Scaling Without Losing Your Soul

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By Matt Auron

One of the times that start-ups begin to falter is when they begin to rapidly scale. Typically once they’ve closed a B round of funding, teams grow and founders and early stage companies sometimes identify this as chaotic or worse, the time they “lost their soul.”

And the reality is, the nature of the enterprise does change and it does becomea different business. Because it’s bigger it requires more process, more orchestration, and more traditional leadership.

Growing a company is a journey that is not without peril- the halls of Silicon Valley are littered with businesses that took too much money, were too highly valued, and grew too fast without fully understanding what made them unique.

There is a way to scale without losing your soul and to retain what is special about your company. We know these businesses — they end up becoming the iconic companies that define an industry and impact the lives of employees and consumers.

Below are five key actions to take before you scale in order to preserve your company’s soul.

1. Mine Hopes and Fears — Gathering key influencers and leaders of the company for an offsite provides a breath between sprints. By choosing a location and imbuing a sense of ritual, you are symbolically honoring the past and the transition ahead. Create an environment where people can talk honestly about their hopes and fears. Be prepared for this to get emotional. People you would never expect sometimes shed tears as they process the high-pressure situation the company is in — this has happened with our clients numerous times. With a highly visible company, “imposter syndrome” often comes out. People are afraid of screwing up and feel they don’t deserve the success they have been granted. While this is difficult to share, it can serve to heal and integrate the group.

Part of the offsite should also be spent discovering and articulating the essence of the business — its internal brand and culture, its reason for existing, key principles and maxims that define its unique identity. A clearly defined essence will drive all future processes of an organization, keep it on track, and avoid making traditional “big dumb company” mistakes.

2. Clarify Who You Are — As stated above, clarifying who a business is — defining its essence — means undergoing a process of discovery as if through the lens of an anthropologist, looking at behaviors, rituals, rewards and underneath it, the narrative or “song of the company.” Usually, this results in core values and a purpose or mission statement. When we held our first offsite with Slack, it was during this time that Stewart Butterfield and his team cemented the six words that became the basis for shaping employee behavior, company decisions and actions.

3. Align operational and people processes with company values — How do you select, onboard and develop employees who will share the early energy, passion, and ideals of the founders when they’re far removed from them? By reimagining hiring and recruiting, onboarding, performance management, leadership development process that are linked back to the company’s essence. For example, with another client, we partnered to create a performance management approach that was synergistic with their essence, incorporating “learning” into the process. This is not only HR’s job. They may lead it, but the critical input and guidance for these processes must come from the leaders — the people the process will ultimately support.

4. Align the organization around key goals — If the long term vision of the business isn’t clear, this is the time to get clarity. From this, goals and priorities must be agreed upon and made explicit. Everyone on the team must know the mountain they are hiking towards. I should be able to walk up to any individual or team and ask them their priorities, and they should be able to answer without hesitation.

5. Focus on Narrative and Communication from the Leadership Team — We joke with our clients at this stage that they are now paid “to give speeches.” The truth is, the way to organize and motivate a large system of people is through shaping a clear and coherent narrative for the company. Holding townhalls, watching and guiding discussions on collaboration platforms and creating context for employees is incredibly motivating and effective. A strong internal communications strategy is also critical and should include regular updates in channels, all hands meetings, videos and other forms of communication. This steady flow of communication oxygenates the growing body that is the business.

We work with many clients as they experience the growing pains of scaling a business. It’s especially difficult as companies transition from a tight-knit group that’s easy to organize and rally.

But don’t lose hope. With the right amount of intention and discipline, the larger version of the company you love will transform many more lives and become a place that has a larger impact on the world.

Shelley Lozdon