7 ways to cultivate a start-up culture

Feeling threatened by the new kids on the block? Unruly co-founder Sarah Wood shares the small steps for leaders that will bring about big changes.

by Sarah Wood
Last Updated: 29 May 2019
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Big businesses are running scared. Their place on the FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 is under threat from new, nimble companies with innovative business models and ambitious can-do cultures.

So how can you cultivate a start-up culture in your own company? While you can never completely control culture, you can create the right environment for a positive culture to thrive. Here's how:


Companies with purpose are 400 per cent more profitable than their peers. In the team you lead, you need a purpose that is bigger than the bottom line, one that allows your people to be their bravest selves, do work that challenges the status quo and deliver meaningful impact. Purpose allows you to shape a future and an industry that you and your people want to be a part of. You cannot have a successful culture without a defining purpose, so that’s where you need to start.


Building a strong culture and nurturing your people first and foremost means you can be confident you’ve got a committed team prepared to tackle the toughest problems. A company’s culture comes to life through its people; they are the custodians of your culture. Every person you recruit to your team will have some impact, big or small, on the overall culture. That means you need to hire with culture in mind. Recognise people who best embody the values and be open to the evolution of a culture as the people, size and stage of your team or business change.


In times of disruption, an open and transparent culture is more important than ever - you want to know that every member of the team feels comfortable bringing bad news and raising market challenges at an early stage. You also want people who are willing to challenge decisions, and make sure that you have the forums for that to happen. Use all-company Town Halls or regular team meetings to communicate challenges and surface what’s NOT working, and give your people the opportunity to break into smaller groups and discuss so it’s not just a one-way, top-down broadcast.


Especially in a time of uncertainty, you need culture to be open to new directions and fundamentally open-minded. If you keep listening, keep learning, keep reading, keep evolving, keep experimenting and keep questioning, you can keep on being at the cutting edge of trends that are reshaping the world we live in. There are so many unknowns that it’s important to focus on the things you can control, rather than the things you can’t. Maybe you can’t control what happens in your overall business, but you can have an impact on the team you’re a part of. Make your personal ethos and your team culture agile enough to get on with the job at hand, even under an onslaught of change.


If your culture is going to be agile enough to respond to a world of constant change, it also needs to be one that has learning at its core. You want an ethos that has curiosity running through its veins, where your people take every opportunity to learn new skills, soak up new ideas and meet new influencers and industry leaders. The best entrepreneurial cultures aren’t just about creating an environment for people to do their jobs well: they’re about helping them learn about their industry so they end up doing their jobs better.


In uncertain times, the future can feel like a formidable foe. We all have a better chance of coming out on top if we pool resources and work together to face uncertainty. Within a team that means listening to each other’s opinions and playing to individuals’ strengths. Internally, that can mean cross-functional crack squads working to solve particular pain points or capitalise on product opportunities. Beyond the walls of a company, it means forging more partnerships and strategic alliances. Don’t be a closed circle - always be open to new ideas, new partners and new possibilities.


It’s a simple rule: the more diverse the team, the better the decision making. The more diverse the company, the more innovative it is. And the more diverse your workforce, the greater revenues you’ll bring in. A recent report from the consultants McKinsey showed that companies in the top quartile for diversity are 34 per cent more likely to have financial returns above for their industry. So make your culture one that doesn’t just welcome diversity, but one which also actively champions and facilitates it.

This is an edited extract from Stepping Up: How to accelerate your leadership potential by Sarah Wood and Niamh O’Keefe (FT Publishing, £14.99).

This article was originally published in October 2017.


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