Growing Pains: Watch for Culture Vultures

Culture matters.  Culture really matters when a company is in rapid transformation fueled by growth.  This series addresses common “Growing Pain Gotchas,” and this post specifically speaks to what can happen when culture is compromised.  Remain alert to spotting early warning signs of vultures that are feeding on any decay in your cultural foundation and you can keep your company healthy and viable for future growth and success.

I was engaged with an early growth stage company who had done a very good job of identifying their target customer, delving into understanding the needs from the customer’s perspective and evolving and enhancing their offer to meet that customer’s needs.  The efforts were paying off and their metrics around new customer acquisition began to trend quite positively.  The founders had established a culture that embodied a number of values in support of their mission.  Integrity, focus on long term benefits for their clients, team work, and mutual respect among employees were all core elements of their culture.  Improved patient outcomes, their underlying mission, drove their decisions and priorities for investments.

Somewhere along the way, growth began to happen.  The pace of growth and the challenges and opportunities it raised began to consume the leadership team in the day to day as they struggled to stay ahead of the demands placed on the infrastructure.  The mood remained positive and enthusiastic so on the surface all seemed well.

I live in a rural part of North Carolina, and the Turkey Vulture is an omnipresent feature where woods and pasture meet highways used by cars and trucks.  Inevitably there will be roadkill, inevitably calves will be still-born in the pastures, inevitably the survival of the fittest of creatures will leave remains to be scavenged and removed by the Turkey Vulture.

In growing businesses, the frenzy of addressing the opportunity can result in a leadership team being so busy they temporarily abandon best practices of disciplined and thoughtful examination of the business’s cultural health.  This company’s leadership team simply got so busy peddling the bike to get up the immediate hill that they missed the signs that the wheels were about to fly off.  A talented individual was recruited to join the leadership team in support of the growth opportunity.  She brought with her an impressive rolodex of contacts and obvious salesmanship skills.  Blinded somewhat by the positive attributes of this individual, the team moved quickly to hire her and failed to sufficiently vet her with respect to cultural fit.

In this case, the individual began to scavenge for opportunity, but opportunity defined by her personal agenda which ran counter to the established culture.  Integrity was replaced with self-promotion at the cost of integrity.  This individual’s self-interest began to drive actions resulting in short term tactical sales wins rather than seeking and developing the long term partnerships with physicians which resulted in support of the mission of better patient outcomes.  The promotion of team-work inside the company was replaced with this individual’s insistence on taking contrary positions to the other leaders in order to create conflict in hopes of taking power.

Fortunate for this company, the founders had remained accessible to their troops.  They fostered an open environment where individuals, no matter the position, could come forward with suggestions or constructively share concerns.  The founders were jolted from their focus on the day to day when an individual contributor in the organization came forth and shared a story about tactics and focus in a recent “win,” the story exposed the behavior of the recently hired sales leader and the founders addressed it quickly.  They also agreed to make sure that a discussion around culture and a vetting for cultural fit would be key to any future hires.

Have you experienced growth recently that has consumed you in the day to day? Are you keeping a watchful eye on the foundational culture of the company you are building?

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