Sherry Nooravi: An Engaging, Powerful Culture Begins with You

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Sherry Nooravi, PsyD.

Dr. Sherry Nooravi is an organizational psychologist and CEO of Strategy Meets Performance, Inc., a leadership consulting firm that partners with leaders of Fortune 500 companies to help create engaging, innovative and productive workplace cultures. She uses her expertise in learning and development, change management, team-building and executive coaching to connect strategy and performance in multi-cultural and international settings.

She is passionate about helping talented leaders tap into their true potential and best selves through executive coaching, training and public speaking. Dr. Nooravi has been recognized as a Woman to Watch in 2019, Citizen of the Year, Trailblazer of the Year and Voice to Listen to for her leadership research, community activism and fundraising capabilities. Sherry’s passion for education and global literacy compels her to help fundraise to send children to school in developing countries like India, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia (Room to Read).

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in Chicago to first generation parents who had moved to the U.S. to start a new life and earn their Bachelor’s degrees. They instilled in me and my two brothers the immigrant work ethic that I honor and appreciate so much. It’s humbling how people can emigrate to a new country, learn the language and create thriving lives and families. They also instilled in us a deep appreciation for our beautiful heritage, which is a big part of my identity. Though there have been periods of time when Iranian-Americans have received bad press and have been treated unfairly, my father always told me to be proud and when asked about my cultural background to say “I’m Iranian-American” rather than hide. It was not always easy, but it also formed my character and viewpoint.

Both of my parents were entrepreneurs and business owners and from that I learned that if you become adept in your craft, you will have something valuable to offer your clients. My father, Farhad (who is no longer with us and blessed many with his being) had a construction company where he built commercial buildings in downtown Los Angeles. My mother had a Farsi language school for many years — I had no choice but to also learn how to also read and write Farsi — every Friday for five years! She later became a clinical psychologist so I have had the opportunity to see both parents evolve and grow in their professions, serve and make a difference for so many people. Growing up, I recall my parents attending self-development workshops and reading books focused on self-growth. I learned to be curious from their actions, as much as their words. The best way to evolve and increase our wisdom through life is by being open and continually seeking knowledge.

Has there been a particular person, place or event that you count among your key influences to date?

I feel fortunate to say that my parents were great influencers in my life. From my father, I learned integrity, the importance of giving the best service to clients, and humility. From my mother, I learned the art of building relationships, being kind to others and taking risks. I’ve also had great mentors and professors along my path who encouraged my growth. I think we can learn something from everyone. My best friends and advisors are from different cultures and ages … from my 85-year-old mentor to my teen niece and nephew. Kids and young adults have a unique wisdom and perspective and will usually tell you the truth.

How can business leaders create productive, engaged and high-energy organizations?

Leaders have much more power than they realize to better manage change and fix the things they don’t like about employee behavior and their workplace environment. It’s about being clear on the right behaviors and values and making sure to reward the actions you value and not ignore the actions you don’t like. Not acting is also a choice and sends a message that it’s okay. Employees are watching your behaviors and they want you to win. They crave for you to “walk the talk” and follow through and role model what you believe to be important. What you focus on will grow, so if you focus on creating clear, challenging goals while providing coaching and a supportive environment, you will engage people. It’s not about creating satisfaction, it’s about creating engagement where people go beyond satisfaction toward stretching their abilities to help the company grow.

How can organizations improve employee engagement?

Employee engagement is defined as the discretionary effort an employee gives above and beyond his or her responsibilities. Gallup organization has consistently found that about one-third of employees are engaged, 50% are disengaged and doing just enough to get by and 20% are actively disengaged. A leader should consider his/her actions in the following areas:

· Accountability. Make sure your team members understand what is expected of them and support them in this work as well as in their career development. Find out what drives each person, where his/her strengths lie and where the person wants to grow. Today’s generation appreciates regular feedback so make sure you are giving that.

· Transparency. Be transparent and communicate the company’s vision, strategy, challenges and goals.

