Leadership and Management

The Secret Formula for Building a Winning Culture

All the best moments in my career have been shared with great people. The challenge with growth companies is to figure out how to scale the culture as the size and complexity of the business grows. How do you grow the business without breaking the culture that made the business great to begin with?

The formula is simple. Hire great people and focus the leaders on culture being the priority. I know, this isn’t rocket science. Sorry for the click-batey title. It is a simple formula, but it is also very difficult to execute.

On the first front, hiring, as growth accelerates so does the urgency to scale up the team. Open roles become open dams, and the pressure is on hiring managers to add people to save teammates from drowning in the flood. Only the best hiring managers know that if the new hires you send into the water as the lifeguards can’t swim then everyone drowns! The wrong hire is worse than no hire. The best managers wait for the perfect person no matter how intense the workload gets. And the perfect person is the one who has the talent (table stakes) AND is the perfect cultural fit (harder to discern).

The second challenge with scaling is keeping the leadership focused on culture. The temptation is to shift the focus to performance. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on performance per se, but a company starts to make mistakes when it sacrifices the long term for the short term, which is the opposite of what good a sacrifice is supposed to be. A proper sacrifice gives up short team gratification in exchange for more meaningful long term pursuits. Great leaders know that results will fluctuate up and down. It’s the strength of the team that gets us through any potential future downturns, so the wisdom is in investing in the team dynamic constantly.

It’s worth the effort. In a winning culture, both the company and the individuals in it experience long term benefits. When I started my job change journey 3 years ago I had a goal of learning like I was at the start of my management career. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to work with smart people where I’d have to sprint to keep up. You know, they say you’re the average of the 10 people you spend the most time with, and we spend a lot of time at work.

It doesn’t matter how good you get at what you do. Everyone has something to teach to someone else, and everyone has something they can learn from someone else. I’ve been with my company for some time now, and I get to help hire, teach and train new people. But I’ve given so much more in return. I have a lot to learn from everyone I work with. If we can stay humble and surround ourselves with great people, we can keep learning, and probably accelerate our learning.

I’m writing this shortly after a team meeting with my peers. We’ve done a ton a hiring in the past year to two years. I left that meeting feeling great about the people I work with and the direction we’re heading in, which is probably a rare thing and something to be very grateful for.

A recent team-building activity!

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