture and different ‘roles’ the culture has to play in the success of the business – hiring and retaining the right people, having everyone focused on the same goals and displaying complementary behaviors and mindsets to name a few.
As a non-founder CEO of a fast-growth technology business, I have been given a different and very interesting perspective. I wasn’t part of creating the early cultural norms, I came in several years later – we now have around 100 team members over four countries. Whilst to some extent our ‘Cambridge roots’ are very much part of us in terms of deep-technology leadership, the business, the market and the global economy has changed almost beyond recognition.
The HBR article linked above talks about good leadership, “identifying, defining and distilling those elements of workplace culture that have made their company unique and successful in its first stage. They recognize the values and behaviors that underpin it then safeguard them, refusing to compromise certain ideals and qualities while at the same time absorbing positive new ones.”
When I first joined Speechmatics, I had a huge ‘listening’ task to complete. Working with my leadership team, trying to ‘diagnose’ the culture and work out which elements were helping, and which elements were hindering growth is a tough process. I have worked in ‘innovation’ teams in all sorts of businesses from huge corporations like Unilever to smaller fast-growth businesses, and one thing I think is fascinating is the ‘no, but…’ that can creep in with the slow but steady shift to a comfort zone mentality. When you have worked in the same business with the same vision for a number of years, it is easy to lose your initial ambitions. When you have repeatedly hit engineering dead-ends, your map on what looks achievable really starts to change. My view is that true fast-growth companies manage to repeatedly rip up the map, break down the comfort zone walls and empower teams to keep a no-limits innovation mindset. There are a number of ways I believe you can achieve this:
Uncertainty creeps in where there is a communication void. Fast-growth tech businesses should be constantly changing – iterating, adapting, taking advantage of changing environments. Clear communication and a transparent, open-door policy between leadership teams and the wider staff body is key. Don’t allow for assumptions – be clear on why changes have been made and what the desired outcome is.
I have noticed that ‘empowerment’ is sometimes ‘gifted’ by leaders assuming people – particularly smart minds in engineering – want to create and play-by-their-own rule book. Whilst accepting that people need room to breathe, think and tinker, accountability is absolutely critical – to achieve the wider business vision and to ensure that whole teams are aligned and pushing in the same direction. Empowerment without accountability can lead to a fragmentation with lots of people working hard in different directions.
Anyone, but particularly those that choose to work for fast-growth businesses want to see a direct correlation between their hard work and company output and success. Engineers and developers want to see technology out in the market, sales teams want to be remunerated for new deals and marketers want to see the impact of their efforts. Recognition is a hugely valuable tool for shaping and behavior and defending the culture traits you want to keep.
You feel a real magic in the first few months and years of a business – passion projects brought to commercial reality, ambitions to fill gaps in the market and technological discoveries supercharged through clever business plans. Somewhere along the journey though that initial spark can dim – necessary processes, sales targets and fulfilling stakeholder demands can start impacting the culture. It doesn’t have to be that way. We have recently changed the structure of Speechmatics, brought back the cross-business project teams and re-fired up some of that brilliant entrepreneurial passion and ambition that makes this such an exciting place to work and we are seeing the impact of these changes already.
I have written previously about the pace of change Speechmatics has seen over the last year. We have intentionally gone back to the drawing board on some areas of the business and I don’t think fast-growth leaders should be afraid to do that. We work in this sector to help businesses thrive in uncharted waters and that needs continuous evaluation and intervention to keep on course. There is no room for dead ends, problems and ‘no, but…’ mindsets – only ‘yes, and…’, smart, ambitious people smashing through barriers, continuously excited to supercharge the potential of our technology.
Katy Wigdahl, Speechmatics
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