Nikhil Norula of Vantage Circle: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture


Managers and executives must be aligned with the business goals and truly endorse the shareholders’ vision. It is only then that they can inspire the rest of the workforce.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikhil Norula, Head of Americas & Global Partnerships at Vantage Circle.

Nikhil Norula is a seasoned management professional with 17 years of experience in various aspects of human resources including employee engagement, rewards & recognition, workplace innovation & performance management. He has proven skills in framework design, program management, client success & business development in the enterprise tech industry across North America, the Middle East, South & Southeast Asia. Nikhil currently serves as Head of the Americas and Global Partnerships at Vantage Circle, one of the fastest growing employee engagement companies globally.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Very early in my career, I experienced working with companies that went through financial irregularities, frozen bank accounts, hostile takeovers, and mass lay-offs not once but twice. While I somehow survived all these events, I learned lessons and experienced scenarios in my mid 20’s that most people don’t do all their working careers. These experiences and learning opportunities gave me the confidence to explore the start-up world and entrepreneurship.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think the most interesting and unexpected event that occurred since I began leading Vantage Circle’s business in the Americas was a last-minute decision to attend a conference and trade show in Las Vegas last year. This was an event that we had participated in previously and had no plans to return due to our past experiences. An impulsive thought led me to fly in for this conference for just the last of its 3 days and in the few hours that I roamed the trade show arena I encountered a conversation that led to our largest business deal of the year.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Employee recognition is most commonly associated with a Human Resources function that drives People and Culture objectives. At Vantage Circle, we have developed and are constantly improving a holistic framework that uses the power of recognition to drive sustainability in the workplace. By driving habit changes amongst employees, companies will be able to continuously improve environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics which will, in turn, positively impact the world we live in.

ESG has grown to become a critical CEO priority, with governments in both developed and developing countries mandating ESG reporting as part of compliance needs. At Vantage Circle, we have recognized that sustainability at the workplace needs to be driven by employees themselves and how they behave. Our proprietary framework for driving ESG through recognition will help employees develop desired habits that not only impact sustainability at the workplace but also in people’s homes.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Being the world’s leading economy comes with the price of developing work cultures that are greatly driven by growth and profitability with a lesser focus on enhancing the lives of its workers. Over the years, the disparity in earning levels has been consistently growing and is now at an all-time high owing to radical changes in automation and IT skills. Add to this the impact of the global pandemic, which brought with it the realization of the true value of life. When you sum it all up, the US workforce is questioning the worth of their jobs and the inequality of pay with respect to high-tech jobs. While employee engagement levels have decreased globally, the impact in the US has been far greater compared to countries like Canada where pay disparity is far lower.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Disengagement impacts all three, but it starts with an employee’s health and wellbeing. A drop in employee wellbeing and morale directly impacts the productivity of day-to-day tasks which in turn affects employee performance over a longer period and thus reduces company profitability. Reduced profitability restricts the ability of a company to pay their employees well with bonuses and increments, which again leads to further disengagement, so it’s a vicious cycle. But it’s not possible for companies to just start raising salary levels as a solution. Instead, companies need to inject a blend of employee engagement initiatives that improve the happiness quotient at a lower investment level. Employee recognition programs, for example, can help create a happy ecosystem with lower voluntary attrition while reinforcing high-performance behaviors at less than 1% of their annual payroll. Compare this to the 10–15% of payroll generally spent on annual increments, bonuses, and cost of attrition. Similarly, creating better alignment between personal career goals and organizational objectives, introducing initiatives to improve employee health and wellbeing, offering perks that extend benefits to family members, and giving employees a reasonable voice in defining the company’s progress can go a long way in improving company bottom-line sustainably at a fraction of the cost of increasing salaries.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Managers and executives must be aligned with the business goals and truly endorse the shareholders’ vision. It is only then that they can inspire the rest of the workforce.
  2. Leaders and custodians of policies and practices need to be open to change. Not just listening but having the necessary competencies to drive change in both directions, i.e., top-down as well as bottom-up.
  3. Core values lay the DNA of every company culture, and the managers and executives must walk the walk when it comes to demonstrating the core values in everyday routines. Leading by example will help inspire a greater proportion of the workforce.
  4. Managers and leaders need to truly listen, absorb, and internalize employee ideas and feedback. Then they must show their teams that input was instrumental in orchestrating the change by publicly recognizing them.
  5. Lastly, managers and executives need to find time to talk to their teams. Tell them about their own goals and problems they face in their roles and let the teams align with you, contribute to your goals, and help you solve your problems. Authenticity is the most underrated influencer of positive company culture and managers can greatly impact the company culture by relaying authentic messages to their teams consistently.

