It’s a well-known fact in business that many startups fail. It’s a lesser-known fact that large and even successful businesses fail too. A few years ago, for example, the Kauffman Foundation and Inc. found that two-thirds of the fast-growing companies on the Inc. 5000 list “had shrunk in size, gone out of business, or been disadvantageously sold” within five to eight years.
A lot of business failure is blamed on scaling too fast. But here’s the catch: In today’s business environment, if you don’t scale, you’re also in danger. That means businesses face the pressure of achieving a precarious Goldilocks kind of growth: not too big, not too small, but just right.
This is a tricky formula that requires having a strategic plan, managing your cash flow, hiring at the right pace and maintaining your core organizational values as you grow. But as someone who has spent a career working in communications, I have found that a lot of leaders overlook the importance of strong, strategic, consistent internal communications in their growth strategy.
Specifically, when a company starts to grow, it also often starts to compartmentalize its operations. Suddenly, where one or two people once wore multiple hats in a flat organization, there are many, including a growing band of middle management, with geographical and departmental barriers.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of growth — no one, of course, wants to be a part of a shrinking organization. The problem is that when a company starts compartmentalizing its operations, I’ve noticed that it also tends to compartmentalize its communication. The result often is a fractured voice where each division uses a certain kind of language, works toward a certain goal and emphasizes certain themes, values and ideas.
This kind of siloing makes sense, considering human psychology: Belonging is a major human need. Just as we create social groups to give ourselves a sense of identity and belonging, we also create work groups, whether officially or unofficially, which makes us feel more motivated and collaborative, at least within the group. This is the idea behind work teams.
But when this kind of siloing doesn’t also come with a sense of belonging to and understanding of the larger organization as a whole, it can lead to turf wars, competition and inconsistency within organizations; more dangerously, it can create confusion among internal and external stakeholders around broader organizational values and initiatives.
In my experience, cohesion in an organization has to start with cohesion in communication. This begins by getting everyone centered around a common goal, with access to the same foundational information. For example, one of the first things my public relations firm does when it brings an organization on as a client is TO create one messaging document that reflects the entire organization. This includes a list of an organization’s immediate and future objectives, a boilerplate that concisely describes what the organization does, talking points on major topics, a ranking of target audiences and a list of terminology to be used and not to be used.
To compile this kind of document, we typically interview key players at different levels within each organization. We start with basic questions: How would you describe what your organization does? What is its greatest strength? What are the biggest problems to be solved? It’s remarkable how much the answers can differ, which ultimately points to a weakness within the organization that has to be addressed. If everyone inside a company isn’t on the same page about that company’s identity, how can a customer or the broader public understand it?
I believe that every company should have one concise internal messaging document that employees at all levels and in all departments are familiar with. This document can be expanded to more specific messaging for a particular audience or topic, but ultimately, for both leaders and personnel to be able to effectively communicate with each other and with stakeholders, everyone has to understand the basic mission and tenets of the company.
Cohesive communication within an organization usually has to start with the leadership team; this common messaging should be understood by personnel at every level, regularly reviewed and continuously emphasized in internal communications. It’s not the only important criterion for successful scaling, but it will certainly give you a better shot at it.