Sandra Nguyen is the Vice President of People & Culture at Volusion, Inc.
The dawn of a company is a truly special time for the pioneering team working to forge a path to success. During this stage, the entrepreneurial spirit is high and the group is empowered by close working relationships. This combination of excitement and cohesion, mixed with a passion for success fosters a fast-paced, agile environment where productivity is high and roadblocks are quickly removed.
When rapid growth is fueled by this startup mindset, the natural need comes to hire more staff. But with additional headcount comes the need for additional structure, which demands the question: how can you keep the energy ablaze while establishing structure?
After watching our company grow from 50 employees to almost 500 in five short years, these strategies have allowed us to retain the same “keep it simple, get it done” attitude that’s fueled our growth:
1. Implement policies only where policies are needed
The word “policy” has a stigma in startup culture, as it implies roadblocks and unnecessary processes. But as a company quickly adds employees, it becomes necessary to scale the business.
For example, when we needed to purchase something in the early days, we’d simply run to the CEO and ask for his credit card. But now, with so many departments there’s a much higher degree of financial responsibility, so we introduced a purchasing department to establish financial checks and balances.
While considering any policy, it’s important to vet the proposed changes to all stakeholders throughout the organization. Providing leaders with the opportunity to give feedback on the policy helps gauge overall impact on teams’ innovation and productivity. Beyond that, it also helps garner support from management to secure additional buy-in from frontline employees upon implementation.
On the backend of things, once a policy is put in place, it’s key to continuously reevaluate those policies as teams and objectives grow – always ask, “Does this policy make sense for us, or are we just implementing because other companies are doing it?”
2. Democratize the feedback process
Core to the startup vibe is the idea that everyone’s opinion counts, regardless of position. But as more opinions come into the fold, the process of facilitating, organizing and acting upon employee feedback becomes challenging.
To keep communication open and structured, provide employees with easy, low-barrier feedback mechanisms that allow everyone to suggest changes. For example, soliciting anonymous feedback using Web-based survey tools provides highly transparent and honest responses while affording you the ability to analyze common themes and prioritize changes.
This approach to collecting feedback serves as an excellent counterpart to an open-door executive policy – the beauty here is that instead of requiring an employee to get in front of the executive team in person, the process becomes fully democratized and easy to participate in.
Of course, you must actually implement and communicate changes that stem from this feedback, as it demonstrates a commitment to giving team members a stake in the organization’s future.
3. Take a top-down, bottom-up approach to leadership
A startup vibe is something that’s embodied by the people of an organization, not just a notion that’s encouraged. In other words, a mindset of agility must be set by example, meaning that filling leadership positions with the right people is of the utmost importance.
Naturally, company leadership is responsible for fostering the right attitude to keep a startup vibe alive. By setting aggressive goals and efficiently executing upon them, the overall team is able to witness and absorb the work environment your organization strives to keep. Of equal importance, top levels of the organization should praise those who rally behind the startup mentality.
But company culture doesn’t just come from the top – it must also come from the middle and lower levels of the organization. To strike this balance, we frequently and aggressively promote from within, rewarding tenured employees who drive progress and newer employees who make an impact in a quick period of time.
By making positive examples of these leaders, employees are constantly influenced and managed by those with an aggressive growth mentality.
4. Encourage accountability by encouraging personal connections
A key component of early success is the ease of communication between teams, as it establishes a higher level of accountability. Naturally, as an employee base grows, communication silos form and team members become most loyal to their immediate departments instead of the entire organization.
Alleviating this issue is as simple as getting teams to interact outside of conference rooms. This can be achieved by providing collaborative workspaces, having a communal eating area and organizing activities to get workers away from their desks and interacting with another.
Essentially, once your team gets to know people outside of their department, they’re more likely to feel a closer connection with the overall organization, leading them to focus on improving the whole instead of just their part.
5. Interview with an eye for the vibe
Maintaining a startup vibe with your existing employee base is part of the picture, but to foster this mentality long-term, it’s crucial to hire the right people. To do so, you must arm your recruiters and interviewers to be organizational gatekeepers, giving them the tools needed to not only spot talent, but ensure a true culture fit.
The key here is to look at a candidate beyond their skill set and build the hiring process around your organization’s mission and core values. Beyond a solid background and past performance, interviewers must screen a candidate for humility and the ability to collaborate – someone may be awesome at what they do, but your startup vibe can’t afford to tolerate jerks.
Organizational growth is an exciting adventure that speaks volumes to the success and health of a company, but it also introduces a unique set of challenges to keep a growing team happy, hungry and productive.
By being practical and open to feedback, introducing structure to help scale doesn’t have to hurt the startup vibe – in fact, it can foster it for years to come.
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