Growing Pains: How to Build a Sustainable, Exciting and Successful Company Culture

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HeadBox has grown from a start-up of 4 people to a Small-Medium Enterprise (or “scale up” to use a trendier term) with 60 employees over the last 4 and a half years. During that time we have learnt a lot about the exciting opportunities and potential pain points that scaling a team and building a business presents.

Each phase of growth presents a particular set of challenges and as you move through each of these stages there are different priorities to consider. Ultimately, there is one thing that transcends every stage of growth which makes building a successful business that much easier, and that is Culture.

We’ve invested a lot of time in crafting our culture at HeadBox and in this post I’m going to share some of the steps we’ve taken to build a meaningful, enjoyable and, ultimately, productive environment for our team. I should add – this is by no means an exhaustive guide but rather a selection of thoughts which might prove useful. 

I am going to cover 4 key areas which help create a meaningful and effective company Culture: 

Communicating effectively: the art of making sure everyone is informed, which is a lot easier said (ironically) than done in my experience. 

Defining the company Mission. Why are we all here? I hear you ask. The company Mission gives people purpose and also gives you a compass bearing against which to track your progress.

Instilling Values in the business will be crucial to creating the actions which lead to the right outcomes. 

Finally, the magic ingredient which brings it all together, good, old fashioned Hard Work.

The HeadBox team has grown from 10 to 60 since launching in 2015

Communication

Communicating with 5 people is very different than communicating with 20 people and even further distant to communicating with 50 people. It is vitally important that you adapt the way you communicate with your team as you pass through these thresholds. When you are a small team it is very straightforward to keep everyone informed of decisions on product, strategy and people.

The reality is you all share a desk (hopefully with a pool table nearby) and you spend all day every day chatting with one another, going for lunch or travelling to and from meetings together. This constant contact means everyone is up to date and informed about anything and everything happening in the business. You have a conversation once and everyone hears it. 

Fast forward to a team of 20 people and it is easy to assume that the “conversation” you had with some of the team is known by the rest of the company. That, unfortunately, is not the case and without knowing it you will quickly and unknowingly create communication silos within the business.

At 20 people you need to start building structures into your day, week and month to ensure people are informed and up to date. Weekly stand-ups, daily team kickoffs and Friday wrap up sessions are some examples of what provides a good forum for communication. Structures you then need to develop and refine as you grow to 50 people. 

At HeadBox we have a “Company All Hands” at the start of each week in which we make “Monday Commitments”. Each team (Sales, Marketing, Product, Account Management, Operations etc…) tell the company what they hope to achieve, or what they are “committing to” that week. We then have “Friday Wins” in which we recap the commitments and update our progress against these. This provides a great platform for both keeping people informed of what is going on across the business and also for celebrating successes (not to mention the learnings from commitments which are not met). 

My advice would be to over-communicate. Interestingly, we hosted a breakfast briefing titled “The Female Blueprint for Success” last year and Prue Freeman, the Founder and CEO of cafe and restaurant group Daisy Green, said when asked about this topic, “no one ever died from over-communicating,” I couldn’t agree more.

Company Mission

There is one area into which you should consider investing your new-found communicative energy and it is on the “Mission” of the company. Why are people getting out of bed, squeezing on to the Northern Line and coming to work every day? As a business we are laser-focused on our Mission: to unlock brilliant events through human-kind event tech. Everything we do ladders up into this. The Mission, therefore, gives everyone at work a purpose and a meaning to their role. 

Andy Cosslett, an investor in HeadBox and Chairman of the Rugby Football Union, once told me the story of a cleaner at Cape Canaveral, the NASA base in the 1960s, who was asked what he was doing up so late cleaning the control room. The cleaner replied, “putting a man on the moon”. This collective goal was powerful enough to make that cleaner work through the night. I hope that we have created a culture at HeadBox where people are happy to go above and beyond to help us achieve our ambitious goals.

A goal becomes somewhat more meaningful when it is shared with others. Sport provides some compelling examples of this. For example, professional golfers place huge emphasis on the Ryder Cup, a team effort, over their individual Majors triumphs. The “Miracle at Medinah”, when Ian Poulter & Co. turned around a 4 point final day deficit to claim what is widely regarded as one of the greatest sporting comebacks in history, is a tangible example of what can be achieved by a team with one common goal. Football fans live the hopes and dreams of their team on a weekly basis.

The Netflix documentary, “Sunderland ‘till I die”, leaves a viewer in no doubt that the mood of the city is defined by the success of the Sunderland football team – a collective sentiment. Even for an Englishman, standing in the Aviva Stadium belting out “Fields of Athenry” with 65,000 Irishmen whilst their boys roll a maul 22 metres to score against Wales is pretty spine-tingling stuff. Goals are amplified in their meaning by the number of people who share them. It is important to create one that resonates with every team in your business.

Values

Another key ingredient to creating your Culture is the company Values. Had you asked me 3 years ago what company values are, I would have said they’re meaningless (and often pretty naff) words written on the walls of corporate office blocks the world over. I have completed a spectacular volte-face from that viewpoint. The HeadBox Values are vitally important to our Culture and therefore the business. Bringing together a group of people with a shared set of values gives you the best chance of success. 

We created our HeadBox Values in 2017 by getting everyone together to discuss and debate what they believed to be important for the company and what we wanted to achieve. The aim was to understand people’s personal priorities and, from these, see what we could apply to the business. After several sessions and a number of re-workings, re-configurations and slimming downs we ended up with 4 values and 4 behaviours which fed into these:


Brilliance – strive to be the best you can be

Integrity – do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it

Empathy – put yourself in the other persons’ shoes 

Curiosity – always start with why 


It is important these Values don’t become hollow phrases written on walls and in presentation decks. Senior leadership needs to set the tone by behaving according to the Values – there is no Integrity in me asking others to strive for Brilliance if I am happy with mediocrity. Make your Values a habit by embedding them into your day-to-day routines. Only then will they proliferate through the business and contribute to your Culture. 

The “Big Cheese Hat” is a great example of how we have built the Values into our daily routines at HeadBox. Every week you can nominate a “Big Cheese” who has gone above and beyond in their role. Each nomination is marked against a Value, “Daisy demonstrated Empathy when she…” and so on. The coveted “Big Cheese” is then awarded in the Friday wins session. The winner has the “privilege” of wearing the hat in the office for the following week.

We are also planning quarterly team socials themed on the Values. We’re doing the “Curiosity” Quarterly update in Q1 20 which will involve awards for demonstrations of Curiosity followed by a social event at the Escape Rooms. How Curious.

A quick aside, I have the Values set as my laptop desktop background and it has started more than a few interesting conversations with senior stakeholders…

Good Old-Fashioned Hard Work

I am acutely aware that it is easy to write these things in a blog post and say “look at how great we are”. The reality is we have made errors in all of these areas over the course of the last 4 and a half years. It is in making those mistakes that we have learned the recipe for success, or at least “our” recipe for success. It is with this philosophy – that of theoretical, rather than empirical learning – that I write this post. In a bid to help you avoid the cuts and grazes we have experienced on the path to building a sustainable, successful and exciting Culture.

There are no shortcuts to creating a Culture. It takes a huge amount of hard work to create the Mission and the Values of a business and it requires more effort than you think to Communicate effectively. You simply have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in – it is this good old fashioned elbow grease that will lubricate the Mission, the Values and the Communication within your business to create a sustainable, exciting and successful Culture.

N.B. Jokes aside, get a pool table. It provides a focal point for your culture and nothing compares to the endorphin rush of 7 balling your CEO 😉

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