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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the Technology Alliance luncheon
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at the Technology Alliance luncheon

Guest Commentary: During the recent Technology Alliance luncheon, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella shared stories about his rise within the company and his view about its future. The biggest takeaway for me was his focus on the central importance of company culture as an inherent driver of innovation and performance. He posited that without a vibrant and curious culture a company cannot maintain its competitive edge or thrive amidst rapidly changing waves of disruption.

His acute focus on Microsoft’s culture – its people and the work environment – got me thinking. What lives at the core of a company’s culture? What drives culture and brings it to life? And how do tech companies in Seattle, where competition to recruit and retain talent is a major pain point, view the importance of culture?

My 20 years at the helm of the Technology Alliance taught me many things, including that Seattle is full of smart people willing to share their points of view—particularly if the conversation might improve both their businesses and the broader community. Over a lunch convened by APCO Worldwide, a group of technology leaders assembled to collectively explore company culture. Several leaders of Seattle’s most interesting companies joined, including Zillow, Picmonkey, Moz, Pixvana, Arivale, 1Energy, Madrona Ventures, Apex Learning and Metajure.

From the start, we agreed a great company culture is an equal-for-all invitation to participate and perform well at work. Tech companies can get sidetracked thinking that ping pong tables and beer on Thursdays define a successful culture. The assembled tech leaders, however, made it clear that the companies most effective at creating a positive environment combine healthy doses of challenge with authentic employee support. They are the ones that engender true loyalty. Simply put, it’s the companies who focus effectively on the human side of the business who win in the long run.

Constant innovation and individual performance are critical but a company’s absolute potential can only be reached if its employees believe in and live the mission. So how does that happen? What characteristics define a culture that invites employees to fully participate? Here are some thoughts, gleaned from the minds of tech pioneers who deal with this issue on a daily basis.

• It’s an evolution. Culture is not the same as company values. While cultures can – and should – evolve as circumstances change, company values remain constant. As Nadella described, fine-tuning Microsoft’s employee ethos was intentional – a deliberate effort to remain nimble as technology shifts occur globally.

• Not one-size-fits-all. It’s the nature of diversity that no one company culture will resonate the same way with all employees. And that’s perfectly fine – a company’s particular style is not meant to be a perfect fit for everyone. However, fostering a welcoming culture that can be embraced in multiple ways by many different types of people leads to stronger teams and better performance.

• Starts with individuals. Each person needs the impetus and motivation to perform at his or her best in order to create great teams. People are a company’s most precious asset, so empowering each person with a vision of how to personally grow incentivizes them to reach their potential, making the overall group more productive.

• Credibility. Too often, the idea of culture is merely a statement posted on a wall. Without true buy-in from leadership – acting as champions of a company’s values – culture falls apart. Culture must be authentic, and it must be lived by the leaders. The rules of engagement need to apply to everyone.

• Embrace curiosity. For tech companies, it’s all about encouraging curiosity and evolving the best ideas into market solutions. That is the competitive edge. And culture can either stifle the imagination or accelerate it. Companies that nurture an environment where each employee is an engine for innovation – working from the bottom up – create cultures that inspire and invite fresh thinking and who have the ability to remain on top.

The technology industry is insanely competitive. At break-neck speeds, Seattle companies are competing in a global race with ever-shorter innovation cycles. The notion of ‘innovate or die’ plays heavily into daily operations. With this kind of pressure, it’s tempting to simply pay lip service to incubating a healthy culture while actually living in a way that fosters burnout and leaves a company open to being poached for its best talent.

Seattle’s identity as a global innovation hub relies on our ability to sustain a collective culture that attracts and retains the kind of talent who can work anywhere on earth. Company leaders need to ask: What am I doing to build an environment that invites each employee to participate in my company’s success? And believe me, your neighboring CEO is asking this question each and every day and acting accordingly.

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