· Create a Coaching Culture. If you create a coaching culture, people will feel open to giving you feedback. They will not fear repercussions. A coaching culture has several elements:

*Leaders know how to ask development questions

*Leaders role model the right behaviors (based on values)

*Leaders create a continuous improvement environment

*Employees give each other feedback

*Managers openly seek feedback and conduct “stay” interviews where they learn what makes the team member stay with the company

*Leaders are held accountable for and rewarded for coaching and growing leaders

· Manage Change. When you have changes, don’t just mandate them in a memo. Seek input from your staff, explain the rationale for the change and manage the change in steps (See the WALK IT® model below). Having townhalls and webinars where people have an opportunity to understand what you are doing will do wonders for creating lasting change. Make sure key people are trained in the new way of doing this.

· Create Energy. Create an energizing environment that is equal parts professional and fun.

· Innovate. Ask people who are doing the job how it can be done better, faster, more creatively. It will engage your staff and will improve your company.

· Give back. This generation appreciates and expects their companies to give back. Support non-profit organizations, both company-wide and through what your staff recommends.

· Reward Behaviors. Give rewards and incentives for high performance, innovation, following company values and other behaviors you value.

Could you define organizational culture? Why do CEOs, CFOs, and senior leaders take culture seriously and invest time and resources to it?

Organizational culture in the simplest terms can be seen as “how things are done around here.” It includes how the leaders shape the environment with their decisions, reactions to stress, how they treat customers and how inclusive they are with the diversity of their staff. As a leader, you can create a culture that is specific to who you are, who your clients are and what your values are.

There is a substantial amount of research demonstrating that having an engaging culture impacts the bottom line. I have also seen this from my own research on the best practices of CEOs of fast-growth companies. Having an engaging culture is also intuitive. If you provide an environment where people are set up to do their best work (with some of the points above), and they are supported, it will increase their likelihood of giving their full efforts. In a recent study of 95 car dealerships[1], researchers found that overall, department culture was found to consistently predict higher subsequent levels of customer satisfaction ratings and vehicle sales. Put simply, an engaged culture marked by high levels of involvement, consistency, adaptability, and a transparent mission improves sales and customer satisfaction.

Though it may appear that companies with ping pong tables, fridges stocked with beer and comfy couches are an ideal sort of culture, that is just one type. You can create a culture that values health by having fresh healthy food and bringing in yoga instructors during lunch or after hours. You can create a culture where people join book clubs and discuss management books together. You can create a culture that is inclusive to different cultures and have people teach one another about their cultures through food, lectures and discussions. When possible, you can create flexible schedules so people can work at different times, so they can tend to other areas of their lives like being parents or pursuing their interests. A simple way to show you believe in being inclusive can be to have a prayer or meditation room.

These are ways to help your staff feel at home, included and energized. When employees love their workplace, it is less tempting to go elsewhere because they don’t know how their lives will be affected. CEOs, CFOs and senior leader should invest time and resources to tending to company culture because:

  • Culture is highly valued, often more frequently than compensation
  • Employees will stay longer and be more productive
  • You will save money in recruiting and training costs
  • You will attract talent to your company

How can the WALK IT® model for building organizational culture grow teams and transform leaders?

I developed the WALK IT® model from my experience helping leaders drive change. Following the steps in this model will engage your people as you drive your company toward success, which will and should include the adaptability for change. What it requires from you is openness, humility and consistency. Just like a farmer needs to start fresh daily and tend to the crop, a CEO must start fresh and tend to his/her team and culture every day.

Walk the Talk: When you commit to something, follow through with it.

Align your Senior Team: Create an environment where all your leaders feel free to speak up and challenge the status quo in a safe and supportive environment.

Look at your Culture: Constantly scan your culture by speaking with your people, giving surveys and having open forums where people can speak up, especially during times of change.

Know your Plan: Be clear on your company vision and strategy and ensure that every employee knows the company’s direction and goals.

Integrate your Values: If your strategy is the “what,” the values are your “how.” Review your values every few years to ensure they are aligned with where the company is going and what behaviors you need from everyone.

