Noura Panaritis is the senior director, enterprise business applications + data management at J.D. Power. Noura recently participated in a Chicago TechDebate, where the panel discussed the shaping of technology-team culture. I had the privilege to talk with Noura for a few minutes after the debate to further discuss this critical topic.
Have you experienced a particularly positive organizational culture either as a customer or as an employee?
NOURA: I definitely have, and as both an employee and a customer, I look for companies that promote a culture that aligns with my own beliefs and values.
Zappos is a great example of a company that excels at promoting a designed culture. They are legendary for both their internal culture and their culture of customer service, and as a Zappos customer, you feel this commitment. Warby Parker is another example of a company that consistently utilizes its mission to strengthen emotional connections with both employees and customers.
From my own career, my first role after an extended maternity leave stands out in my mind. I was returning to my career after a four-year break. It was my first role working remotely and my first time working for a technology company, and the company was based in Canada rather than the United States.
Additionally, as is so often the case with technology companies, at least half of the team worked remotely. However, they did an excellent job of building and promoting a positive culture across the company despite the broad distribution of our team.
The sharing of culture started with onboarding. Immediately after starting, they brought employees to headquarters in Canada to meet the team and get acclimated to the company. Also, when we had team meetings, everyone was on webcam so that we experienced that important face-to-face connection. We also had regular retreats with the team.
How can organizations create the culture they desire?
NOURA: Core values are often underutilized tools. They become underutilized when they are simply featured on a plaque hanging on a reception room wall or when they are only included on a company website. An organization must set values collectively and authentically and then make them committable for the long term. When I think of this concept, my mind goes to Simon Sinek’s work and his illustration of the Golden Circle. He said, “Inspired leaders and the inspired organizations, regardless of their size or industry, all think, act, and communicate from the inside out.”
When leaders communicate from the inside out and foster core values, they’re tapping into our intrinsic biology of motivation. One of Sinek’s famous sayings is, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This holds true not only for customers but for our shareholders and employees.
Going back to the question of whether creating and fostering core values is important, I believe the answer is most definitely yes.
Too often I hear company leaders claiming that expending resources to build company culture is not going to help their bottom-line profitability. I disagree. If you want to optimize your company’s performance, driving culture through intrinsic motivators, like meaningful roles with learning and growth, is a great way to do that. When you are committed to fostering this kind of environment, team members will support the company’s bottom line because their output is going to match the company’s leadership values.
I recently read an article that shared some comments from Zappos’s CEO. He said you must create a collective community mission. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a mission-driven company like Warby Parker, which gives away glasses, or Tom’s, which gives shoes to people in need, but you must create a purpose that people want to align around. Employees want to know that their leaders and company believe in something bigger and have an overarching mission to make the world, somehow, a better place.
J.D. Power is a great example. We’re not a mission-driven company per se, but we make the world a better place by allowing the voices of customers to be heard. This is a big and important mission that people want to connect with.
Hiring for culture is critical, but would you agree that defining the cultural traits you’re hiring for is critical?
NOURA: Absolutely. Before you can hire for culture, you have to figure out what you want to be known for. What you will be known for is not the widget you’re producing, and it’s not the service you are selling.
After going through this exercise, the foundational elements of how you hire employees, promote and develop your products and services, and communicate with your customers will fall into place. The biggest inhibitor to the development of positive company culture is when the company’s actions and behaviors are incongruent with the desired culture and stated values.
What are your thoughts on culture creation within smaller organizations?
NOURA: Sustaining culture is a challenge in every organization, but I think it’s particularly challenging for small companies when they are in periods of rapid growth. The Canadian technology company I worked for was about four or five years old at the time. It was at a tipping point and looking to grow quite a lot. What I learned there, and what I’ve continued to witness in other companies, is the vital need to get back to those core values again and again. Incorporating the culture, driven by core values, into the everyday experiences of both employees and customers is what allows culture to thrive, especially through periods of rapid change and growth.
What are some of the unique characteristics of technology team culture?
NOURA: I don’t think there is much cultural uniqueness to technology teams. Ultimately, we’re still inherently people with the emotions all people have. But, what I think is inherent to today’s technology teams, and other functions, for that matter, is much more career mobility than there used to be. People don’t stay in the same jobs as they used to. We need to learn how to embrace this movement. We can learn to leverage what new team members have learned from other organizations, and they can bring the best aspects of those organizations’ cultures to their new positions.
Have you ever experienced a negative culture creeping into an organization?
NOURA: I once worked for an organization where we had a great culture to start, but then we were bought by another company, and the culture started to deteriorate. This is a difficult situation to manage, but as a result of this experience, I’ve learned culture hacking tools. Culture hacking involves finding little things you can do every day to create positive, iterative changes. They might sound like meaningless, small efforts against a big problem, but over time these small efforts help significantly.
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