We are often asked when it is the right time for founders and CEOs to start fully investing in culture. The answer, just like the process, is not a one-size-fits-all for every company leader. A mild awareness of issues within the company and the idea that there must be a better way to do things –usually related to scalability–, the presence of a profoundly misaligned team member who might endanger the future of the company, and the challenge of facing significant growth are some of the common cues that drive leaders to finally make the decision to seek expert help on cultural design.
So, when is the perfect time to start with culture? Today, we bring you a story that captures the moment when one of our clients decided to commit to building a cultural foundation for his company and the process the entire team went through to make sure they were set up for success for years to come.
An Executive Decision
Sam’s fingers swiftly tapped on the laptop’s keyboard as he was wrapping up his presentation for the board meeting he would be hosting in only fifteen minutes. The sun was beaming that afternoon, but its warm rays of light struggled to shine through the broad windowpane, as a passing cloud was temporarily blocking them. In Sam’s ears, the music beat away to the pace of his thoughts. After a crisis with manufacturing that required his full attention only some hours earlier, he now needed to focus on preparing for the meeting that was about to take place in that very room.
It was an important day within an exciting time in the life of the company Sam led: this would be the first official board meeting with a new board since they had just closed their series-A round with a top-tier investor for a significant investment. This meant that the company was about to face substantial growth. His team, then composed of around thirty people, would double in size within the next three months. This was sensational news for both Sam and the team, as they had come together from an assorted range of backgrounds to make their world-changing vision come true, and the investment was the fuel that would bring their extraordinary ideas to life.
For several years, this medical device startup had been working tirelessly on getting its innovation ready for commercialization. After the FDA approval, now was the time to start executing on their ambitious commercial plan while keeping the engineering team on track for the new demands ahead. With a team made of talented scientists, engineers, designers, and business developers focused on channel partners —among other professionals—, a top tier investor and a team of co-founders backing him up, a mission to revolutionize his industry, and a few significant achievements already under his belt, it seemed like Sam and his fast-growing company were set up for success. But that was not necessarily the case in his eyes.
Sam was aware of the importance of culture in a company. He knew that a well-designed culture was the main tool to successfully lead thriving teams and conquer the ambitious goals he had in mind: in fact, he had already done the groundwork early on. But in the back of his mind, an idea persisted that there had to be a better way of leading his organization. Now that they were about to be trusted with more funding and to welcome new team members into the company, he was positive he could not keep running the risk of jeopardizing everything they had worked for, by growing on an unplanned culture. The time to scale his company had come, but without a completely codified culture, he wasn’t sure how to move forward. He didn’t know exactly what work needed to be done, but he knew he was looking for a well-structured proposition with an effective method and a clear delivery.
As the passing cloud moved and allowed sunlight to bathe the meeting room again, Sam tapped the final details into his presentation and rounded it off with the decision to bring in the help of experts to start building a cultural foundation that would put his team on the right track for years to come.
Dealing with the Unexpected — And Coming Out Gracefully
As the Reimaginez team —led by Therese— walked into the company on the first day of the program, they barely had a glimpse of the challenge ahead. In only ten days, they would have to help this organization lay out a cultural foundation that would stand the tests of time, reliability through trying circumstances, and robustness as the company rapidly scaled.
Within the next three months, the company would be doubling its workforce: thirty new professionals would be joining the team, and they needed to come into an organization that was moving forward with a clear and steady direction. In a high-pressure, fast-paced environment like this, there was no place for uncertainty or ambiguity within a company’s cultural foundation. In only ten days, Sam would have to present to the board the fully codified cultural design that the entire company would be built upon in order to step into their next growth phase. What the Reimaginez team was not fully aware of yet, was that within those ten days, they would not only have to make sure that all team members were on the same page and committed to a common vision, but they would also need to resolve the multiple, fundamental misalignments that were happening in the board, and putting a question mark over the future of the company.
Upon Sam’s input, Reimaginez had put together a bespoke program that he felt a strong alignment with. The project would be introduced by a workshop with the team of co-founders, specially designed to make the nuances and intricacies of the culture emerge. After that, the entire company would join for an offsite where they would take part in an array of custom-made activities aimed at strengthening their cultural foundation. Once the offsite was completed, Therese would meet the co-founders again to finalize the codification of the culture and create the foundation that would prepare the company for an increasing level of growth and possibilities ahead. Finally, and after all the hard work, the entire company would participate in a celebratory workshop to wrap up the project, where the results of the program would be officially presented, and their newly codified culture would be kicked off with keynotes delivered by Sam and Therese. Their first project together would be completed with a one-on-one session where Therese would share a series of recommendations on how to keep executing and scaling on their newly built, thriving company culture.
During the first workshop with the co-founders, the issues started to arise. It quickly became apparent that two of the co-founders themselves were struggling with a lack of alignment not even they were aware of: while one of them held an internal vision for the company, the other ran with an external vision. This was causing a sense of uneasiness and complexity within the company, and albeit unknowingly, it was one of the factors that led Sam to seek expert help on cultural design. While both co-founders were amazing people who championed high performance and strived to drive positive change in the world, the fact that they were so fundamentally misaligned on the locus of their vision for the company meant that they were acting as two internal forces pulling in opposite directions within the organization. This lack of a clear direction confused the rest of the team members and compromised the growth of the company, as it is impossible for a team to move forward without a common idea of where they are headed. But the first tool that the leaders needed to be able to carry out their roles successfully was language: a clear, effective, and shared language that would allow them to codify the subject, and therefore approach it with accuracy and clarity.
