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Enhancing a Startup Culture in a Corporate Organization

Tips on how to take the best elements of startups and apply them to established corporate organizations

2Dec

There is little doubt that startups are dominating leadership discussion in many sectors of the economy, and have even become a source of admiration in popular culture. Whether driven by the hopes of 'unicorn' valuations and lucrative exits or by the desire for more informal, collegial working environments, startups are more prevalent and attractive to existing and potential employees than ever. In fact, in a recent Accenture survey, only 15% of the class of 2014 would 'prefer' to work for a mature, established organization.

This is creating a real issue for established corporations in talent acquisition, management development and cultural confidence. In the short-term, incumbent organizations compete with younger companies for the best and brightest talent. Over the medium-term, developing and retaining future leaders will become more difficult as attractive external employment options abound. Further down the road, these organizations may struggle to create an attractive culture that facilitates the development of innovative, differentiated products that maintain a competitive advantage in a rapidly changing marketplace.

These workplace and culture issues have not received enough attention from senior executives within many affected organizations. At the same time, leaders at startups are well aware of the work environment and culture disparity, and leverage this gap as a key selling point to lure new talent.

I have written about this topic in the past, most recently in a whitepaper titled “The Urgent Intrapreneur Opportunity: An Introduction for Corporate leaders.”

So how can larger, established organizations compete more effectively for current and future leaders? How can they enhance their existing corporate culture so that it is more attractive to new recruits and existing high performing employees? Essentially, how can corporate organizations mimic some of what is drawing their employees (or new recruits) away in the first place?

Make the organization’s sense of purpose tangible

Within today’s new business environment, people want to align themselves with an organization that has a meaningful, socially engaging corporate mission. In order to be impactful and not simply a collection of words, the company’s mission must be truly lived every day within the organization and reinforced by employee actions. Leaders of established corporations need to revisit that dusty old mission statement and consider how it aligns with today’s competitive marketplace, employee and customer demands, and what is the broader societal impact. If gaps are present, specifically in the context of management and employee behavior, organizations should take actions such as training, team building and culture enhancement that create a more synchronized organization with employee buy-in.

Provide more flexibility in work roles and responsibilities

For certain individuals who would find it appealing, provide the opportunity for them to work on new, innovative projects. Google is perhaps the most prominent employer that encourages certain employees to allocate 20% of their time to new projects. Many other organizations, perhaps less cutting edge, have taken similar approaches, often in more limited formats. An example is where a company provides employees the opportunity to work on ideas they helped envision or promote. Giving employees a sense of “intrapreneurship” and idea ownership can be a successful factor in fulfilling and retaining motivated workers. In addition, these individuals develop innovative skills, build internal relationships and develop a better appreciation of how various functions within the organization work together.

Establish innovation tools and processes

Organizations seeking to promote innovation should introduce employees to idea generation tools, techniques and case studies of success and failure. They should also be trained on innovation processes and resources that are often spread across the organization. These skills will help employees kick-start their ideas, enabling them to drive concepts from theoretical to preliminary products.

Adjust rewards and recognition approaches to promote a more innovative company mindset

Too often there is a disconnect in leadership’s desire for innovation and how employees’ innovation is recognized and rewarded. This divide, often exacerbated by legacy HR programs, can undermine leadership’s efforts to drive an organization towards a more innovative state. For example, encouraging controlled risk taking and a more innovative environment doesn’t have to be done via wholesale change. Rather, existing programs can be modified to support or recognize innovative activity that builds impact over time. An example might be opening existing leadership development courses to 'non leaders' who have demonstrated innovation initiative above the call of duty.

Over time, organizations can develop specific reward programs for innovative activity but initially they can incorporate an innovation component into existing rewards systems and processes

Communicate vision and actions

Too often executives and innovation leaders fail to adequately and comprehensively communicate their vision, efforts, successes and even failures throughout the organization. By establishing a solid innovation communication framework, and then maintaining a steady flow of messages around new initiatives, organizations can promote the concept of innovation ubiquity. This can create a self-fulfilling cycle of employee action driving innovation-promoting behavior and change across the organization, leading to more employee action.

The innovation, disruption and cultural impact of startups, including the effect on incumbents, are growing. With an improved understanding of what motivates and engages today’s employees, larger organizations can leverage their assets to better compete with younger, nimbler companies.

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