December 28


How to scale (5 of 5) – culture

In my last few posts I have discussed how successful scale-ups grow, and the fundamental components structure, process and architecture.

In my final post, I look at possibly the most important aspect of company performance – culture.  

Great culture means that you need less bureaucracy and control measures to protect your customers and your company.   One of the most important components is trust – how much do you trust your leaders and teams to do the right thing?


Using the McKinsey influence model, there are four levers you have at your disposal to help your culture scale.

  1. Role model
  2. Develop the skill
  3. Help people understand 
  4. Reinforce with formal mechanisms


Role model.  One of the most powerful ways to influence others is to role model the desired behaviour yourself – especially when this is hard.  For example, if you need to instil a culture of trust, you will need to:

  • Be calm when someone comes to you with a problem or issue, listen attentively, and then thank them for bringing this to you
  • Don’t overreact, or attack the individual, this just means that in future they will not let you know there is a problem
  • Focus on the solution in the short term, this will reduce a blame game, and people will be more likely to be open and help
  • After a time, have a retrospective where everyone talks openly and honestly about what happened and why.  Start with a timeline and facts first one which everyone is agreed, only then explore contentious aspects
  • Separate good failures from bad ones.  If decisions were made on good information with good intent and they don’t work it needs to be fine, celebrate even (like GoogleX).  If however, the work was not done or the intent was malign you should take remedial or even disciplinary action


Develop the skill.  No one can land an aircraft on an aircraft carrier without the training needed to develop the skill.  Being a role model for your direct reports will help, but you will also need to guide and train them.  Here are some possible options for instilling a culture of trust across your organisation:

  • If you can, take the time to train your reports one-to-one
  • Give them material to read on trust in leadership (see additional reading below)
  • Encourage them to get feedback from their direct reports
  • Get feedback from their direct reports, either face-to-face or through 360 feedback surveys
  • Sit in on their regular meetings (especially retrospectives) 


Help people understand.  Everyone needs to know what you are expecting and why this is important.  You can do this a number of ways:

  • Rationally.  Use facts about how trust leads to greater creativity, higher productivity and greater team success
  • Emotionally.  Use examples from your own past, or examples from world-class organisations (e.g., sports teams), paint a picture of how things could be
  • Values.  If one of your company values is trust then use it and repeat it, if not then consider rewriting your values (actions speak louder than words)
  • Build your own examples.  When someone or a team does do well, then use this as an example in your future storytelling.


Reinforce with formal mechanisms.  Formal mechanisms make explicit what behaviours are expected, and will help provide consistency in responding when someone excels or shortfalls of expectations.    You may want to consider:

  • Hiring.  Try to hire people who have a history of consistency creating an environment of trust and psychological safety.  Good ways to test this are:
    • Look at their LinkedIn recommendations – are there many from people who reported to them?  What do they stay?
    • Speak to their direct past reports, find out the type of leader they are.  Would they recommend them as a leader to other people?
    • In interviews ask them in-direct questions about their leadership style and past experiences, e.g.,
      • What happened last time someone on your team made a mistake?
      • What was the last bad decision someone on your team made?
  • Compensation/rewarding.  Ensure that you reward positive behaviour as well as good results.  Consider:
    • Creating a psychological safe/trusting environment a metric on leader reviews/appraisals
    • Have 360 feedback from all of a leader’s direct reports as part of an appraisal
  • Firing.  When someone does not perform and exhibits bad behaviour (and still will not/can not change after being given time and support) it is easy to remove them.  It is much harder, but even more important to remove people who perform well, but exhibit bad behaviour, e.g., being a toxic leader.


Use these four levers to help you scale the culture you need in your organisation.


Extra reading: