Most startups begin with a shared mission. When a company is just a handful of employees, it’s easy to align on big-picture goals and rally behind core values. In those early days, a small, cohesive team spends countless hours brainstorming, communicating, and creating something new together—fostering a shared experience like no other.
But what about during the growth phase? When you’re racing to hire enough people to keep up with blistering demand, it’s much more difficult to nurture and sustain a mission-driven culture. And in today’s Great Resignation wave, growing companies are not just grappling with hiring, but also retaining their employees.
A shared vision and sense of purpose is one of the best ways to ensure employees stick around and bring their best selves to work each day; a recent Deloitte study found that mission-driven companies had 30% higher levels of innovation and 40% higher levels of retention, and they tended to be first or second in their market segment. But how do you maintain an intentional culture when you grow from 100 to 1,000 or 10,000 employees?
We recently convened our partners, advisors, and some of the smartest minds from our portfolio companies and network at the virtual System Positive Summit to discuss that very challenge: how to remain a mission-driven company all along the growth journey. At Generation, my investment company, we work with mission-driven companies every day. Our Growth Equity strategy’s sole purpose is to invest in and support growth-stage companies building sustainable solutions toward a net-zero, prosperous, healthy, safe, and fair future for all. What we have seen time and time again over the last nearly two decades is that mission-driven companies often grow faster, attract and retain better talent, and remain more competitive. At the summit, speakers from companies such as Asana, Splunk, Gusto, and Pinterest shared proven tactics they use to keep their missions front-and-center. Below are some of the most salient takeaways we overheard at the event.
Focus on the how
One of the best ways to create a mission-driven company, and to keep that shared vision alive through many stages of growth, is to focus not just on outcomes, but on how you achieve them. Many founders of early-stage companies are so busy they don’t take the time to set up processes that align with their values. They might say, as part of their mission, “we’re a company that values diversity and inclusion,” but then when it comes to hiring, put no formal program in place to ensure diverse recruitment. Or a company might say, “we are a values-driven organization,” but instead hire people based purely on skillset and never ask candidates about their values. Always start with the basics: Define your core values and what you believe in, and then create frameworks for how you will achieve those goals. Gusto spent a lot of time codifying its values when the company started to hire, prioritizing values and motivation alignment over simply hiring for skills. The company has even made “be proud of the how” one of its core values.
Make onboarding count
Recruiting is one of the most challenging tasks growth-stage companies face every day, made even more difficult in today’s tight labor market. Many organizations focus on getting offer letters out the door and contracts signed, but then do cursory onboardings almost as an afterthought. That’s a mistake, because onboarding is the most crucial moment for helping new employees get connected to the overall mission. Give each new hire six full weeks to become incorporated into the team. Don’t just expect them to start adding value right away, but treat those first six weeks as a mission-alignment period, complete with learning and development, coaching, mentoring, socializing, and team building. The goal is to provide each new recruit with a clear understanding of the company’s culture, values, customers, and future vision.
Build culture like a product
The teams, tech platforms, and resources companies deploy to design, build, iterate on, and market their products are essential for growth. But when it comes to designing a culture, most companies leave it largely to happenstance. Instead, a true mission-driven company designs its culture like a product. Start with what you want the end-user experience to be, and then design policies that will get you to that end-goal. Ask staff for their feedback via employee engagement platforms, and try different mission statements and iterate on them until they are just right.
No one designs software without bugs the first time; it’s the same with building a company culture. Design, iterate, find and fix bugs, and continually work on your “culture product.” Create an intentional “culture roadmap” based on your growth trajectory, putting practices in place around hiring, onboarding, training, mentoring, and more to ensure your culture doesn’t wither over time.
What can this look like in practice? Asana created a Voice of the Employee program, formalizing the same multiple streams of input that their Voice of the Customer model uses to inform new product features. The continuous rigorous feedback loop of listening, understanding, delivering, acting and responding gives the company an honest mirror of how they’re doing and is a process that has grown and scaled since Asana had just 100 employees.
At the System Positive Summit, all the panelists agreed that company leaders should define, communicate, and demonstrate shared values they truly believe in every day, not just relegate culture to the HR team. Creating and maintaining a culture means treating your mission like a product, putting real mechanisms in place to make culture a measurable practice, and onboarding new employees through a holistic process. Building a culture of shared values is difficult, but worth it. Mission-driven companies attract and retain top talent, nurture innovative thinking and collaboration among employees, and in our experience are ultimately more successful.
Shalini Rao is a growth equity partner at Generation Investment Management, a global investment firm cofounded by Al Gore that is focused on accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy. Generation invests in growth-stage, private companies such as Gusto, Asana, Toast, and Guideline with proven technology and commercial traction, run by talented mission-driven management teams.