Maintaining the culture in a growing agency

Maintaining the culture in a growing agency

As an agency owner, a question I’m often asked is how we maintain the culture as we grow.

In June ‘23, 7DOTS hit a major milestone - our payroll number ticked into the 50s. But here's the real triumph: nearly 40 of them are still with us, a remarkable staff turnover for a company founded in 2009.

So, how did we go from two people in a broom cupboard to 40 individuals with diverse backgrounds and personalities, all united by a common culture?

I remember approaching the 20 people threshold and bracing ourselves in anticipation of the widely documented Armageddon that we should expect. Nothing really happened. Same for when we got to 30 people. Inarguably, there is a point where business owners simply don’t have the bandwidth to be across everything. However, I’m not so sure that I agree with these somewhat arbitrary thresholds that get bandied about. To me, the challenge has been more about integrating the different sorts of personalities that businesses require as they grow; and different functions need different personalities.

We now have a very wide breadth of roles and there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that certain roles attract certain personality types. Simplistically, we could use the dichotomy of extraverts and introverts. On the face of it, these personality types have certain traits which really are quite incompatible. Using very broad brushstrokes, the extraverts are very vocal, enjoy group working and are comfortable interrupting others or talking over each other. It’s how they get their energy.

The introverts on the other hand are much less outspoken (note: not less assertive), enjoy smaller groups (like one) and may be just as excited as the extraverts about the latest, greatest thing…but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from their body language!

The roles that our extraverts and introverts typically fill are of equal importance, the personalities are very different, but given the right nurturing culture, we can help them all to thrive.

Indeed, there’s a common mantra which encourages us to “embrace the differences”. In my experience, that’s not what any of us do – we look for commonality. Commonality is about relationships, conversation, connections, language, geography, shared experiences - like food, wine, travel and the weather! On a global scale, these things we have in common are the very definition of “culture”. It’s the same within a company – however big or small.

When a company starts small, its culture is invariably going to be a manifestation of the founders. In the case of 7DOTS, a (then) 34-year-old with two young kids and a CV screaming with frustration, plus a highly ambitious 26-year-old always destined to be an agency CEO. We were both technically minded, very hands-on and equipped with a wealth of ideas on how to do everything better. We first met in a work environment, but quickly established a common language that spanned both our professional and personal relationships – to the point where it’s still hard to know where one ends and the other starts. But in 2009, we were at different stages of our lives in terms of starting a family and how our respective careers had been shaped up to that point. What was abundantly clear from day one was that we always have something interesting to talk about. If it’s not a shared experience, it’ll be sharing an interesting experience or encounter we’ve had individually. We are very different in many ways, but it was what we had in common that united us; our shared cultural values.

I recall a conversation with my better half when we were a fledgling 10 person company. I said something on the lines of “I can’t expect always to recruit people with whom I want to have a beer/coffee/chat”. She questioned my logic and she was right.

So what does this mean in practice?

It all distils down to what has become the unwritten, but simple, recruitment philosophy of 7DOTS:

Recruit interesting people (always). *

They’re generally people who want to learn; people with opinions; people who care; people looking to be the best version of themselves; people willing to fail; people you gravitate to for that beer/coffee/chat.

* Maybe they need talent as well, but you can develop and nurture that. It’s hard to make someone interesting if they simply aren’t.

Surround yourself with interesting people and the culture will take care of itself. Sure, set out your stall with your own philosophies and culture, but then recruit wisely (don’t take your eye off that), stand back and watch the culture grow and evolve. On the (thankfully) rare occasions when we have inadvertently strayed from our recruitment philosophy, it’s been obvious (and short lived).

It was music to my ears the first time a night out was organised unprompted by someone other than me or Sam. It’s great when you find out that there are work WhatsApp groups that you’re not in. I genuinely love colleagues suggesting how we might do things better than I’ve always done them.

It all means that you, the business owners, are no longer needing to drive the culture – it’s become its own, immutable thing. It’s a culture of the people, by the people, for the people. We maintain the culture because we are all the culture. And it’s far stronger for it.

Embrace it.

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Ed Gossage

Chairman & COO Connect