Maintaining a Healthy Culture in a Growing Organization

As the new Director of People and Culture at Firewood Marketing, my focus is employee engagement. My mission is to find and implement the programs and practices that will engender camaraderie and help make my colleagues’ lives at work more meaningful.

New focus on corporate culture

For my first job title in the corporate culture space, I chose to be a Culture Coordinator, mainly because it had an alliterative ring to it. Prior to taking on that original title, I had been an Office Manager for a year at a small tech startup that was growing like a weed. My company’s co-founders saw a need for someone to focus on keeping our quickly growing population engaged in the culture that had grown organically. Their pitch to me went something like this:

“We’re growing a lot right now. We’d like to develop a new role that prioritizes employee engagement in our company culture. You’ve gotten to know our people and our vision during the last year, so we think you’re the person for the job. We don’t know what your title will be, but that doesn’t really matter right now. Here’s what we’re thinking…”

They went on to talk about things like recognition programs, team building, company-wide events, and, of course, swag. I was all in.

For the next two years, my priority was employee satisfaction. We planned some amazing team and company-wide events, purchased some cool swag (the softest hoodie you’ve ever worn), paraded home several intramural sports trophies, and sponsored corporate fitness classes. Not to downplay the importance of celebrating together, wearing your company pride on your back, winning as a team, or staying in shape, but in hindsight, I can say that we barely scratched the surface. Through the continued maturation of the company—growing teams, developing a product—and the emergence of competitors in our space, I continued to become more aware of the nuance that was involved in employee engagement and retention. We needed to do more to make the kind of impact that encouraged my teammates to ignore the onslaught of recruiter emails flooding their inboxes.

Over the next four years, as I took on expanded people-centric responsibilities and job titles, I continued to soak up knowledge about different ways to cultivate an engaging company culture. There was an increasing amount of reading material online from other culture ambassadors who had missions akin to mine. Consuming countless articles was valuable, but a great deal of my learning came from listening and staying open to the thoughts and ideas coming from my own colleagues.

a great deal of my learning came from listening and staying open to the thoughts and ideas coming from my own colleagues.

What I’ve learned

We experimented a lot. Some initiatives worked. Some didn’t. But through all of it, there were a few consistencies that I believe can assist in sustaining a healthy culture, especially during times of growth and change. Here are a few of my guiding principles.

1. Feedback is essential. Ask for it, acknowledge it, and when appropriate, take action.

When your company is small enough, the opinions and wishes of your colleagues are no secret. Your 2,500-square-foot office space is quite conducive to informal pulse checks. Impromptu brainstorming sessions with a majority of your 20-person workforce can spring up naturally around a small lunch table. Ideas can waft through a humble office space as easily as the smell of your desk mate’s fragrant meal. Once the company reaches a certain size, and you’ve migrated to occupying a full floor or two in that multistoried building with the picturesque view, it might be time to put some processes in place for collecting feedback. Surveys. Focus groups. One-on-one meetings. These are all viable ways to keep your finger on the pulse of your organization and its ever-changing needs.

2. Building connection early can enhance employee engagement and strengthen your culture.

In my experience, a healthy culture is one in which employees not only feel connected to their company’s mission, vision, and values, but also one in which they feel connected to their coworkers. We all need and want to know the people with whom we spend the majority of our waking hours Monday through Friday. In a company that’s growing quickly, getting to know one another takes more of an effort. Again, once you’re out of that office where you can see every single person when you look up from your computer, you need new tactics for building community, especially across teams.

3. Collaboration is key.

As I think about employee engagement at a growing company like Firewood, I lean on the lessons I’ve learned about how important collaboration can be. All of the programs in the world won’t mean a thing if employees aren’t participating. So I seek to answer these questions: How can I bring my colleagues along on the culture ride? How can I encourage them to suggest a direction and even volunteer to drive from time to time? Tapping into the shared values and interests of my coworkers and supporting them in grassroots efforts—like affinity groups, community outreach, and wellness clubs—can inspire a collaborative spirit.

Firewood already possesses a strong company culture in which its employees demonstrate a high level of engagement. As we continue to grow, it will be important to stay open to new ways of engaging our teams. Just as we would do for our clients, it’s important to keep market research in mind and to consider best practices from other companies that have experienced growth. Taking lessons from other successful companies with highly engaged employees—like Netflix, Google, REI, and Zappos—can give us insight into what types of programs and practices can be impactful for employees.

As I continue to settle in, I look forward to collecting ongoing feedback, finding creative ways to build connection based on that feedback, and saying yes to those who are eager to join me on the journey.