3. November 2022 By Prof. Dr. Volker Gruhn and Dirk Pothen
Rapid growth and corporate culture – dancing on the razor’s edge
Balance sheets and annual reports provide information on whether a company is successful. If the key figures point in the right direction, the viability of the business model is proven – and so is the talent of the employees. However, economic success is only one aspect of a healthy company. Interaction between colleagues, collaboration with customers, management principles and attitude towards social issues all reflect a company’s culture. Corporate culture is often difficult to grasp, and yet it is the foundation of success. It creates a sense of community and familiarity – across all areas of responsibility and hierarchical levels and across all sites and national borders.
Culture is not something static. In fact, it is the exact opposite: it is constantly in motion, integrates ideas and adapts to change. Managers are able to promote and moderate this change, but they rarely determine the final outcome. Culture seeks its own paths. In a company with moderate growth rates, culture has plenty of time to develop. The situation looks different in a dynamic environment: strong growth over a longer period of time changes the very foundations of a company. This means that imparting and living the culture no longer works as naturally as it used to.
We at adesso are experiencing this situation of dynamic growth. Twenty-five years ago, there were two people sat at one desk. Now, there are over 6,800 employees spread across 40 locations in Europe and Turkey. A good 2,400 employees joined the adesso Group in the last twelve months alone. As with any successful business, it is a mixture of skill and luck that helped us: acquiring customers who place their trust in us, employees who dive into projects with passion and technologies, the potentials of which we exploit.
In this blog post, we will look at corporate culture in dynamic environments – not to show what we know, but rather to develop a sense of how we can better deal with the issue by writing it down and thinking it through, and to learn here on LinkedIn from managers who find themselves in comparable situations.
The four pillars of a living culture
adesso has changed fundamentally over the last quarter of a century – just like the market for IT service providers and the state of the art in technology. Our corporate culture endured these revolutions and adapted to them. From having breakfast together to our predilection for ‘common sense’, we retained our form of cooperation and togetherness despite this evolution.
However, as the number of employees, subsidiaries, sites or national companies increases, we also have to keep our culture alive in other ways. This is because, for many, the direct line to culture-forming elements such as founders or long-standing employees is becoming thinner and thinner. This is ensured by our sometimes rapid growth. We find four areas to be of particular importance:
(1) Managers – culture manifests itself in leadership
Managers have a special responsibility in our system, which is based on end-to-end accountability with high degrees of freedom. They are disseminators of cultural values. They translate partly unwritten or abstract elements into something tangible for their teams. They convey ideas and shape attitudes through their behaviour.
Managers bring culture to life in many ways. For us, this includes
- not taking values for granted, but instead participating in cultural evolution,
- creating frameworks within which individual teams can address cultural issues,
- having the whole company in mind (not just optimising your own area of responsibility) and
- focusing on lean processes, both internally and at the point of customer contact.
(2) Recruiting – culture manifests itself in people
Professional qualifications can be assessed with a high degree of probability. Credentials, certificates, references or work samples are helpful in this regard. Sounding out the cultural aspects in the recruiting process is more difficult. That being said, the ‘cultural fit’ plays just as important a role as the ‘professional fit’. In case of doubt, it is easier for new employees to adopt another technology than it is another set of values.
These cultural aspects place particular demands on the selection process and the decision-makers’ judgement. We provide them support via structured interviews, check-ups or systematic collegial consultation with other managers. One danger we counter by taking these measures is that of hiring for the sake of hiring – in other words, selecting people who fit the bill professionally in order to turn a blind eye to other aspects. Every manager has the authority to make such decisions but should be confident enough to resist doing so. Even if the ambitious growth targets of the company as a whole put pressure on recruiting in the short term, we will only be successful in the long term if we employ colleagues who identify with our ideas.
(3) Cooperation – culture manifests itself in behaviour
Corporate culture needed a concrete, written form (see below). But it must not be the end-all definition. When written down, individual aspects often seem generic and sound generally binding. A culture’s value is reflected in day-to-day behaviour and cooperation with other adessi, with customers and with partners. What really drives a company can be derived from what this cooperation looks like in practice.
For example, our catalogue of values states that ‘respect and friendliness are our core values: thank you, hi, smile.’ This is lived out every morning in the stairwell when colleagues greet one another a dozen times over. In contrast, a manager who hides in their office all day and never shows their face to their team is incompatible with this value.
But culture not only shapes behaviour, behaviour also shapes culture. Sustainability is a modern example of this. For many employees, using resources responsibly – both professionally and privately – is a relevant issue. They set up initiatives in their departments and initiate discussions. We are currently taking hold of these trends and moulding them into guidelines that will shape our behaviour.
(4) Communication – culture manifests itself in words
When it comes to culture, it is not only deeds that count. What topics we talk about, how we talk to each other, what terms we use: these are all cultural levers, the effectiveness of which we must not underestimate. Communication behaviour influences behaviour. The passionate discussion about gender-sensitive language gives an impression of the meaning that words and choice of words have for people.
Companies must communicate their own values – in the form of a cultural constitution as well. The task of internal communication is to secure the sovereignty of information and interpretation regarding the aspect of cultural mediation. Clear messages, communicated across the full range of communication channels, ensure a uniform level of knowledge. This makes a difference – especially in distributed organisations like ours. Whether it is team meetings or regular appointments at all sites with the participation of management, online Q&A sessions with the Executive Board or small talk at the coffee machine, opportunities such as these offer the chance to convey key cultural messages – without doing it one specific way.
It is also every employees’ responsibility to let the cultural values live on in their individual communication behaviour. Companies can use training sessions or templates to aid in this endeavour.
Managers, recruiting, collaboration, communication: simply placed side-by-side, the meaning of these words is not apparent. However, we are convinced that these elements determine how our culture will evolve.
Regardless of what perhaps 10,000 adessi will use as a basis to create new things together in a few years, common sense will still play a key role.
You will find more exciting topics from the adesso world in our latest blog posts.