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The Lure of Start-up Culture in HR

There seems to be no culture more envied than the start-up. It’s as if they’ve stumbled upon the magic formula for creating the perfect environment where work and life can harmoniously co-exist. They’re touted as being fluid and dynamic and challenging and exhilarating all at the same time. Change feels almost instantaneous and everyone’s up for anything. But can this type of culture last past the start-up phase? And why are so many of us attracted to it?

Can it last?

Well, yes and no. But largely, no, at least not in the way most of us think about it. How employees behave towards one another during the early days may not be appropriate–or even sustainable–as the organisations grows. There might have been a time when it was okay for someone to spend a few days chasing an idea, holding multiple brainstorming sessions over free coffees before eventually drawing up a proposal. But resource needs change over time and innovation may need to evolve when those proposals turn into customer orders and deadlines take priority.

Corporate culture is largely defined as how organisations go about getting work done. It’s a set of behaviours that have become the norm and to a large extent, everyone is expected to get on board and behave similarly. There are many different types of culture, and often it will come down to the nature of the business or product as to which is most appropriate to ensure success. A challenge some start-up organisations face is that those young and dynamic pioneers that helped grow the company in the early days often lack the seniority or more comprehensive business experience required when the company becomes a bigger entity. The need to bring in more seasoned execs can sometimes change the cultural dynamic as more robust structures are established to continue growth.

Why are start-ups so sexy?

For some it’s the opportunity to create, for others it’s the lure of not having to operate in such a rigid structure, and then there are those who are in it for the free meals and weekly foosball competitions. Furthermore, for those not entirely sure what to do as a next step or consider themselves more of a generalist than a specialist, a start-up provides the chance to gain skills in a number of different roles, and potentially move into a leadership position sooner than would be possible in a large corporation where you’re expected to follow a certain career path.

Start-ups typically can’t afford top salaries and they lack stability, but they make up for that in passion and potential. Some people are attracted because it’s the chance to be involved in building a company from the beginning–being empowered with real accountability and to see their impact on growth rather than feeling like just another number in a larger organisation. It’s also the sense of agility and fast-pace that comes with less hierarchy and everyone pitching in where they are needed. In addition, the promise of equity if and when the company eventually makes it big is a high-risk but high-reward incentive that younger generations are sometimes more prepared to consider early in their careers.

Typically, what bonds people in the early days of a start-up is the unpredictability and potential. The collaborative effort to succeed. But the types of employees drawn to this type of unpredictability aren’t always the ones who thrive when the organisation has hit open waters and a structure begins to take shape. That’s not to say that an organisation can’t have a healthy mix of the two, because many do, but well-defined roles and efficient processes tend to diminish unpredictability, which creates a different environment.

At one time, HR managers might have handled everything from payroll processing and responding to customer enquiries to office management and establishing financial controls. But as the organisation grows, employees are required to wear less hats and the need to specialise becomes more apparent.

Those same employees who are growing with the company will look for training and development opportunities, tangible career paths or may start to work on international assignments, all of which require some specific HR expertise. An advantage larger corporate enterprises have is being able to break this up under specialist HR functions or COEs, and use HRIS software that provides a great deal more functionality than the humble spreadsheet.

Can the older, more mature organisation be sexy too?

Definitely. Larger organisations can begin to foster an environment of innovation and HR can help drive this in a number of ways. Small changes such as:

  • Allow flexible working conditions so people can enjoy a better work/life balance.
  • Emulate the change you want: create an environment within HR where you encourage your managers to foster innovation and change.
  • Work with the senior team to discuss the importance of choosing future leaders who embrace a sense of entrepreneurship–those that genuinely encourage teams to bring new ideas to the table and understand that just because the company is growing, there’s no reason why foosball and Friday happy hour needs to be phased out.

While it’s definitely true that the start-up culture is en vogue at present, it’s not right for everyone, and it may not always be right for the same organisation as it learns to scale to meet growing demands. However, it’s possible to bring in (and retain) those elements of a start-up that offer employees a sense of ownership, freedom and flexibility.


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