Track Everything: Just as you track profitability, track everything from your talent (how you are recruiting,coaching and promoting staff) to how well you are managing your culture. If you create a coaching environment, your employees will tell you everything you need to know.

How can business owners become innovative?

It’s simpler than one would think. Innovation can mean different things based on your industry, company size and tolerance for risk. It involves seeking ideas from your staff and actually rewarding them when they take risk, or at least not punishing them…which teaches everyone to avoid risk. You can start by sharing a challenge with a diverse group of employees (from different departments and levels) and facilitating a brainstorm session. Some companies have success with ideas contests. You can make it fun and have different categories including Out of the Box, Systems Improvement and Didn’t Think of That! Give rewards for the ideas that you use and acknowledge the others. When I interviewed San Diego’s Most Admired CEOs, I found the following four themes in how they drive innovation:

(1) They hire for creativity

(2) They create open forums for discussing new ideas

(3) They walk the talk and leaders continually come up with new plans

(4) They stay connected with the community and seek input from customers and stakeholders

You can also incorporate these practices:

· Encourage your people to go to conference and conventions and report back on what is new, different and on the horizon

· Have trade journals available

· Have cross-functional teams review challenges together, whether it is a workflow issue or a larger opportunity

· Share articles with your team and discuss them at meetings

· Have leaders of departments share their perspective and make time for questions, answers and ideas

Your clients have said your team-building skills have transformed the communication and teamwork of their staff in ways they could not have imagined. Can you share with us your advice and tips?

Company leaders will guide a company most powerfully when they are aligned on their vision and strategy, moving in the same direction and giving the same answers to staff. Sometimes, this necessary dynamic gets disrupted by a departure of a member or the joining of a new member or by changes in the company. This is a great time to realign the team.

The leaders can also get off track if there is a dynamic that is too contentious and aggressive or one of “false harmony,” where everyone seems to agree to maintain the harmony, but in reality the members are not being self-expressed…causing lack of alignment because the truth is not being uncovered in an authentic, conciliatory manner. When I work with senior teams, I help each member learn his or her communication and leadership style (how direct they are, how they react to stress, how structured they are, etc.) and that of others. That helps dispel judgements they have had about one another. They also learn how to increase their emotional intelligence, which involves managing their emotions, understanding others and building relationships. Last, I help the members align their strategy, vision and values so they are operating from the same “playbook” and agreeing on how they will do it.

You have a talk “You Can Have it All: How to Create and Enact a Vision for the Life you Want.” Can you share with us your insights?

“There is one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: The fear of failure,” Paolo Coelho.

We often go through life, working hard, fulfilling our family and work responsibilities, often being overly connected to technology and in the process, not making time to reflect on the life we have and the life we want. There are several ways for becoming “still” so you can reflect on your life. One is through understanding mindfulness, the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.[2] When you are in this state, you are living in the moment, not stressing about the past and not anxious about the future. I share different ways for getting centered which include guided meditation, music, focusing on nature, reading, journaling what you are grateful for and so forth. I also share techniques for deep listening and connecting with others.

It is important to also take note of your successes and contemplate what more you want in your life. When you take the time to journal, research and dream, you can construct a new potential reality for your life, whether it is realizing you want to start a new sport, spend more time with your family, update a skill or start a new venture. People often have a little nagging feeling telling them they can do more and be more. It’s about listening to this intuition, taking a risk and going for it. There are many would-be entrepreneurs who listen to their negative self-talk and sabotage their potential because of fear.

Taking time to reflect and identify what you want is an important step toward change. If you have a coach who asks you the right questions, you can take a step back, reflect and see new possibilities. When you think about what you do want, versus what you don’t want, you begin to rewire your brain to seek the positive and to attract it to your life.

1. Boyce, A.S., Nieminen, L.R., Gillespie, M.A., Ryan, A. & Denison, D.R. 2015. Which comes first, organizational culture or performance? A longitudinal study of causal priority with automobile dealerships. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

2. What is Mindfulness? Mindful, Oct 8, 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/