As companies grow, they change. Any culture that existed at the beginning must adapt to the changing environment. It can't remain the same. If it did, the company would stagnate. So ultimately, the goal must be to help the culture evolve.
In looking at the problem, the first question is: what is this company's culture? After all, you can't preserve or evolve something unless you know what it is.
Most of the time, 'culture' is just a feeling. With any luck, a startup feels exciting. The team feels committed. The management and the team feel connected - there is open communication among everyone. Everyone feels they're pulling together for a common goal. People feel they can work hard and still have fun. They feel rewarded through recognition, and perhaps through compensation. But is this the culture? Or are these feelings the result of the culture?
Related to the culture of a company are its customs. Maybe it's a custom to celebrate a new contract, project completions, birthdays. Perhaps it's a custom for the CEO to hold weekly all-hands meetings with open discussion allowing questions and suggestions from anyone. Or maybe one of the company's customs is to share in the company's financial success through bonuses or a company-wide adventure.
The reality is that once a company grows, particularly if it grows quickly, and even more so if outside investors become involved, the customs will have to change and many of those good feelings may change as a result. Celebrating every birthday with everyone in the company will likely become impractical. So too with new contracts and project completions. Even the all-hands meetings will have to change. There's only a finite amount of time available and if there are lots of questions and suggestions, it's unlikely everyone will be heard.
And then there's the money aspect. Outside investors are going to be looking closely at financial results. They will likely argue for more reinvestment into the company, its marketing, product development, and expansion, and may want to reduce those bonuses or company-wide adventures. They may even want to cut back on the toys, free drinks, and meals that made it easy to work ridiculous hours.
What's the result? People are going to feel less connected. Then they'll feel less committed. They won't work as well together, and it won't be as much fun.
So how do we preserve the culture? We don't. We protect the roots of the culture. These are the company's values. They need to be identified, codified, and regularly reiterated to the entire team. Years ago at IBM, it started with 'Respect for the Individual'. It was simple, but went much deeper into the company than might seem obvious. This was followed by the reminder on most everyone's desk: THINK! IBM grew consistently and maintained the culture of Big Blue.
But let's come back to those feelings that constituted our startup culture:
- Team Commitment
- Open communication
- Pulling together for a common goal
- Work hard, and have fun
- Individual and team recognition
Above all, the CEO must foresee impending changes to the culture and customs, discuss them with the team, solicit feedback, and explain the realities of the changing environment. S/he must continually reiterate the goals and direction of the company and show how current tactics are going to help achieve them.
Company culture can evolve if core values are protected and if the team understands the reasons for change. Knowledge leads to understanding.