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Maintaining culture in a growth environment

1390 Category_Articles core values culture Eduardo Smith Growth SCS Engineers senior vice president

Your core values are the foundation of your culture, so it’s critically important that existing staff live the core values you expect others to emulate.

I am an ardent believer that a company’s culture is the ultimate predictor of its success. In 2015, I assumed leadership of the Southeast Business Unit of SCS Engineers. When I started in that role, my primary focus was to work on culture, as we had two recent acquisitions join the firm within this business unit. I wrote about this in a prior article for The Zweig Letter.

Since 2015, we have added two offices, our leadership has changed substantially, with several of us taking other positions in the company, and we’ve doubled the number of staff in the business unit. So it’s not surprising that a colleague reached out to me a short time ago, wondering how we maintain the culture we had worked so hard to create. Should we have webinars to highlight aspects of our culture? Should we send out monthly communications or visibly celebrate when we see the culture being lived?

While I think those things are fine, what kept coming back to me was that our culture should be obvious. Our core values are the foundation of our culture, and those shouldn’t change, no matter how many people we hire. Those values are a testament of who we are, what we believe, and how we behave toward each other, our clients, and other stakeholders. New staff should see it and sense it as soon as they walk in the door – or in today’s world, as soon as they log on to their first Teams call. Our core values, and the culture and vision and goals that sprout from them, should be discussed not just in webinars and monthly communications, they should be part of our everyday speech because they should drive all of our important decisions.

When discussing this with a colleague (she’s at least part Italian), she pointed out that she didn’t come out of the womb eating pasta. She was taught her cultural heritage – including her love of pasta – by her parents. So she reasoned that we also need to teach new staff about our firm’s culture. But I think we learn more about our cultural heritage by observing and just hanging out with our parents, than by being instructed. And I think it’s the same at work. Our culture and our core values are transferred to new staff more by observation and participation, than by taking a crash training course. Make no mistake, this means that it is critically important that existing staff have bought into and live the core values we expect others to emulate.

Further, our core values (and culture) should be the focal point in our recruiting process. Hiring for cultural fit is much more important than perceived intelligence or experience. Many of us, in a moment of desperation to fill a position, have made the mistake of hiring someone our gut told us wasn’t a good fit. It doesn’t work; we should never settle. If we’ve made that mistake, we should address it as soon as possible. Hanging on to an employee when it’s clear they are not a fit can do significant damage to the culture and morale.

One last thing on core values: It has to do with accountability. I had an exchange with an employee some time ago, relatively soon after he started with us. As he was discovering our culture, he told me he thought that because we valued teamwork so much (one of our core values), he couldn’t, and therefore wasn’t, holding people accountable. He thought that being a team player meant being a pushover – just being nice to everyone. That we were to let poor performance and lack of integrity (doing what we say) persist, without calling it out.

It was an interesting discussion to say the least. Suffice it to say, I provided another perspective. Operating as a team requires holding one another accountable. That’s the only way a team can function. When team is first, we look for ways to make everyone better, and sometimes that means we have to tell a teammate what they need to hear, so they can address shortcomings and perhaps seek support from us or other team members. It also means we need to be open for others to hold us accountable.

And so it goes for upholding our core values, we must all hold each other accountable, from the top executive to the entry-level hire. If we do that, our culture will thrive as we grow.

Eduardo Smith, P.E. is senior vice president of client success at SCS Engineers. Contact him at esmith@scsengineers.com.

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