At Vantage Circle, both in the Americas team that I lead as well as across the organization, we are committed to doing every action keeping in mind “Being Nice,” “Being Authentic,” and “Being Empathetic” while reinforcing the importance of staying tightly aligned with the company objectives and having a way to decipher how everyone can contribute to its achievement.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Changing the culture regarding work culture will be a long and tiring project, but it’s the simple things that need to be done consistently. As corporate leaders, we must strive to positively impact employee happiness by adopting a holistic employee engagement approach with structured initiatives across employee recognition, workplace wellness, perks & benefits, and career planning. Governing bodies must make employee happiness metrics as important as ESG and financial metrics by publicly mandating their reporting. At the same time, the media can also play an impactful role in proliferating the importance of a happy workplace in society and sharing real stories that can influence others.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I believe I have adopted a leadership style with both hands-on and consultative elements. Being hands-on comes from a strong belief that your team needs to appreciate your knowledge and competency in the sector you operate in. And being consultative comes from a strong belief in you being only as good as your team. When we were a smaller team, I made sure to discuss not only the performance of my team members but also my own and how the company was progressing through informal chats over drinks and meals multiple times a month. With a significantly larger team now my ability to have such interactions this frequently has reduced, but we have introduced more formal platforms like open houses and pulse surveys to maintain the same flow of communication.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

While I haven’t had the privilege of having a long-term professional mentor or life coach throughout my career there have been several people that have, at different stages, influenced my thought process, knowledge, and leadership skills. “Being Nice,” “Being Authentic,” and “Being Empathetic” are values and virtues I have learned from my parents and grandparents. I am also grateful to my ex-cofounder, Vamsi Maddimsetti, from my last venture Peoplecart and more recently, Partha Neog, Cofounder and CEO of our current company Vantage Circle for recognizing my leadership potential and for giving me the license to implement my ideas. While I was always a reasonably lead-by-example and hands-on kind of leader, Partha’s consultative leadership style rubbed on me. Before joining Vantage Circle to lead the Americas business, I co-founded a competitor. Partha recognized the value of my experience by having a very consultative style of interaction with me on issues both within and outside my immediate sphere of influence. The authentic nature of our interactions led to a high level of trust and respect. I now try to pay that forward with my team and I am grateful to him for showing me the path by leading by example.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I hope I have been and can continue inspiring leaders and entrepreneurs to build businesses around trust and authenticity and encourage being nice and empathetic in day-to-day dealings. I have seen quite a few team members follow me through different ventures, and when they’ve said they want to work with me again, that inspires me to continue spreading “Be Nice,” “Be Authentic,” and “Be Empathetic.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I often listen to life lesson quotes and relate them to as-is situations in life. However, there are two that I’m particularly influenced by. The first one comes from the sport of Soccer, which reads, “there’s always stoppage time,” an indication that one can always come back. The second one helps me challenge the status quo and stay creative and read, “what got you here won’t get you there”.

Having started my professional journey slowly compared to my peers, I needed to always have hope and the inclination to innovate. These life lesson quotes have helped me every time I felt I was lagging. These life lesson quotes have also been instrumental in my entrepreneurial ventures and decisions.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Niceness and ambition can co-exist. Bring niceness back to company cultures. Inject niceness into the way we interact with all stakeholders while driving aggressive growth targets. I have a framework that I call the “Be Nice” framework should anyone be interested in injecting this simple and beautiful virtue into their company’s DNA.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!