Were you an awkward teenager? Not yet an adult but not a kid anymore. I know there were times when I was not quite sure where I fit in and what my role was. This is the beauty of growing up — you have time to try and figure it out (only to realize that the answer is never clear).
Well, the same is true for businesses. The transition from startup to established company and the years in between can be exciting and awkward too.
Those transitional years for an emerging company can catch leaders off guard. The awkwardness looks different for every organization. At some companies, communication breaks down. At others, culture takes a back seat to a fixation on growth at all costs.
Drifting away from the core principles that generated meaningful growth can lead to a crisis in confidence — for both customers and the team. New folks have a hard time connecting with the vision that made the company successful in the first place. Early employees can grow wistful for the “old days.” Customers feel the pinch through disjointed service.
Just like your teen years, teams at emerging companies need to hold onto a basic set of values and have the freedom to explore what it means to them.
But during rapid growth, it can become increasingly difficult to keep those values top of mind as guiding principles that serve everyone on the team. Strong internal communication frameworks that reinforce the values are essential to continued success and scale.
Founders and leaders who formalize and proactively support these structures are making a smart investment in the company’s future. This helps every single employee understand what makes the company and the team special — without the founder having to reinforce what really matters every day.
Of course, that does not mean those founders are not responsible for instilling those values. For example, Aha! is one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S. As the co-founder and CEO, I give a presentation to all new hires at the beginning of their first week of onboarding.
There are a few reasons for this. It gives me the chance to get to know our new teammates a bit and the opportunity to define what we value. Most importantly, it allows me to stress the expectation of each teammate, no matter their role.
We want everyone to operate with freedom and initiative — using our core principles that are defined in The Responsive Method as a guide. I tell new folks that they will not feel like an Aha! rookie for long and that they are also responsible for holding themselves and their colleagues accountable to our principles.
In addition to the training that I do, here are a few additional ways that we provide a framework for success:
Weekly deep dives
At our weekly all-company meeting we revisit why we are doing what we do and we share the progress we have made. There is no better way to keep the entire team in sync. The company’s core principles are baked right into these meetings — a touchpoint for circling back to our vision. Teammates then have the autonomy to apply those principles to their individual roles with boldness and ingenuity.
Our comprehensive onboarding at Aha! is designed to ensure that everyone can articulate our vision and goals. It also instills our belief in continuous learning. We teach hard because we know that the more knowledgeable we all are about the company, the product, the market, and the customer, the more freedom we can give people to explore creative solutions and discover new opportunities.
Trust team leaders
As companies grow, it becomes harder for founders to connect directly with each and every person. Team leads can fill this gap. We do not have the typical top-down hierarchy in decision-making processes at Aha! Instead, we have team leads who act as coaches and are able to share the vision. These folks are communication hubs and are trusted stewards of our principles.
To say a company truly does not have some hierarchy or responsibilities is to deny reality. Marketing and engineering have distinct duties. But we make it a point to support cross-functional transparency. We use our own software (Aha!) to share roadmaps, reports, calendars, and more. In the internal messaging application we use, we also have chat rooms for each function and anyone can jump in and ask questions.
Even though the entire Aha! team works remotely, we are never alone. We make it a point to create connections that might not otherwise form organically. For example, we assign buddies to new hires to guide learning and to answer questions. Buddies are great for keeping values alive both directly through teaching and by setting examples for others to follow.
Values are what define a company. Visionary founders give people the freedom to live those values out and be their best.
Investing in a framework that puts company values first and gives people the space to make them their own. It gives every employee, regardless of their role, the confidence to perform with purpose, knowing that the core values are front and center in everything they do. Nothing awkward about that.
How do you think values and freedom can work together?