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  • Aaron Zaslofsky

Culture and engagement matter MORE in high growth companies

A good friend of mine received a massive bonus last month. She felt satisfied, but she honestly had little idea why the bonus paid at such a high level beyond “sales are great.” If anything, it left her with questions:

  • What are the business strategies that led to the company’s growth?

  • What’s the rationale for these strategies?

  • How do these strategies tie into the mission and vision of the company?

  • How does my individual role fit into the company’s direction?

She sheepishly admitted her lack of clarity about the business’s plan and company direction. She felt personally responsible for the (little) knowledge she had until I told her that company leadership let her down. Not only that, but they missed a huge opportunity to rally employees around a fast-growing technology business that needs her fully engaged and bought-in on a future vision.

High growth companies present unique challenges when it comes to engaging employees and nurturing the culture that’s making the machine go. Here are just a few:

  • Executives are often distracted by raising additional capital, the allure of an IPO, or acquisitions to further growth.

  • Proven developers are in the crosshairs of startups and established companies who understand their scarcity. Look no further than the raging driverless car talent market supported by Google, Uber, Apple, and others.

  • Sales team, geographical, and market expansion takes priority when demand is high.

  • HR is consumed with hiring to match growth trajectory.

More money, more problems. I could go on.

Why does this matter? Because while these needs are being met, high growth companies can see a drop-in employee engagement and erosion of the culture that got them to this point. This is exactly the position my friend finds herself in. And recent findings from Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace back this up:

  • Only 22% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization has a clear direction for the organization.

  • Just 15% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization makes them enthusiastic about the future.

  • A scant 13% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization.

I would argue that these metrics are even more depressed in high growth companies for the reasons mentioned previously.

As they say, it’s harder to stay on top than it is to get there. The company my friend works for is a microcosm of this axiom. Leadership is so focused on growth that they’re neglecting employee thirst for information about business performance and knowledge about how business strategies align to the mission/vision. More importantly to individual employees, they’re missing the chance to answer the question we all ask ourselves: “what’s in it for me” and “what part of the company’s performance can be attributed to my work?”

As employees are asking themselves these questions, company leadership tact is being validated by the growth. The result is top-down direction because business metrics show that this approach is working for the bottom line. Never mind that employees feel further removed from leadership, are losing grasp of company direction and strategy, and that the culture is becoming less recognizable.

The picture painted here presents an all too common scenario for high growth companies. These companies make a conscious choice to spend capital and time to execute growth strategies. A culture of purpose can quickly turn into a paycheck culture.

If you’re lucky enough to lead a high growth business, make sure that you also invest social and cultural capital to keep your trajectory high. After all, it’s harder to stay on top than it is to get there.

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