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Balancing Company Culture and Growth

Disagreements? Embrace the Elephant in the Room: Advice on Company Culture

Company culture describes what your organization does, day to day, in an established manner. But as a company moves through generations of ownership, the core elements of company culture can get lost. Amid company growth, the number of people gets bigger, the number of shareholders gets bigger, and, with family businesses, the number of families involved in the business gets bigger.

How do you maintain culture in a growing company? What are the most important aspects of an organization’s culture? How do you initiate and manage conversations around it?

I recommend you commit to this rule: “We may disagree with one another as a family, but we will always get together and talk about those disagreements. When there is an elephant in the room, we will call it to the front. Better to have it standing next to us as we converse than to have it hiding in the back corner.”

The “Black Sheep” May Have Brilliant Thoughts

In many family organizations, and even in other organizations’ company culture, there may be a black sheep that few family members understand. There’s a reason for that. In most cases, the group has never talked about why that family member seems different. They may talk about open communication, but one individual may be consistently brushed off when opinions clash.

Of course, that is a problem because this individual has a unique perspective and approaches challenges from a different angle. What if this person is expressing something fundamental to the way you’re doing business and making a good point about needing to change? This is likely someone who could contribute positive ideas if they were heard.

Instead of shutting them down, approach the black sheep.  Say, “We want to hear what you have to say instead of throwing you out of the room because we disagree with you.”

Embrace Change While Maintaining Company Culture

As a group, how are you making decisions? Are you being adaptable and consistent?

Your company culture is adaptable if it values the willingness to consider and adopt appropriate change. Your company culture is consistent if it centers on a set of fundamental beliefs that drive decision making even while adapting to changing circumstances. By embracing and balancing these principles, you can cement a set of criteria that helps you make better decisions against the landscape of your company culture.

Weighing Shiny Objects

For example, take the “lure of shiny objects” — processes, technologies, formulas, and the like that feel attractive because they’re new. Whether the shiny object is an exploding gas bubble or a beautiful diamond, it is vital to have a way of evaluating either.

You need to be able to say, “This is our culture. When something comes up, we need an evaluation method. We need adaptability but our thought basis should be consistent.”

Sometimes the conversation about a shiny object may be the elephant in the room. People might want to avoid talking about that elephant, but it can’t be ignored. You may disagree about how to incorporate the shiny object into your environment, but you should use the company’s core values to guide your conversations.

Beliefs Remain Consistent Though Their Expressions May Change

Your company beliefs might include honesty, integrity, and helping the community. Whatever those beliefs, the group must remember to preserve, nurture, and subscribe to them.

If helping the community is a core belief for your company, the way you help today could be different tomorrow. In this sense, company culture embraces change. The principles themselves remain consistent, but the actionable nature of those principles can adapt.

The key is facing difficult questions as they arise — tackling them head-on. That elephant isn’t going away. Face it. Talk about it. It’s culturally healthy to disagree productively when appropriate. Remember to let the black sheep speak. Don’t shoot down new points-of-view — keep an open mind.

[Author’s Note: I listened to an organizational culture presentation by consultants of the Family Office Exchange. I realized that their insights about family businesses related to other private businesses, public companies, and not-for-profit organizations. So, I invite you to apply these family business culture concepts to other organization types. Reflect on the topics discussed in this article. The issues are relevant and should be addressed no matter the type of organization you are dealing with.]

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Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can listen to at your leisure and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 24, 2019, and was most recently edited by Nora Willi]

©2022. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

About David Spitulnik

David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 40 years of experience in both large technology companies and in consulting to and leadership of mid-market, closely held and family owned businesses across a variety of industries. In addition to serving as chair of the Private Directors Association’s Private and Family Business Center Outreach Committee, David…

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