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Ch-ch-ch-changes: How to Protect Small Agency Culture and Intimacy As You Grow



Maren Elliott, COO at Swift gives some solid advice for coping with business growth spurts

Ch-ch-ch-changes: How to Protect Small Agency Culture and Intimacy As You Grow

When I accepted my full-time offer at the agency I work at, I was the first employee other than the founding partners.  Then we were five, and eight and fifteen.  During that incremental growth, it was easier to create and shape our culture.  We were in small quarters, like-minded and everyone hung out socially.  Now, times have changed and our company has more than 120 employees and continues to grow rapidly.  That's a great problem to have but also presents the challenge of preserving intimacy when your staff can no longer fit around the same conference table.

1. Define company values and involve employees in the process.   

When a company is starting out, everyone pitches in. It’s easy to feel connected to one another and believe in the principle that great work takes grit when even the CEO, takes out the garbage and washes the dishes.  Once your company grows to 50-60 people, it becomes necessary to formalize values and define culture.  Gut check with staff and solicit feedback to see how your people perceive culture and whether their impressions align with leadership’s vision.  Then, crowdsource from employees to keep culture authentic.  We asked employees to help identify the beliefs that make up our collective philosophy, put it down on paper and hold ourselves and our co-workers accountable to those shared beliefs.

2. Share the company story with new employees. 

Regular, open-invitation meetings with the company founders is one way to provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and better understand your company’s origins and  future plans.   Share perspective on why change has been necessary to succeed and give examples of previous changes.  While you may have a formal PR department, your employees are equally important spokespeople and it is vital that they understand, and feel connected to, the history of the company. 

3. Be prepared to give a little, but stand firm on what really matters.  

Original employees and founders will likely feel a little nostalgic for the old days, but don’t let that prevent you from embracing change.  Old tools and processes won’t suffice once an organization hits 100 employees, and sticking to outdated ways may stifle the growth and creativity of new employees.   At the same time, hold fast to core principles. Reinforce those principles through hiring and performance reviews.  Ask job candidates questions that focus on the cultural values that define your culture.  During annual performance reviews, hold all employees accountable to the same company values.  Everyone should be measured against a universal yardstick for qualities like grit or working well together.

4. Build community week in, week out.

Foster community through events like weekly company-wide lunches, volunteer activities, all-staff meetings, happy hours, off-sites and quarterly events.  Promote the value of informal socializing, sharing a meal together, having conversations that can only happen outside of a work meeting.

5. Invest in management.  

As an agency grows, company founders can’t be involved in every decision or manage the entire company – it just isn’t sustainable.  Build programs like mandatory management training that set clear expectations for all new people managers even if they’ve been in a management role prior to joining your company.  Ideally this training is led by a company leader to keep it authentic to your culture and unique processes. 

6. Course-correct quickly.

Recognize when you get off track and act swiftly.  When you start hearing rumblings that are counter to the culture you’re working towards, make changes.  Our creative team grew faster than any other group in the company – doubling in size in a year – and it became evident that people were feeling isolated in their specific client teams and didn’t have visibility to the work across other accounts.  A twice-monthly creative swap provides a benefit that is twofold: employees share work and sources of creative inspiration while honing their presentation skills.

While change isn’t always comfortable, it doesn’t have to be negative or scary.  Be transparent with your staff about the changes and use it as an opportunity to do things better. Your employees are good barometers for the culture of the company so listen to their feedback (both direct and indirect) and be willing to take action quickly.

Maren Elliott is COO at Swift 

Find out more about Swift here.

Main image credit: TOMO77

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