How to Grow Your Culture Through Hiring or Acquisition

By Marty Parker

As all leaders know, sustaining the culture you’ve worked hard to build takes a lot of work. Culture needs to be at the centre of strategy and it needs to be top of mind for you and your team in your decision making.  But what happens to culture as your organization grows and changes? How can you nurture your culture so it can grow (and even transition) as your company evolves?

I recently sat down with Ashley Cooper, CEO at Paladin Security Group Ltd., to talk about what he’s learned about scaling corporate culture as an organization grow – both organically and through acquisition.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Ashley, it’s one thing when you have four people, 40 people, or even 400 people, but with 20,000 and counting, how do you ensure that culture is at the center of your strategy at Paladin?

Ashley Cooper:
It’s important to sometimes look at things and say, listen, we’re pretty good at this and we’re pretty good at that. But I think as important is to look at the world and find out what maybe you’re not good at, and what you shouldn’t be involved in. And so I think that when you’re thinking about work culture and how it should be involved in the strategy, sometimes you should make a call of what you’re not going to do.

And we’d done that. While we want to grow, and we want to help people and support them and make the world a safer and friendly place, we recognize that we’re not right for everybody. And so we want to find customers that value their security, value and respect the individuals – the Paladin folks –  that are going to work there, that want to make sure that they pay a fair wage for the hard work that we do, and value what we do.

Similarly, I would say on the acquisition front, when we look at acquisitions, not every acquisition is a right acquisition. In the early days of every company, you always take the business, whatever business comes your way, you almost take it because you need that business, and you need to put food on the table and so forth. But as we’ve gotten a little larger, we’ve really made sure that we focus on the right fit of both customers and employees within the firm.

Marty Parker:
You don’t grow from four to 20,000 and continue to be successful unless you invest in people and particularly grow leaders. And so what’s this approach really taught you at Paladin about tomorrow’s leaders, and what we can be as leaders, and what can they be doing to help support the next generation?

Ashley Cooper:
Well, we’ve had a CAGR of 25% for the last 14, 15 years in a row. So, we’ve been growing at a reasonably good clip. And a number of years ago, we looked at what was happening with our growth. And we thought… how do support future growth? Because the only way we’re going to be able to do it is if we bring in outsiders to take these new managerial roles. And that’s not what we wanted to do, because we knew that those folks wouldn’t understand our culture… In many cases, maybe they hadn’t walked a beat, they didn’t know what it was like to be a security officer or a technician, or all of the other areas that we cover. And so we decided to start investing heavily into training.

We started creating, not just entry level training programs, but supervisory level training programs. We created a basically the university of Paladin which is a management training program… where we bring in folks from all over North America and we have a week-long intensive training program with all the things that we think are important, and then there’s lots of training and homework and pre-training and all these sorts of things. But it’s all about growing our people. And so, for us, by growing our people, we’re able to facilitate the growth that we’re having in the market.

Marty Parker:
Not to minimize the growth or the challenges associated with it, but when you have more than 20,000 employees in multiple locations and growing, how do you really ensure that you’re able to sustain a strong and consistent culture?

Ashley Cooper:
Yeah, I think that’s the big question, Marty. That’s the most challenging thing. Many of our employees work at offices and buildings owned by other organizations and they work within those organizations. And so, in many cases, some of our customers, many of our customers, want our people to embrace their corporate culture, because maybe security is the first person that they see when they’re at a shopping center or as they enter a building. And they want that person to embody the culture that they have. So, I talked earlier about how we want to work with organizations that think like we do, that there’s a synchronicity of culture and value of people, and value of respect, and these sorts of things. 
And so those things are consistent between the organizations, but we always start in the beginning. We have a lot of pre-training for our people, more than any other firm in the industry. We spend a lot of time upfront with our people to make sure that they not only understand the Paladin culture, but they also understand what it is they need to do, how they need to do it, what the law is, all sorts of other things… And then we have constant communications with them at every level, be it newsletters to discussions with management team, talking about career planning and career growth, all these sorts of things. We try to create as many touch points as we can to work our folks through those things. But at the end of the day, that’s probably the most difficult thing in our business, because we don’t have a factory with 20,000 people that are all in it, and we can all get them together and we can do a town hall meeting or something like that. It’s just not possible.

Marty Parker:
There’s a lot that organization and leaders can learn from someone like you, who’s been through the acquisition process, let’s just say more than a few times. So, with that as a foundation, what’s the one piece of advice you’d have for other leaders when it comes to building or transitioning culture as part of an acquisition?

Ashley Cooper:
Yeah. That’s an interesting one, because you know, what I think you have to appreciate is an acquisition is a scary time for everybody involved. If you’re the acquirer, you think you know what you’re getting, but you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting. You’ve been told certain things by the seller and by the seller’s agent, and you think you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t.  And it’s super scary from the employees’ side.

On the other side, all of the folks that are in the organization… You come into work one day and all of a sudden there’s an announcement. “Geez, our company’s just been bought.” There’s a surge of adrenaline. You’re scared now. How are these people going to be? Is it going to be like, are they going to be nice, are they going to be mean? Do I have a job? What’s our culture going to be like, am I going to have to change everything I do? And so it’s a really concerning time for the individuals.

One of the things that I think is important from our perspective is that we take our time on these things. And I think the very first thing we focus on is the people that are in the organization and the customers. Number one goal, make them all comfortable –  who we are, what we’re about. We’re not going to change the world overnight. I think a lot of people come into acquisitions, and they think that because we’re the acquirer, we know better. We’re smarter, we’re bigger, or whatever we are. And they come in thinking that they should change this acquisition company overnight, and you shouldn’t.

I think the other thing that really you have to think about is you have to come and you have to listen to what they do, and you have to not try to blow the model up overnight. Listen to their model. Because to be honest with you, we’ve in so many cases found tremendous ways to do business, better ways of doing business than we currently do business, in some of the acquisition targets that we’ve worked with. And so, we learn out of every single one of these.

I think that the point is, don’t go in thinking that you know everything. You’ve got to go and you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to hear, and you’ve got to be collaborative. And if you do that, I think you set the tone for a good culture going forward.

And of course, you got to be completely honest and transparent with everybody about what it is you’re trying to do. And if you do that, you develop a strong culture in that organization, but it certainly takes time. You really have to, I would say, get a lot of your folks with the culture in there to infuse it into there, so that they understand what that is. And it takes time.