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Preserving Culture & Success In a Hyper Growth Environment…

February 22nd, 2017

After my departure from Cylance, one of the biggest topics that I’ve been asked about, and given extensive consideration to, has been that of culture and how you preserve the success factors that were part of the early stages. Cylance was started with some key cultural goals in mind, which were primarily based on the disdain and avoidance of silos and politics. We had all experienced it at larger companies. The early efforts and decisions were all focused on the building of a product that would change an industry…nothing else mattered and everyone was committed to that vision.

As we had shared with investors, analysts, and media, it took us the better part of 3 years to reach 115 employees. There was a focus on our burn and regulating our spend in a prudent…and almost surgical manner. It then took another year to grow our employee base to 450. Even this number, while certainly aggressive, did not give us an undue amount of concern. Yes, we did tap the brakes a few times to make sure our billings were continuing to trend as they were…multiples above our original plan. However, as I’ve discussed in prior posts, we were also focused on making sure the underlying metrics of billings and revenues per employee were also continuing to trend upward, as well as ensuring that our cash burn was in the confines of the original plan. Some might take the view that a tripling our headcount was an unhealthy growth, but we were cognizant of the number increase and actively discussing the potential risks with our key investors. We wanted to learn from their other portfolio companies and couldn’t afford the distraction of having to correct course under the trajectory we were on.

Let’s take that tripling of headcount and why that wasn’t necessarily an unhealthy number. When you look at the hiring of 335 over the course of a year that equates to 6.5 people per week that are hired in across every functional area…Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Research, etc. While the new hires might be coming in with some of the “corporate baggage” from the larger companies, there was a significantly larger number of incumbents that are able to offset that influence, properly onboard the new employees, and successfully indoctrinate them into the culture that had been the foundation of our success. Even in the latter part of the year, when you’re bringing in the other 165 hires, you still have a fairly large & established group that can help in the absorption and molding of new employees. Will you make some mistakes in hiring? Absolutely. But you also need to take the necessary steps to course correct early on. I also believe, but wasn’t successful in enforcing, was the need to have hiring managers outline the roles & responsibilities for their newly requested hires, which would later play into assessing the quality of their delivery, and ultimately, qualifying their work relative to bonus payouts. This was an extreme challenge as we were also confronted with a trajectory that was multiples of our original plan, which meant that we also were having to manage headcount growth that was nowhere near the original plan, or the first revision…or the second or third revisions. You get the picture…hyper growth demands quick reaction.

The biggest question though is where does the process actually break? What is the percentage of “tenured” incumbents that need to be present relative to hyper hiring…and is this even a valid statistic? This becomes the key question when you find yourself in a Quarter where headcount grows by 50% and there is a push to increase an incremental 30% the following Quarter…or effectively doubling your headcount growth in two Quarters. When you start hiring at the rate of not 6.5 new hires per week, but 18 per week…and then mix new hires with an equally new group of individuals who have not fully adopted the success elements of the existing culture. New hires, who when combined with undefined roles & responsibilities and a lack of guidance, are treading water at best and not sure how to direct their efforts in the rapidly expanding environment they just got tossed into. Combine the cultural challenge with the financial challenge where the majority of the cash flow is affected by headcount and how the Company is then performing relative to the billings and revenues per employee…and the cash burn metrics that have been committed to the Board. It’s all about keeping an engineered and discipline approach, but balanced with the unplanned needs of the business. There is no textbook approach in hyper growth and you can’t look to your past experiences to guide you through this scenario because in all likelihood…you haven’t been there. Ultimately, the success will be predicated on keeping successful communications going with the team, healthy collaborations, and knowing the pulse of the business…PERIOD. In the absence of these your destined for performance mediocrity, or worse yet, course corrections that will affect morale and momentum.

Thanks for reading…

Jeffrey Ishmael

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