In talking with a new client this week, we were reminded of an all too common situation. Companies that experience explosive growth find themselves confronted with new challenges. How do you communicate with an expanding team, many of whom have never been exposed to your company’s stories or way of doing business? How do you hold on to the core values and entrepreneurial spirit that made your company successful in the first place? The need to define and articulate your company’s culture and train new staff on those values and business philosophies is clear. The question remains — is there a way to do so that garners greater buy-in?

We urge our clients to not rely on a top-down initiative. Bottom-up conversations hold greater value. They engender greater company-wide investment in the outcome. “Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership,” a compelling HBR article by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind notes. “Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high.”

So what does bottom-up communication look like in action? Let’s turn first to The Container Store. We caught wind of their story not long ago. Having been in business for 10 years, the company opened a new store in Houston. Business far exceeded expectations, creating an immediate need for clearer communication of company values to guide new employees’ decision-making. An extra hurtle? These values weren’t fully defined.

So, Kip Tindell, the chairman and CEO, brought all employees of the Houston store together. As they gathered at the store manager’s home, Tindell opened up a vulnerable conversation. He shared the ideas he had for guiding principles and values — bits of thought he had collected as early as high school. The ideas were met with a positive reception and eventually refined by his people into what the company now calls its Foundation Principles. These values continue to be instrumental in The Container Store’s success.

How would the story have played out if the open, honest conversation didn’t take place? What if Tindell just selected the principles and had them printed off or plastered on store walls?

We’d wager the cultural glue at the heart of The Container Store’s success wouldn’t be so strong. Involving employees in an open, honest conversation gave them the opportunity to be more fully committed to acting in alignment with the key values. And, knowledge of that story likely continues to inspire and connect employees who weren’t even in the room.

Within our own clients’ stories, we’ve seen similar situations play out. Our work with Cephalon is a prime example of bottom-up thinking at work. Enveloped in a period of remarkable achievement, the company faced growth-induced challenges. In the face of this growth, the Research and Development department crafted key leadership promises. An interesting twist? The principles also stood for what employees could hold leaders accountable to, not just the other way around.

What if the principles were simply a list of how employees needed to measure up? What if the department’s leadership handed them the booklet and said “this is what we decided we expect of you?” We’d guess that employees wouldn’t have felt like powerful brand advocates. Their actions wouldn’t have so significantly backed the desired business growth that ultimately brought about Cephalon’s favorable acquisition by Teva Pharmaceuticals.

Explosive growth presents big time challenges for organizations of all shapes and sizes. We won’t pretend those trials are easy to tackle. But, we can say these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Bottom-up conversations and culture-defining efforts are worth your investment. Whatever your specific challenges, what bottom-up conversations can you facilitate in your organization to define your culture?

Resources referenced
Groysberg, Boris, and Michael Slind. “Leadership Is a Conversation.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, June 2012. Web. 02 Sept. 2014.
“Our Foundation Principles.” The Container Store. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.
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