On the side, the third co-founder put forward a different challenge. After the series-A round closed, Sam had realized that one of his fellow leaders didn’t seem to be focused on the business as much as himself. The misalignment in priorities, goals, and long-term commitment with this co-founder needed to be addressed at some point, but just as Sam was unsure about how to design culture, he was also not clear on how to move forward with this internal issue. However, he was not counting on the matter being addressed and resolved within the cultural project Reimaginez had designed for his company.
The first workshop with the co-founders was a success. Its structure was comprised of powerful activities that uncovered their own values, allowed them to speak about topics they hadn’t addressed before, and highlighted the misalignments that they would later deal with. The effective design of the workshop made the complexities of the organization’s dynamics surface quickly, allowing Therese and her team to thoroughly analyze the situation and perform a diagnosis of the challenges and the growing pains the company’s culture was facing while capturing the essence of the leaders as a starting point for the rest of the program.
Two days later, the entire company was invited to an offsite at an out-of-town house by a crystalline lake, surrounded by breathtaking greenery that captivated the eye and purified the air. This beautiful, new environment was an invitation to become free of the usual structures and bring in fresh perspectives and ways of thinking alternative to what they were used to. The goal of the offsite was to embark all team members together on a journey to strengthen and align their culture. The necessary first step to that journey was to amplify the voice of each team member and allow them to have input into the process of codifying the company’s cultural foundation. Company culture was happening regardless of whether it was being designed with intention or not, and Sam had, in fact, been taking care of doing culture right from the very beginning. But now, it was essential to hear the team’s perspective on what their culture looked like from the ground up and what values were shining through in the everyday experience of working at the company.
Not only was it crucial to understand what the company’s core set of principles was, but everyone needed to agree on what those words actually meant. Coming from vastly different backgrounds, team members could not be expected to share a common perspective unless they were intentionally driven towards it. And, since culture is a way to drive behavior, the key question that led the way to a fully unified language was “what does this value look like?”. Every team member needed to agree on what each of the company’s core values felt like and what living and acting in line with those values would look like. It was necessary to create a vocabulary with crystal clear meaning that aligned everyone in the company towards a common vision, and that entailed concrete actions, ways of interacting, and ways of performing in the everyday life of the organization. If “innovation” was one of their values, everyone needed to know what innovation looked like in each team and how they were to embody innovation daily.
While the offsite was being carried out and the team was devoted to discovering, polishing, and strengthening their cultural foundation, the co-founders were also dedicated a series of entirely bespoke, intense, daily coaching sessions to help them work out their deep misalignment within the first of the many engagements that Reimaginez would later be involved with. Fixing these issues was one of the highest priorities since such strong incompatibilities were looming over the flourishing future of the company.
Along with the daily workshops involving the entire team, and the extensive executive coaching sessions with the co-founders, Therese and Sam were also meeting every day on the side with two main goals: the first was to handle the multiple, deeply-rooted misalignments between the co-founders and ensure they didn’t impact the process that the rest of the team was working on. The other goal was to make sure every team member felt an authentic connection to the cultural foundation that was being constructed at that very moment. There were several critical situations happening at the same time, and the fact that their clashing could jeopardize the successful outcome of the entire cultural project required the leaders and Therese to focus on managing them effectively, minimizing the possibility of the stress and conflict reaching the team.
By the end of the offsite, all the hard work started to pay off. Everyone in the company, from the ground up, was feeling a deep sense of connection and commitment to the cultural foundation they had been discovering and creating together at the same time. The team members had a strengthened appreciation of how the culture made the company unique and how they related to it. After the meetings, executive coaching sessions, workshops, and the hands-on analysis that followed, Therese had collected a series of valuable findings that would help the leading team successfully drive the company towards its most ambitious goals. This meant that, now that they had started laying out the foundation for the culture that would shape all of the company’s work from that moment on, they also had a thorough blueprint that they could use to scale the company effectively. They were now ready to ensure that they could welcome every new team member with a thriving culture.
With the leadership team brought into alignment and the issues with the third co-founder masterfully neutralized –an outcome Sam was deeply grateful for–, the company had taken its pivotal first steps towards a roaring future.
Thriving Culture and Beyond
Ten days after Sam’s first executive coaching session, with Therese and the Reimaginez team leading the entire company through three interactive and intense workshops, an offsite to spike the team’s creativity and activities designed to align and connect them to the company culture, eight in-depth coaching sessions with the CEO and several more with the co-founding team, working around the clock with team members in both Europe and the US to make magic happen, all while conducting a series of urgent meetings with the CEO to manage the most pressing issues, the cultural foundation was finally built and fully codified.
As Sam presented the newly codified culture to the board, he was excited and confident about advancing with the company’s next adventure. The entire executive team now felt ready to move forward with scaling the company and reached out to Reimaginez again soon after for the next step of their path: putting together a culture-based recruitment process that would ensure they would only bring in remarkable new talent in alignment with their thriving culture.
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