Scaling up with a winning culture
Marcia Goddard, neuroscientist and head of people & culture at Tony’s Chocolonely in Amsterdam; Elbrich Batstra, Chief human resources officer of Hoofddorp-based YoungCapital; and Magdalena Cholakova and Suzana Varga of RSM discuss the challenges presented by rapidly growing companies and how they might be effectively addressed, translating lessons learnt in YoungCapital’s growth phase that might be applied elsewhere.
"YoungCapital is a recruitment company that is growing very fast. But it is much more than a recruitment company. It has revolutionised its industry, making it more apt for a younger generation and has moved rapidly into the online world. It has started its own academy, taking it into the training business as well as recruitment. Its core job remains very much to find candidates for clients but it has become more than that. One way to ensure a correct fit is to educate recruits in specific roles, learning from their own growth."
Elbrich "There is a difference between start-ups and scale-ups, and keeping the core of a start-up company’s culture while scaling up is challenging, but it is eminently achievable, as YoungCapital has and will continue to prove. YoungCapital is solutions and actions oriented and I believe it will not lose that culture as it scales up, because it is so strong."
"I am a neuroscientist and had my doubts when Elbrich invited me to join YoungCapital as their head of HR science & innovation in 2016. It wasn’t clear at first where, or how, I might fit in, but I quickly found that neuroscience is very relevant to the company’s culture. YoungCapital is known for its willingness to take a risk, especially on the sales side, so if you are afraid of taking risks, you will not be comfortable there. Hugo de Koning, one of three co-founders, is towards the higher end of the risk spectrum and is always encouraging people to think positively.
But to be a successful organisation, almost irrespective of size and growth trajectory, you need balance. To put it simply, sometimes you need to rein in the cowboys, so there is a place for grown-ups."
“You need a winning culture. You need constant communications and learning. You need a one team, one mindset perspective.”
Marcia Goddard, head of people & culture, Tony’s Chocolonely
"Again, almost irrespective of size, a successful company has certain elements. I’d draw an analogy with Formula 1 motor racing, which I’ve been studying closely for the past few years. In that industry, almost by definition, the companies are relatively small, but they can deliver valuable lessons and a lot of the behaviours that you see at YoungCapital are what makes F1 successful. You need a winning culture. You need constant communications and learning. You need a one team, one mindset perspective. You need a short-term and a long-term perspective. You need a no-blame philosophy that allows people to fail without having their hands chopped off. If you need to use blame, blame the problem, not the person or people trying to solve it."
"I would echo much of what Marcia says, and would add that it is very important as you scale up not to change your people strategy when you encounter bad weather, physically or metaphorically. YoungCapital’s strength is based on the universal needs of people. You stick to the plan. That is why people want to work with your company. You know your short-term goals and your long-term targets, and staff know what they need to contribute.
Focus on building for good rather than preparing for bad. Focus on building strengths rather than repairing defects. These are the building blocks of the YoungCapital HR strategy. Everything we do is experience-based. We are very holistic and we practise what we preach, embracing differences and maximising the benefits to be derived from them. For the 21st century, you need a growth mindset, creating the conditions for success."
“Everything we do is experience-based. We are very holistic and we practise what we preach, embracing differences and maximising the benefits to be derived from them.”
Elbrich Batstra, CHRO, YoungCapital
"I think there is much to be learnt from YoungCapital’s scaling-up, not least in the screening of potential new recruits, where important questions must be asked, and answered. Are people quick and flexible? Can they deal with ambiguity? Also, how do you transition and prepare people from one world to another? How do they even think about different competences? Suzana has worked in a fast-growing organisation and can say more about the experience."
"There are clear references in the academic literature to growing pains. I felt that at the rapidly growing firm where I worked before my doctoral studies. It was a great environment for personal development characterized by high levels of flexibility, yet the line between flexibility and chaos can often be rather thin. When I accepted my job offer, the company had 50 employees, but on the day I joined there were 20 more onboarding. It represented great change. Rapid change. The role did not formally change much in terms of the position and job description, but entailed a continuous and dynamic expansion in terms of the scope of tasks and responsibilities to cover due to the rapid increase in the number of employees and projects, as well as the constant changes in the internal organising that were all coupled with the company’s fast growth."
"What I found interesting is you start with a role in a small team. You all know one another by name, even the boss. But that can change, sometimes almost overnight, if you grow from five to 15 to 500, even 5,000. All of a sudden, in two to three years, everything is different and it can be difficult. You find your responsibilities – however neatly defined they were at the start – change. You have to learn and adapt to the new circumstances.
Perhaps your original role does not even actually exist any more. You have to adapt constantly if you are to transition successfully. It matters less whether the organisation is big or small: it is the speed of change. There is no doubt that individual traits and personalities come into play. This environment can be great for some people, people who thrive on constant change and new possibilities and new pressure. But it can be very stressful, and energy draining for others."
Compare a small growing company that has ambitions to scale up with, for example, an established large global company. The latter might strive to change to adapt to new social and commercial imperatives, by emphasising the importance of climate change action, but will not change dramatically in a short time. As the recent Suez Canal shipping blockage starkly reminded us, it takes time for large seagoing vessels to turn around, whereas a speedboat can do it almost in an instant."
If you are growing fast, you need to be able to change the way you do things very quickly. This has obvious implications for recruitment. The catchwords are speed, flexibility, creativity, ability to improvise and being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.
"Some people might interpret this as signifying a generational change, which might render older people unemployable, but this is not necessarily the case. Age does not enter into it. Certain people will remain more attractive despite their greater years. Our oldest employee is 67. Likewise, creativity will only take you so far. It is the overall package that matters, not the individual components. You want to hire the smartest and the best, whether they are programmers or financial analysts. You need the skills, but you also need to adapt. You need to have more."
YoungCapital’s own CEO, Ineke Kooistra, is a fascinating case study in herself. Acknowledged as something of a rebel in her previous role at Adecco, one of the world’s largest human resources providers, she has thrived throughout her six years at YoungCapital. She had grown up, as it were, with a fixed system at Adecco but her switch to YoungCapital has been very successful. She saw the potential. She saw the chemistry was there. She had the sheer guts to take the step and make the change to a growth context."
"There is one golden rule. You need to be consistent. Don’t claim to be something you are not. If you are a large global corporate, don’t claim to be like YoungCapital if you are not. You will only disappoint people who want to work with a growth culture and find they are not."
“If you are growing fast, you need to be able to change the way you do things very quickly.”
Suzana Varga, PhD candidate, RSM
"The company culture can stay the same as you grow, if what you claim to be the company’s DNA is in fact the company’s DNA. You can evolve as you scale up, while still retaining the core of your culture."
Magdalena "YoungCapital is fast growing and faces certain challenges because of that: adapting, creating new roles and living up to new expectations. How do they accomplish that? What can we do to support them?"
We have been working together for over three years to date and YoungCapital has always proved very willing to help with research while demonstrating a great willingness to share their own learnings and collaborating. Their openness is unusual in the corporate world, in particular the extent to which its founders engage with our students.
What we are interested in is developing a research programme and exploring how we might create innovative tools and instruments that are of mutual benefit, and broader social and academic benefit.
As part of our research on this, we focus not only on the characteristics that define employees who tend to thrive in such high velocity and rapid change environments, such as having the proverbial growth mindset, cognitive flexibility or diversive curiosity, but also on the ways in which we can actually help nurture and develop these characteristics among all employees in the workplace. We believe such interventions, when delivered in the right manner, can be tremendously beneficial and empower individuals to balance the potential tensions of constant new role demands and to grow through the experience as well."