Team building

5 top tips to keep that small company culture as your startup grows?

Not so long ago Learning Pool was 4 people congregating around Paul’s kitchen table in Donegal.  6 years later we employ 50 people, support over 700,000 learners & 350 public sector organisations & Deloitte’s have deemed us to be the 26th fastest growing technology business in the UK over the past 5 years (6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland) with 1100% growth in our revenues in that period.  At the same time, our customers tell us that our business feels more like a family to them than a company.  This week’s blog is about how I think we’ve managed to combine aggressive growth with retention of the desirable qualities of a small business and keeping hold of our personal values along the way.  I appreciate this is a topic that many of you will know far more about than me so I’m looking forward to reading & answering your comments and questions.

Learning Pool team having cake – which happens pretty much weekly

Before I start I should say that one of the greatest pleasures of owning your own business is having the opportunity to shape the culture of your organisation because we all know too well what bad company culture looks and feels like.

These are my top tips:

Aine and Emma – two of our original Learning Pool team members snapped last week at LP Learning Live South

  1. Invest in your own people and help them grow with the business.  Today our team extends to more than 50 people, but 15 of those 50 have been with Learning Pool more than or very close to 5 of our 6 years and not one of them is in the job they started at – they’ve all moved up or sideways and up.  Many of our team did not have years of experience when they joined Learning Pool, but what they lacked in experience they made up for with great personalities, enthusiasm and energy, a hunger to learn and desire for success.  Our original company culture is carried in each of their hearts and delivered via their daily actions.
  2. Linked to point 1 above is take care with your recruitment.  Recruitment is the most important job of a fast growing company’s founders so make proper time for it & don’t delegate it to someone else.  The worst mistakes we’ve made in our 6 years so far have all been linked to poor recruitment decisions.  You know what they say – better a hole than an asshole – and it’s true.  Avoid prima donnas and mavericks, whatever they seem to bring – they just aren’t worth it.  Recruit for potential and personality and work hard to develop your talent.  When you make a recruitment mistake, reverse the person out as quickly & as painlessly as you can for their own sake and for everyone else’s.

    At the end of last week’s LP Learning Live South

  3. It’s easy to be customer focused when you’re small.  As a startup you have to over deliver anyway and when you’re starting out you don’t have many customers and you’re eagerly learning from them.  As you grow, you have to find a way of continuing to deliver that level of excellent customer service.  We’ve done this by constantly automating as much as we can as we’ve grown so that our customer facing people get to spend as much of their working week as they can interacting with customers – as that’s where the value add lies for our customers and for us.  We’re about to go through another (painful) round of this between now & Christmas but we recognise it’s worth it.
  4. Encourage everyone to have their say.  We’ve tried hard to do this at Learning Pool from the very start.  We have a culture where everyone’s ideas are heard and debated (even Tony’s) and everyone is expected to innovate.  We’ve used Yammer for years to facilitate ad hoc brainstorming across our dispersed team and it’s also used for extensive banter and leg pulling.  I used to worry about this but it’s only made me nearly faint once & that was when a local authority HR director asked me if they could see Yammer working in situ.

    Night out in Dublin 2011

  5. As founders and senior managers you have to love your team and all of you have to love your customers and enjoy interacting with them.  None of that can be faked.  It has to be real.  What do I mean by love your team?  You have to care about them in & out of work and sometimes even take care of them, you have to appreciate the contribution they make and reward them as best you can – financially and in other ways, you have to trust them and give them space to develop and progress.  You have to make time to have some fun together as that’s important too.  The Learning Pool team works hard but we play hard too and we find time to do some voluntary & pro bono work together when we can.

Team in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Day

That’s my thoughts.  Look forward to reading yours.

Team Building’s great…but what happens next?

Team_lovely_august_2011

On 1 August Learning Pool turned 5 years old.  5 years is a significant milestone for any company and certainly time to take stock and work out what happens next.  We decided to spend 3 days together as a team in order to celebrate, have some informal time together (although Learning Pool is far from formal at the best of times) but also to revisit our plans and discuss our options as a group.

This photo of Paul & me with our team was taken on Derry’s new Peace Bridge last week – just before we split into 6 teams and scrambled all over the City on a fun treasure hunt.  We’re very proud of our team.  I doubt it’s possible to grow a sizeable team any quicker than 5 years, no matter how many management books you read or how impatient you are.  It’s like growing a harmonious flower bed or baking good bread.  There’s a method & stages to go through but at the end of the day, it takes a certain amount of time.

People have to form relationships & become comfortable with each other before they can perform well at anything.  It’s difficult to do this when the organisation is growing fast as there are new people joining the team all the time & “upsetting” the dynamic.  Everyone knows the Tuckman model of team formation and the 4 stages – forming, storming, norming, performing.  It can be hard to get onto those later stages when there is a constant influx of new team members.

When I look at the photo, 18 people or about one third of our team have been with us less than 12 months; 16 have been with us for over 3 years and the remaining 23 have been at Learning Pool between one & three years.  I often think about the Belbin exercise our team completed at our first team building event on Lusty Beg island in December 2008 when the company was just over 2 years old.  We had no co-ordinators & no implementers.  We had 2 completer finishers (fortunately!), one team worker, 2 plants and a solitary monitor-evaluator.  The remaining 24 people were crammed onto the resource investigator & shaper spaces – 12 apiece.  Things have changed since then, although some days I miss that early chaos.

My question to you all in this blog is how do other companies build on the success of team building days & keep the momentum going once your dispersed teams have dispersed again.  How do you keep that energy & focus going once everyone has waved goodbye and gone back to their day jobs?