How to create a scalable small business culture

Forming a tight-knit team may come easy for an early-stage company, but what happens as the business grows?

Typically, the company culture becomes an expanded expression of those early-stage roots—a mixed bag of new and old customs only the most tenured team members can follow.

The issue here isn’t cultural change. It’s the hands-off approach many companies take to managing (or not managing) these inevitable shifts.

In an ever-changing and ultra-competitive landscape, small businesses that want to attract the best talent can’t afford to neglect culture in pursuit of growth.

To make people want to work with and for them, the savviest small business owners are intentional about culture.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Know what’s at stake.

“Culture” may seem like a nebulous concept in a business context, but it’s every bit as important as things like compensation and benefits.

Let’s say you’re interviewing with two different companies offering similar salaries for similar roles.

Company A was eager to chat as soon as possible, but you weren’t sure what the interview process entailed, and although they seem interested, their communication could be more timely and decisive.

Company B provided an outline of their interview process within the job description, reminding you of next steps and when to expect communication at each stage. They were also more transparent about the role during interviews.

Is company B perfect? Unlikely. But they’re edging company A out of the running because they care more about your experience. It’s part of company B’s culture.

Various statistics back this up—according to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends study, “organizational brand and reputation” is now the #2 reason people joined their current employer, second to job security.

If their experience doesn’t live up to the hype, employee engagement and retention will suffer, and the trickle-down effect of an unrewarding culture is immense. Employees put in less effort, customers feel less cared about, and eventually, the most unhappy folks from both cohorts will abandon ship.

The good news? You can totally mitigate these risks.

2. Don’t just think about it; plan for it.

It may seem counterintuitive to treat an organic phenomenon like “culture” as a conscious, deliberate creation.

In truth, the best way to turn hazy concepts like “culture” into a scalable force for positive change is to operationalize them. What does “culture” mean for your small business?

As Harvard Business Review recommends, if you want to scale culture:

  • Define it in clear and observable terms first. That means going beyond cutesy acronyms that coincidentally spell “TACT.” Everyone has different ideas about how things like “tenacious,” “authentic,” and “courageous” look in action. How do these qualities actually show up on a given workday? To figure it out, take a magnifying glass to your company values. Can you identify 2-3 observable behaviors that embody each value? The goal is to get everyone on the same page about what matters and what’s expected.

  • Build a digital library of learning content to support the culture. Once you know which types of behaviors reflect your company’s values, empower teammates with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to meet those cultural expectations. Ditch the “push” method of learning when it comes to culture in favor of a “pull” method where anyone can access the information they need at their own pace. Given that culture is dynamic and shifts in response to various factors, an “open” approach to learning makes more sense than the “closed” one-shot approach employees usually receive during onboarding.

  • Offer mixed learning opportunities to scale culture training. In-person training is ideal in many scenarios, but it doesn’t scale. Instead of relying on one delivery format, experiment with a mix of online and offline learning opportunities. For instance, you might swap a lengthy in-person training for a shorter session followed by a self-paced e-learning activity. No matter the mix, the goal is to match the pace of employee training with the pace of company growth.

  • Make sure managers regularly reinforce the right behaviors. You can’t scale any behavioral change if it’s not modeled from the top down. We’re not suggesting it’ll be easy for busy managers to integrate new behavior overnight, but this one’s worth the effort. As Mercer found in its survey, of the 81 percent of professionals fearing burnout, the number one reason cited was lack of recognition and appreciation. Managers can counter this common pitfall by giving people immediate, frequent, and personalized recognition for targeted behaviors, no matter how trivial they may seem. Not only will this keep folks energized, but it will also encourage them to recognize each other’s efforts in the same way their manager does.

Some additional thoughts about scaling culture:

Develop a plan for communication and transparency.

Unexpected and sometimes unpleasant events are inevitable, and how your team handles these issues will communicate far more than your words. If you had to lay off a beloved or much-needed teammate due to economic concerns, for example, were you forthright with your team about it? Or was it hush-hush? Think about how you can communicate bad or uncomfortable news in ways that reflect your target behaviors.

Foster a sense of community and inclusivity.

Most modern companies have some sort of diversity and inclusion statement on their website, but what are they actually doing about it? If inclusivity is part of your culture (or you’d like to be), find meaningful ways (beyond hiring and promotion practices) to make everyone on your team feel seen.

Encourage employee growth and development.

Training employees on culture is necessary, but don’t neglect to provide people with learning and development opportunities outside of culture—skills they can use to do their current jobs better and skills they can take with them into their next role, whether it’s with your company or someone else’s.

We know this is a big fear for many (it’s the #1 barrier to upskilling employees), but the workforce isn’t as mercenary as employers may think. As Mercer found, “skill-building increases their marketability, but investing in their development actually makes them want to stay.”

3. Continue investing in your shared creation.

While culture changes over time, some elements can remain so deeply ingrained you may not notice them. This can be good or bad depending on the circumstances, but it’s why “culture” in the business world requires ongoing oversight and evaluation.

To keep your culture flowing in the right direction:

Remain open to employee feedback.

Getting team members on board is one thing; keeping them there is another. The slightest whiff of inauthenticity or misalignment with company values can kill the enthusiasm and support of your best players. Don’t let that happen. Speak to everyone like an intelligent adult. Resist sugarcoating when there are real problems to solve. This is how you’ll get honest, actionable feedback.

Hold yourself and your business accountable.

Culture is collaborative. But since you’re less likely to receive positive reinforcement for target behaviors as the business owner, it’s up to you to keep yourself honest. Are you creating an atmosphere where employees feel empowered to be “bold” or “tenacious”? If you don’t walk the walk, employees will see “the culture thing” as a joke. Don’t let that happen. Embody the behavior you want to see. This doesn’t mean being perfect; it’s more about being authentic.

Doing it for the culture

Most business owners know it’s harder to win new customers than it is to preserve old ones. The same holds for your best employees. If the experience you provide doesn’t meet their expectations, they’ll act like unhappy customers and take their business elsewhere.

But if you invest in them through regular recognition and learning and development opportunities, you’ll not only keep your best talent, you’ll also build a network of brand ambassadors long after they’ve gone.