September 29, 2020
Kueker's Keynote

Scaling Culture

Earlier this quarter, I had the privilege of being interviewed with Kenway’s founder and my good friend, Brian King, by Gene Hammett on his Growth Think Tank Podcast. The topic was about scaling culture, which has always been front and center at Kenway. It was an extremely enjoyable discussion.  As a result of it, I received quite a few questions on the topic personally and via social media. Because the conversation has continued and remained top of my mind, I wanted to expand on it a bit more in this forum and provide a methodology of sorts leaders can follow to ensure a healthy culture as they grow their organizations.

At Kenway, culture trumps all. Long ago, we documented our “Why,” or mission, which is “To help and be helped.” We also documented our Guiding Principles, which can be summarized as Integrity, Communication, Treat Each Individual Uniquely, Entrepreneurial Spirit and Tenacity, Value and Quality, and Means Over Outcomes. While documenting a mission and core values is a great start, my experience with too many organizations is that documentation is both the beginning and the end when it comes to culture.

Culture is critical in any organization but, in my opinion, it is especially so in professional services organizations. For Kenway, culture is a differentiator and our primary source of competitive advantage in the market. It is the key ingredient that has allowed us to attract and retain great people from far larger companies with more established brands. Going from one to five to 15 employees is simple, but how do you maintain and even improve your culture over time as you grow from 15 to 50, and from 50 to 500? In my opinion, the answer to scaling culture is like anything else – you have to invest in it. If you want to scale a process, you invest in automation. If you want to scale culture, you invest in people.

This sounds simple on the surface, but can be challenging to practically implement when faced with the realities of competition for scarce resources in running a business day to day. At Kenway, every system we have is geared toward ensuring culture remains the top priority from recruiting, employee onboarding, continuing education, employee performance management, and corporate performance management. Each time we invoke these systems, we ensure that our culture remains strong.

Like most companies, our recruiting and interviewing processes seek to identify and qualify candidates’ industry and technical acumen, as well as the all-important “soft skills” necessary to succeed in our industry. However, above all else, these systems unearth a candidate’s likelihood of being aligned to our culture. We believe that a culturally-aligned employee will learn the skills necessary to be a great consultant, but a great consultant who is not culturally aligned can be an anchor on our culture. We go so far as to have a company leader conduct a confirming interview for every candidate to make a final call on cultural alignment, no matter how great the skills interviews went. It’s a significant investment of time, but has proven to be well worth it.

Similarly, we invest a significant amount of leadership time during the onboarding process to ensure the smooth cultural indoctrination of new employees. On every employee’s first day, Brian, Amy Ehrmantraut, our HR Lead, and I spend the better part of that day with them. New employees do not start their Kenway career first learning about time entry, insurance selections, and other tactical details. We eventually get to those things, but first we talk about Kenway’s origins, our Why, our Guiding Principles, and we reflect on key milestones that have shaped our culture over the years. New employees engage in thoughtful conversations about culture with leadership on their first day.

Further, our continuing education systems train our employees on not only technical and functional skills, but also on cultural indoctrination. Throughout the year, we set aside time to discuss and educate each other on matters of culture. We have four all-company meetings a year, two of which are full-day sessions. At each of these meetings, significant time is invested to discuss practical implications of our Guiding Principles, as well as other matters of cultural significance.

There is an adage that says, “Measure what matters.” Culture definitely matters, so we measure it, both at the individual and organizational level. For individuals, our performance management process assesses value contribution across five domains, one of which is Cultural Stewardship. Employees can track their progress over the quarters and years, and incorporate the feedback into Professional Growth Plans each year. We work at it.

At the organizational level, we have corporate objectives and associated KPIs related to Cultural Health. We measure attrition and ask employees to fill out a Cultural Health Survey quarterly. Most importantly, leadership is completely transparent with employees in that we share every result of KPIs and ask for employee help in improving to meet or exceed our targets. Our most impactful cultural improvement programs have stemmed from taking employee feedback seriously and investing to improve.

So, my recommendation to scale culture is to bake cultural investment into every internal operational system including recruiting, onboarding, continuing education, employee performance management, and organizational performance management. The last and most important step to scaling culture is not a system that can be designed – it is trusting your employees to own the corporate culture. Once you get to the point that employees, and not just leadership, are driving cultural alignment and even improvement, you have a culture that will scale no matter how large a company becomes.

An example of this happened recently at Kenway. When the long-standing issues of social injustice and racial inequality came front and center in our society earlier this summer, we processed these critically important topics at our Q2 company meeting. While those were difficult conversations, we felt it was important to share our thoughts as a company, and collectively drive positive change both internally and within our communities.

One of the break-out groups thought we should review our Guiding Principles to see if they could be updated to be more reflective of the current times. The Guiding Principles are core to Kenway’s culture and reflect what we believe as an organization. It took a lot of trust to go down this path, but we did. Anybody who has read our Guiding Principles would see that we abhor racism and any other belief and behavior that marginalizes anybody. However, I’m proud to say that the updated principles now not only reflect this belief, but better reflect how we can further embrace diversity.

This is just one of many examples of significant investment in scaling our culture paying off by employees taking ownership to make it even better. I could not be prouder of our culture, nor could I sleep any better at night knowing that our culture is being stewarded by a truly wonderful group of colleagues.

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