Culture Comes First
I recently celebrated my ninth year at Kenway Consulting. I joined as Kenway’s eighth employee, just as Kenway was bringing on its second client. Within the last nine years, Kenway has grown to 40 employees and has helped 25 clients. A lot has changed over the years, but one thing that has stayed constant is Kenway’s steadfast dedication to maintaining its culture. One of the things about Kenway’s culture that was (and still is) very attractive to me is our commitment to focusing on the means and NOT the outcome. As illustrated in a recent blog (The Outcome Is Not the Whole Story) written by Mark Burns, Kenway is just as focused on the means today, as it was nine years ago.
We often hear that maintaining culture while growing is one of the hardest challenges companies face. However, we believe that focusing on the means and keeping the following front and center will help ensure we maintain the culture we have worked so hard to create:
Start with The Why
Simon Sinek delivered a Ted Talk (How Great Leaders Inspire) in which he states that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This idea resonated so much with us that we shifted how we communicate because of it. Kenway’s Why is simple: To Help and Be Helped. We are not in the business to sell work (an outcome); we are in the business to find companies who need our help (the means). As a company, everything we do is rooted in our why. We start all of our communications with the why to help make sure everyone understands why we are doing something before we talk about the what and the how. This is particularly important when it comes to culture. The very first messages our new hires hear are rooted in the why, and all cultural conversations that happen throughout the rest of their career continue to focus on the why.
Keep Core Values Front & Center
Kenway has 26 Guiding Principles. They are the means used by Kenway to make decisions around all situations Kenway faces. Our Guiding Principles are not simply printed on our website; they are front and center in all we do. We talk about them at every company meeting. If we face a decision and are unsure of the means, we use them to make sure we are doing the right thing. When we face a situation where an employee or client is not in alignment with them, we immediately raise it so that we can determine the appropriate path forward. Making sure that all employees are aligned with our Guiding Principles and acting swiftly when they are not, we can help keep our culture intact as we grow.
About a year and a half ago, Kenway conducted a company-wide exercise that put this pillar of our culture to the test: we broke the company into four groups and asked them to collaboratively write a narrative illustrating their vision for Kenway in the next five years. The four narratives were combined into a single vision of Kenway’s future, and the “Kenway 20/20” was born. The final narrative includes things like…
“At the end of the hall, I see the dedicated Business Development and Service leads presenting to potential out-of town clients in from our satellite office location. If Kenway is awarded this work, this will be our 37th client!”
“I am energized by the sense of optimism and collaboration of the roughly 30 people surrounding me, as well as the 70 plus people out at client sites, some of whom will stop in during the day.”
“In the last meeting of the day, Kenway employees gather to review the success and lessons learned from its annual charity event that was hosted two weeks ago. The event raised $100K and was documented in the Sun Times.”
The exercise highlighted why Kenway’s culture is so great. Every employee was given the opportunity to narrate our company’s future and to provide a stamp of approval.
It is not lost on us that many of the things written in the “Kenway 20/20” are outcome-focused (i.e. 100 employees, 37 clients, 100,000 philanthropic dollars raised). When we wrote the narrative, we agreed that we would stay true to our culture by ONLY achieving these outcomes via the appropriate means. In fact, the importance of maintaining our culture was included in all four original narratives and resulted in the following statement:
“Despite all our success, Kenway continues to be ingrained in its guiding principles and its pursuit to help, and be helped”
Since writing the “Kenway 20/20,” we have grown from 27 to 40 employees and from 10 to 17 clients all with a clear focus on the means and a never-wavering commitment to maintaining our culture. We know that many companies have failed to maintain their culture with growth, but as a company we work hard to make sure our culture stays intact as we work towards achieving our “Kenway 20/20.”
Value Cultural Alignment
When it comes time for Kenway to assess an employee’s performance at the end of the year, they are not simply assessed based on their performance with respect to their project work. Kenway also assesses all employees on their cultural alignment, their ability to lead by example and their ability to identify when others are not in alignment.
At Kenway, we value culture so much that we interview for culture during our hiring process. We recognize that as we grow, we may find ourselves under pressure to hire faster. Now more than ever, it is important for us to focus on the means and not the outcome, as maintaining a strong culture starts with making sure that Kenway hires people that are strongly aligned. Of course we interview for skills as well, but we believe that skills can be learned over time but asking someone to change their core beliefs or values typically does not end well.
Establish Open Lines of Communication
One of our Guiding Principles indicates all employees will communicate swiftly and effectively through all channels, at all levels, internally and externally, regardless of whether the information is good or bad.
As we grow, it is extremely important that all of our employees continue to keep this in mind and immediately communicate if/when there are concerns that Kenway may be losing cultural focus on our path to “Kenway 20/20.” When we were a company of eight employees, we all had visibility into all areas of the company, so it was very easy to identify and correct cultural missteps as they were occurring. As we grow, this visibility becomes more challenging.
At Kenway, we work tirelessly to help all of our employees become cultural stewards of the company with a focus on the means and never on the outcome. We will never lose focus of our Why and our focus to find companies who need our help.