Six ways to get startup culture right, according to Mantel Group’s head of people


Source: That Startup Photo Library.

Growing a business and workplace culture from scratch is every people and culture practitioner’s dream, but rarely is it a startup founder’s, whose focus is on product, profitability and customer acquisition.

It typically takes a company reaching 50-100 employees to start embedding stronger HR structures into a business, usually to halt already simmering people problems. But retrofitting in this way is risky and could hinder growth.

When growing a company, never lose sight of the fact that people are integral to profit. Each employee’s productivity and performance, client relationships and wellbeing are where customers are won and lost, and where an organisation’s ability to hire in future is determined.

While it’s one thing to be clear about the type of culture you don’t want, what is most important is being very deliberate about what do want, how you will achieve it, and what this will look like as you expand from 10 to 100 to 1000 employees and beyond — an investment that will pay dividends.

To avoid stumbling into people issues part way through your journey, devote time to developing a people strategy from the outset. Give thought to how you scale up practices, and you will create a terrific startup culture that will endure and support you to grow.

Invest in ‘post-hire’ and employee lifecycle processes from day one

When growth comes knocking, ‘pre-hire’ activity — planning, recruiting and interviewing — takes precedence.

But what experience do you offer the day that person walks through the door?

Investing in post-hire and employee lifecycle processes from inception are essential, including onboarding (great swag essential), expectation setting and feedback, employee engagement, and more.

Separating out the functions of talent acquisition and talent retention allows focus on both areas equally as you scale.

Without a commitment to developing and doing right by your people from the beginning, you will lose them and taint your employer brand forever. 

Reject superficial culture and offer personalised, principles-based benefits

Ping pong tables and cool offices are appealing — but employees truly respond to a culture that is genuine, where an individual’s needs and best interests are properly catered for.

Be strict in ensuring any employee benefit or initiative you implement relates back to your company’s values and principles.

An example we practice is the principle of ‘in it together’ where we recognise that workplace support means different things to each person. This translates into a concept known as ‘my deal’, ensuring every employee can tailor their work to suit their life and their needs. They also select personalised ‘perks’ of their choosing, such as additional annual leave, or new technology, and at the same time, we agree how we will work together for the next 12 months.

For example, we recently had a team member relocate to Magnetic Island with his family, requesting that his my deal activation be to work for us remotely. We agreed and have worked together to make it successful. We re-evaluate individual my deals annually as people’s lives and preferences change.

Don’t invest in perks just for the sake of it. Take time to consider your values and business goals and build personalised, meaningful employee experiences around these. It does take time and effort to individualise, but it is truly worth it. 

Give ‘potential’ a chance 

Considering the pace of technological change, expecting to hire people with the exact experience for your roles isn’t always realistic, particularly during stages of rapid growth. A commitment to continuous learning must always run in parallel with hiring.

Hire people with potential and provide with development opportunities such as ongoing peer mentoring by designated people guides for every employee, days off each year to achieve technical certifications, professional meetups, internships and PhD traineeships for women in or entering technology careers, to name a few.

The skills you need are best attained by cultivating them in-house and by ensuring your team feels sufficiently valued and challenged, encouraging loyalty and future referrals.

Grow a scalable system of leadership

A successful startup is often driven by the vision of its founders and their core team who steer the company through the early stages. But what happens if a founder is sick, heading off-course, or the company simply grows too fast for one person to manage it all? As tough as it is, sharing the responsibility of leadership should be practised in startups early on.

Consider pooling your executives into a strategy and execution team that makes joint decisions about anything impacting the entire organisation. Also consider a ‘team of teams’ approach to share the responsibility of company activities, such as an IoT team, tech strategy team, communication team, and social events team. This empowers employees to make decisions about things they care about. 

Both approaches take the load off one individual, put the job of business improvement into many responsible hands, develop leadership skills and help the whole organisation feel invested in the company’s growth. 

Invest in ‘hero hires’

People learn what they see, and too often startups fall into the trap of hiring less experienced ‘doers’ for leadership roles.

It’s important to hire the right people at the top who are the best in the fields and who align with your culture.

Let their knowledge and passion trickle down and your teams will constantly learn from them. 

Resource your people function sufficiently

A 2018 study of startups in the US and Europe found that people and culture teams within startups tended to stay small in proportion to the whole organisation. Unsurprisingly, they were understaffed and overworked.

One person managing an employee lifecycle for 30 or 50 people is barely sustainable (particularly when you are setting up practices, ideas and processes from scratch), let alone 150, making it impossible to do virtually anything beyond hiring.

Invest in a strong and well-resourced people and culture function so you can hire, train and retain effectively as you grow.

A great team and culture go hand in hand with business success, but they need planning and thought. Be an intelligent startup that respects, values and invests in its people from inception, and the results will speak for themselves.

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