Noel Pullen helps technology startups scale. He works to drive broad organizational change that improved happiness, productivity, and the bottom line by building memorable cultures, open communication, and a data-driven way of working. Noel has been the Chief Experience Officer (CXO) at Commit – a company with the goal of being the professional network for the world’s best Startup Engineers; he helped Hootsuite‘s technical teams through hyper-growth from 25 to 200 product development team members and helped kickstart revenue tripling the customer base at SEDNA Systems in just over two years.
How do you define culture at the highest level?
One definition that I like is: all the things that happen in the space in between people.
How does that definition change when we are talking about an organization?
I always think about it from the perspective of a group of people. An organization or company is a vessel that contains people.
If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like cost what are the first three things that come to mind for you?
Using the example of founding a company, the first step would be to articulate what we believe because that informs the things we value, which informs the way we behave and that informs our culture.
Money can often answer the perks side of things, but how can we bring everyone together and fly them all to the same place or invest in good chairs? A lack of financial incentives can be overlooked if you have a great place to work.
When you think of poor organizational culture what are the first three things that come to mind?
- Lack of mutual respect
- Lack of a common purpose and lack of communication of that purpose/vision
- Lack of charitable assumption. Not believing that people are doing the best they can with the info they have.
Sometimes organizational culture isn’t a good fit between employees and companies. What advice would you give others to help them figure that out for themselves?
Learn passively from the marketing material and public face but that’s a very one-dimensional view. Even better is to speak with existing employees, to people. The best thing you can do is spend some time working there to understand if it resonates with you. Often if you want to short-circuit that without spending time working there. You can ask for examples or stories that reflect the companies values and/or believes, for instance, when the company kept its character in a very difficult time. It can be when the organization had to make a challenging decision, or they were stuck to their principles when it was easy to act differently.
Recently two companies (Coinbase and Basecamp) made public announcements regarding their desire and initiative to not weigh in political and sensitive topics. This is being seen from two extremes as either a smart move or a cowardly move.
How do you think organizations can navigate the increasingly challenging world where taking a side on an issue may alienate the opposing group? How do you see these moves by these organizations?
Part of this has to do with how you are brought up. Is your family the kind of place where politics is welcome at the dinner table or not? I admire organizations and people that speak out and have an opinion on something because it takes courage to put it out there and face criticism. It’s easy to have an opinion about everything but much harder to have an informed opinion about things such as world events.
I want to say that I’d take the courageous approach… I think it’s better to have an opinion and share it than not have one. For instance, I think of comments that are said to pro athletes to just do their job and play. It minimizes their potential contribution to the world. If you have a platform to speak, why not?
Additionally, it’s important to recognize that you are not or may not be an expert on the things that you give your opinion about, and that you are open to other perspectives.
Tell us about a time when you were able to create and build culture successfully? What was the hardest part of it?
It takes time to build a gravity around initiatives to enroll people in the future, or the gap that you see. It takes a lot of emotional capital and relationship capital. It is also important to do it for a reason that isn’t self-serving. If you are trying to affect change to benefit only you or for your resume, people will see through it and you won’t get the same uptake. You must believe in what you are doing because the journey to get from nothing to something is hard and takes time. Ask any entrepreneur. They have a strong faith and there is a clearly articulated why they keep going, even facing bankruptcy or loss of staff or challenging market conditions. It is kind of the same with any endeavor, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of effort it takes to overcome great change.
What are the best things you do to translate the organizational vision for your team?
I try and understand it. Do I get it enough that I can repeat and explain it to someone else? If I don’t have that level of clarity, I am sure that no one else will either. I am always grateful when I am in a meeting with several people (and I am thinking I don’t get it) and someone raises their hand and says they don’t get it. There is no harm in asking a lot of questions to get the clarity, to understand. The person getting the questions should see the value in the questions and the opportunity to improve them. If you want it to spread, you must make it a simple, short and compelling statement.
When have you been you surprised by a culture initiative's success? This can be something your organization has done or something that an outside company has done.
Whenever something I am championing is successful, I am always so grateful. I see something as a success when it permeates beyond me. I am blown away with any cultural change that people are driving due to the resilience and hard work it requires.
How does developing culture differ with technical employees? What must leaders be conscious of to be successful in developing technical team culture?
Good engineers, for example, are skeptical by nature, so you must be.
You must be authentic and up front with your intentions and communicate them. Focus on what’s in it for them, not for yourself. Remember you are doing this for your customer. You are doing this to help the other.
It’s a lesson I learned leading at Hootsuite and going to SEDNA. This is where I took a lot of lessons, from the endeavors and initiatives that we did at Hootsuite.
Compare and contrast the tech startup to a more traditional company. Does culture work differently?
I’ve only worked at technical startups, Mavrick, ESS in the UK and Reinvent and Hootsuite and all, they are all technical web startups. But in 2011, I walked into my e-MBA class in flip flops, shorts, and a t-shirt and I was asked if I was coming back from vacation. Everyone else was wearing suits. I explained to them that I was wearing what I wear every day at work.
Even now, because of this pandemic, when it has accelerated our willingness to work from home, it has accelerated our tolerance of those interruptions. The startup culture and the enterprise culture has come closer.
What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn as a leader? What sticks with you the most.
Repetition is an undervalued unheard rule of leadership. If you’ve got an initiative or are working to make change you’ve got to repeat those endlessly. You only know you’ve had success when you see someone else referencing them.
Another one was to not become the intermediary between two people in a conflict setting when you are a stakeholder. It’s about helping people solve their problems not solving them for them.
What have been the most effective things you’ve done for culture as we’ve shifted to more remote work?
Connecting with people in a more casual way and going for random coffees to focus on creating relationships. Having an open office lunch hour and just inviting people to join me. It’s possible to connect remotely but it just takes more effort and being creative.
Another very effective thing is working more asynchronously. Re-organizing the order in which tasks are executed to fine-tune and execute tasks efficiently.