• Caroline Ridgway

From Small Fish to Big Fish: How Culture Enables Growth

Is there something to be said for being a small fish in a big pond? There must be, otherwise we wouldn’t enjoy that idiom. With scale comes reach, but also added bureaucracies, hierarchies, expectations, and entanglements. Smaller size can mean adaptive, nimbler, and more efficiently responsive. There are trade-offs. Capacity being the primary advantage to larger size. On the flip side, a common victim of growth is culture. When your company is small, it’s easier to maintain the camaraderie that made you who you are. That’s a lot harder when 10 becomes 100, or 10,000.

Small fish that become big fish don’t have to lose their defining characteristics, though. But it’s best achieved when intentional, not assumed that a particular way of doing business will perpetuate on its own. Culture is a buzzy term in corporate communications. It’s not, by any means, a new concept. But the notion of culture has, in recent years, received new attention. As it happens, people appreciate liking where they work, and with whom, and towards what end.

Culture can be derived from any number of sources. It’s typically top-down in origin, but can quickly cease to be if appropriately distributed and perpetuated. A big part of culture is how leadership and team members communicate and connect with each other. You can presume some of the components of a productive culture: respect, cordiality, appropriate acknowledgement, feeling welcome to ask questions and propose ideas, the unicorn of work-life balance.

To the (likely) extent that a company’s culture is a function of its founder’s leadership style, there comes the inevitable question of how, or perhaps even if, to deviate from that when succession, planned or unplanned, is called for. There could be a fine line between continuing in the founder’s name and style, and what may become, to varying degrees, a cult of personality. This outcome can be somewhat obviated by ensuring that a thoroughly stratified leadership team is aligned in message and action. The best time to plan for change is before change is even seriously contemplated.

An effective culture, which supports an effective and diverse leadership team, and subsequently enables effective growth and inevitable transition, is one of empowerment. It’s often observed that employees don’t quit companies, they quit bosses. Transparency with all team members, in an expansively but judiciously need-to-know way, helps individuals feel invested and relied upon. People who feel like their contributions matter will generally work harder to contribute even more.

Culture can be a moving target. As the world changes, so, inevitably, do we. At least, it should be inevitable that we change in step with the world. A lack of adaptation to market shifts can result in companies or whole sectors collapsing under the weight of innovation and consumer demand. Having a robust, intact sense of culture can help defend against external incursions. Know your mission, know your brand, know your people. Let your established culture be your roadmap. Even if the destination shifts, you’ll feel confident in your team’s ability to get there.

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