How Do You Create Culture at a Startup That’s Growing FAST?

How Do You Create Culture at a Startup That’s Growing FAST?

How does a startup build and protect company culture, when it’s constantly growing, shape-shifting, and pivoting? Let me tell you: it ain’t with bean bags.
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If one thing’s certain about startups, it’s uncertainty.

And that startups invariably have culture problems from day zero. Even the best ones.

I should know. I’ve worked at my fair share – and I’m leading one right now.

What possessed me to go back for more?

It’s pretty simple, really; me, Gabe and Ethan shared a vision.

We had valuable experiences – from different corners of the startup perspective, and from our personal lives.

We had a people analytics platform that we knew could make the world better for people in work – and for business.

And – not in spite the challenges, but because of them – I love startups.

Because startups are bestowed with a rare kind of magic; that feeling that the world will change under your work.

And, just like a headline Vegas act, when the magic is good – it blows them away.

The audience is rapt, the reviews are unanimously positive, the crowd’s throwing roses on stage every night.

Take a bow. You nailed it.

You just don’t get that feeling at megacorporations.

But on the flipside…  the magic’s not always good. And everyone can see through the cheap tricks.

Nobody sticks around for an encore.

Good magic is an artform, learned slowly, delicately - built over a long-term period.

Cheap tricks are the quick and dirty route to short-term gratification. But the victory is almost always hollow.

Often, these cheap tricks come from performative moves; ones that aim to patch the holes (or gaping chasms) in the company’s culture.

Perks can mutate into red flags:

Unlimited paid time off! 🚩 Because you’ll never take it.

Flexible working hours! 🚩 AKA taking calls at your kid’s birthday.

No managers! 🚩 No accountability, no structure, no progression…

Ping pong! Beer! Playstations! 🚩 They’re only fun if you get to use them.

So, here’s the billion dollar question…

How does a startup build and protect company culture, when it’s constantly growing, shape-shifting, and pivoting?

Well, Gabe and I have been on a mission to learn from the greatest minds in company culture, with the HR Leadership Podcast.

We’ve spoken to some incredible people, and honestly, the whole experience has been humbling.

Recently, we reached out to Karen Jones, Director of Consulting and Partnerships Denison Consulting Europe, to get her thoughts on this exact topic.

Karen is a leader in every respect of the word, and an informed, experienced authority on workplace culture.

And she was kind enough to give us some really valuable insights, which kick-started memories from the HR Leadership series and everything me and Gabe learned about culture formation.

When you’ve got this many HR and company culture leaders all saying this stuff – you know there’s something in it.

So, eqtble will, for sure, be adopting these perspectives on company culture. And because it’s so critical to our mission, and who we are as a company, we’re inviting you all in to share this knowledge.

Because when one of us shines, we all shine.

How to build and protect startup culture – Karen Jones

Karen laid out six factors for success in building and maintaining culture in a startup:

  1. First, find a definition of culture that works for you

“‘The way we do things around here’, is descriptive, but not declarative enough. If you find a model that helps you create a language that is specific enough, you can start to open the debate and discussion. So, define what you mean in terms of culture. I love the Denison model for helping me do this.”

This reminded me of when Gabe and I talked to The Culture Guy, Benjamin Drury. He’s a huge advocate for specific language, and a solid direction on *what culture is* to a company.

If you can, catch that conversation in full – because it was just full of solid gold advice.

  1. You have to be clear on your Mission

“Why are we in business in the first place? What difference are we trying to make in the world?”

So, Karen’s not alone in thinking about this. In fact, she’s in really good company. Emma Dawson, a guest on the HR Leadership Podcast, was passionate about passion; that is to say, that culture is built around shared passions.

Alignment with your people can only happen when you’re clear on what you want to achieve – so be transparent. Nail your mission, and get people excited about it.

  1. Raise your people up with you

Raising people up means more than promoting them or enhancing their compensation and benefits. It means giving them fulfillment, power, and sway in their roles.

“Are leaders creating a sense and belief that everyone can have a positive impact? Are you building a sense of ownership, commitment, and responsibility for personal contributions?”

This resonates with me, and it comes down to empowerment. In my experience, empowerment comes from leadership, and good management. This feeds into HR processes – and having the HR data to inform precisely how you empower your workforce is one of the reasons that eqtble exists.

  1. Who is the customer?

“Companies must accept that colleagues are often 'internal customers'. Do you understand your customer, and how does this understanding get translated into your decisions?”

Our most recent guest on the podcast was Tiffany Castagno – AKA the Curator of Culture.

One of the most interesting and important aspects of culture she raised was employer branding. She had this to say:

“What I often see, particularly with startups, is people want to get their brand out there – they want to have their shiny product or service out there – so they pump all this money into marketing, or all of their advertising… But they're neglecting the people that are behind it. And people are your greatest brand ambassadors, they truly are, if you treat them right and they're happy…”

Listen in to our full conversation – Tiffany is a real game-changer in the culture space, and totally deserves your follow on LinkedIn, to!

  1. Be clear on how you manage change

This is huge.

When me and Gabe spoke with our former colleague (and great friend) Santhiago DeVicente about navigating organizational change, he told us something super insightful:

Change needs honesty, not optimism.

This was a WOW moment for us. Leadership needs to enable vulnerability, not mask it – because hiding the truth leads to deeper anxiety – and this can erode culture from within.

Santhi said:

“Helping folks navigate through change doesn't mean that you need to be overly optimistic... Sometimes, it means being super transparent, even if that can generate some discomfort.”

Leadership needs to be honest and truthful.

Even if it hurts.

  1. Manage the dynamic tension between strategy and inclusion

Ah, that tension… Karen alludes to something really big, here.

So, I recently spoke to Karine Bah Tahé, CEO of Blue Level, and one of the world’s foremost experts on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Amazing chat – make sure you watch it in full:

We talked about this tension, about tokenism – and the fear of being perceived as making token gestures with DEI strategy.

It was a hugely valuable conversation. And Karine rightly puts education at the top of the list for getting past this – because knowledge is power.

But you’ve got to measure the right things, too – and when it comes to quantifying your company culture, we believe that our platform is the most powerful tool for the job.

Quantify your company culture. Use eqtble

eqtble’s groundbreaking, data-driven platform puts the world’s most advanced workforce analytics software at your fingertips. And it’s surprisingly easy to use; it’ll even give you AI-powered insight into how to tackle your company’s biggest problems. Even the ones you can’t quantify right now.

eqtble works with major HCM and HR tools, with seamless integration. Plug in your data, and eqtble does the rest. Sign up for early access. It’s free!

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