Does Company Culture Stay the Same After an IPO?

Kimberly Lanier, Director Business Performance Improvement
Carole Andrew, Senior Manager Business Performance Improvement

Over the past few months, we have been discussing initial public offerings (IPOs) and company culture. Specifically, we have looked at how organizations can best manage the change in culture when preparing for an IPO (or a de-SPAC transaction that also takes a company from private to public) and the importance of incorporating a people strategy as part of the transformation.

When evolving from an entrepreneurial-driven private entity to one with more structured operations, companies must balance two opposing forces. On the one hand, organizations want to preserve their heritage by identifying values that make them special, appeal to customers and differentiate them from competitors. At the same time, they need to recognize that while scrappy solutions and risk-taking have driven growth and have ultimately forged the company into an IPO candidate, those same upstart behaviors will not necessarily advance the interests of the company or its stakeholders after it becomes public and has to operate under a different set of conditions.

Even as companies strive to maintain their heritage in a post-IPO world, we believe the following eight behaviors must evolve as organizations begin to operate under a microscope.

Process Discipline

This is one of the biggest and most time-consuming changes that organizations will undertake. Processes at private companies can lack structure and sophistication. While that can breed frustration and even dysfunction, it tends to become the norm. In a post-IPO environment, companies must ensure that processes are defined, documented and available to all relevant parties. Processes also need to be standardized to become repeatable and more efficient, and maintenance plans should be implemented to foster continuous improvement and updates. In many cases, leaders must force themselves to take this critical step because they would rather focus on other activities, like sales or product development.

Scalability

Operating as a public company means possessing the right levels of process, technology and automation to help emphasize and fuel growth. But organizations should accept the fact that achieving this state will likely require a capital investment, and rather than taking a Band-Aid or workaround approach, they need to think strategically for the long term: What do technology-enabled functions look like today, tomorrow and two years from now? And is the technology designed to support the function over time?

Risk Management

The growth and success of private startups are often associated with the ability to take risks. But public companies need to closely identify, monitor and manage risks to avoid unpleasant circumstances that could drive down share prices or affect profits. Ensuring that effective cybersecurity protocols are in place, appropriately governing financial assets and inventory, timely and accurate reporting of financial results (including providing guidance and other material information), and meeting customer demands and expectations are just a few areas of potential risk that need to be addressed.

Stakeholder Engagement

Entrepreneurially driven organizations that once focused on pleasing a small number of investors and customers must broaden their scope. Important stakeholders in public companies include employees, an expanded senior leadership team, a board of directors, shareholders, customers, analysts, vendors and regulators. While regulations limit what managers, executives or insiders can disclose during certain periods, organizations are expected to maintain constant, clear and sophisticated communication with these stakeholders.

Experience Management

Companies in the public realm need to pay particular attention to delivering the best experience at all levels of operation. From adopting hiring and onboarding procedures that attract top talent to building customer loyalty through products and digital platforms, companies must engineer experiences that lead to strong, positive feelings and an affinity for the brand.

Digital Mindset

Public firms typically need real-time data that can be quickly accessed to facilitate decision-making and action — no longer can they get by with only Excel spreadsheets or rudimentary enterprise resource planning solutions. Extracting maximum value from technology requires companies to incorporate data analysis, cloud systems, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic learning, automation and even social media into everyday routines. For many organizations, this means investing in and upscaling technology to integrate operations, customer experience and financial reporting.

Sustainability

Investors, regulators and customers are increasingly pressuring organizations to adopt environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. Although some newly minted public companies may already enumerate ESG principles and goals, they should anticipate providing a more mature and higher level of transparency to explain what exactly constitutes their ESG strategy. That’s particularly true since the Securities and Exchange Commission recently proposed expanding and enhancing ESG disclosure requirements and brought its first ESG-related enforcement action.

Resilience

The more resilient and flexible a company is — especially as its operating environment becomes increasingly complex — the better its employees will be prepared to navigate rapidly changing business climates that bring new ideas, processes or products.

How to Navigate Change

Today’s business environment is constantly creating the need for change across multiple dimensions, so it is important for organizations to properly manage their transformation into a full-fledged public company. Here are a few thoughts on change-management best practices:

  • IPOs — and any merger and acquisition activity — require organizations to reassess their company’s purpose, mission, vision and values.
  • Executive leadership can facilitate the IPO transition by communicating in a more formal and scripted way.
  • Communications with various functions throughout the company should be frequent and transparent and aligned to the company’s purpose, mission, vision and values.
  • Similarly, key messages should be appropriately tailored for each department and repeated to foster greater understanding as they cascade down the organizational hierarchy.
  • Company growth and maturity will likely create the need for new skills and will present opportunities to develop a more talented workforce through new hires and upskilling existing employees.
  • Recognizing and rewarding role models who are engaging in the kind of public company behaviors that the organization wants to see repeated will help reinforce and encourage change.

Making the Transition to a Post-IPO World

Moving from a private arena to operating in a public environment challenges organizations in numerous ways. Employees accustomed to taking risks and other self-directed behaviors must adhere to more structured and rules-driven roles. Transitioning to that new mode requires companies to assess their cultures and make changes to behaviors that will help employees excel while preserving the traits that are essential to the company’s mission and values. Those that successfully navigate these often choppy waters will enhance their ability to build a thriving business amid the demands of shareholders, employees, regulators and other public market stakeholders.

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