MT Expert: People - Growing Pains

Virginia Merritt on how to keep the small company feel when you're growing fast...

by Virginia Merritt
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

We all tend to look back fondly on our early start-up days when there were just a few of us; when our energy and enthusiasm carried us along; when we could take decisions quickly, share ideas and move fast. But when you get to 50 or even 250 people, it gets harder to keep that sense of a close-knit team working towards one goal.

One of my colleagues started his career in the army, and it’s no coincidence that the size of a platoon (the smallest working unit) is 30. When you exceed that number it becomes impossible to lead, communicate, motivate and share learning across the group. Practically, as I found in my last company, you can’t get more than that number in a meeting room for those all-important ‘touch base’ meetings. I can still recall how the ‘team feel’ changed radically when we moved from our 30s into our 40s.

It’s at this critical growth point that you have to rethink the way you do things; the way you preserve the language, rites, symbols and mascots that define your ‘tribe’ and help maintain a genuine sense of belonging and commitment.

Take language, for example. In my current firm, the office manager decided on memorable names when we set up our computer systems. So the server is affectionately known as Brad (after Pitt) and the shared files are stored on George (after Clooney). The names have stuck and new joiners always comment on our easy, informal language. The terms – so much less alienating than impenetrable acronyms - are just one way in which we express (and preserve) our slightly quirky personality.

I also thoroughly recommend the annual ‘works outing’, when the whole team takes off somewhere for a day to have fun – and to generate experiences and defining moments that are passed on and shared with new generations of employees. We make the effort to share our history, our vision, our values, our brand personality and our informal cultural traditions as a part of a new joiner’s formal induction programme in the first week – as well as a more informal ‘welcome drinks’ session. It makes people feel part of the team right from the start.

One of the inevitable facts of organisational growth and development is the introduction of hierarchies. As the team grows, so does the number of levels. My advice is keep them to a minimum. We actually eschew all job titles on our business cards and allocate operational roles that are often rotated, so we give everyone the opportunity to experience different parts of the business.

Back to the army, and just like every regiment has its mascot, so too will organisations benefit from an embodiment of your people’s feelings and culture. You’d be well advised not to lose that.

Virginia Merritt is Managing Partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in working with leaders at all levels to bridge the gap between strategy and execution, focusing on leadership development, culture and values and employee engagement.

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