The Secret to Successfully Scaling Up Culture is Letting Go

I believe that getting culture right is the key to business growth. But at the same time, growth also poses the greatest risk to culture. It is relatively easy to foster openness, warmth, and genuine trust amongst a small group of people – but how do you replicate that as your team gets bigger?

 

This is probably the single most troubling question I ask myself today. In Southeast Asia, SAP Concur currently has an incredible culture tying together its 24 employees. But what will that culture look like when we reach 240? Will we be able to spend the same time and build the same relationships with new hires in Manila, or Jakarta, or even Kuala Lumpur, as we currently do in our Singapore office? How do we make sure that each new generation of talent “catches” the ethos and values that have brought us to where we are today?

 

I confess that I don’t have all the answers, and only time will tell how well we do in this regard. But even though I see scale as a huge threat to our culture – more than anything else at present – I believe that it’s not impossible to overcome. Here’s how we are planning to do so:​

 

1. Empower new leaders

One of the biggest dangers when building a strong corporate culture is for it to rest upon a single person. It shouldn’t have to be Madanjit Singh doing the work of having those personal conversations, encouraging honest dialogue, and making new joiners feel at home. In fact, the more people doing it the better!

 

One focus of mine so far has been to decouple our culture from my leadership. I’ve been trying to mentor and nurture our new leaders, giving them more responsibility to track how people settle in, canvas feedback, and make the bigger decisions. Sometimes, they’ll do things a bit differently – and that’s something I need to embrace as part of who they are! Otherwise, we risk getting stuck in a cult of personality that has no hope of scaling across more countries and greater headcount.

 

2. Make recognition a habit

Part of empowering new leaders, and members of the team more generally, is to acknowledge the value they bring to others and the business. This, I believe, must be done in public, and with 100% authenticity. Public recognition sends a clear message to your people that they’re working with individuals whom they can trust, and who have their best interests at heart. It also sets an example for others to aim for, which in turn helps you keep your core values alive as your team expands in scale and geography. I believe the more role models you can establish in your business – people who genuinely live and breathe what you stand for – the better your culture can withstand the stresses of scale.

 

3. Break the taboo around succession

I’ve noticed that in Asia, people often contrive to make themselves “indispensable” to the business. The assumption is that if nobody else can do your role, you’re more valuable…when the opposite is more likely to be true. After all, it’s only by passing things on that we can take on new responsibilities and grow along with the people around us! Breaking that taboo can only come from the top. Nowadays, I try to have frequent conversations about responsibility: identifying what I can do, versus what others can or should do, and looking to reallocate those responsibilities in a way that lets everyone both grow and raise up others.

 

As new leaders take the reins and new employees join us, our culture will change, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But if we can continue passing down our core values, like honesty and family and a disregard for hierarchy, I think we can remain a place that everyone is proud to be a part of.

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