Leaders are cultural carriers. Develop them and you can achieve an outsized impact on the day-to-day actions that shape your culture. As Rodolphe Durand and Ioannis Ioannou write in their article for the Harvard Business Review, “In a purpose-driven culture, leaders have a key responsibility: They must clearly communicate and authentically embody the company’s purpose and values.”
For a prime example of this ripple effect, I met with the Chief People Officer (CPO) of Symphony Courtney Panik.
Symphony is a communications platform for financial services. The company offers features and product solutions such as chat, file sharing, video calls, markets, voice and video data, analytics, and business intelligence. Symphony was actually created by the industry for the industry. All of Symphony’s investors are top banking institutions worldwide who chose to collaborate to create this common platform. They currently have 500 employees.
What Culture Looks Like at Symphony
As a ten-year-old company, Symphony is actively shifting from startup mode to scale-up mode. “We spend a lot of time upfront building the foundational blocks that allow us to scale and build upward,” Panik said.
Asked how she would describe Symphony culture, Panik shared the most common responses that frequently appeared on the company’s annual engagement survey: “Our employees overwhelmingly describe our culture as inclusive, open, supportive, passionate, and possessing a sense of community.” Panik pointed out that many of these words are also company values.
How Symphony Scales Its Culture from Start-up to Scale-up
As Symphony made this shift from start-up to scale-up, Panik and her team took a close look at what they needed on a cultural level. “We reviewed how we were structured, how we communicate with each other, and what was needed,” she explained. “We needed to move fast and be flexible. We needed and wanted to be transparent with our employees.” Then, they started to implement formal and informal initiatives to accomplish those needs. Here are a few examples:
- Communication: Panik and her team ensured that the organizational structure was flat to allow communication to flow. “We have an open-door policy, so everyone from an intern to the most senior person has access to each other, including our chief executive officer (CEO), Brad Levy,” she explained.
- Transparency: Panik and her team entrust employees firm-wide with important information. “We trust our employees with our financial information, competitive data, and strategy,” Panik said.
- Community: To foster a sense of community, Panik and her team have spent a lot of time putting together employee resource groups and partnering with community and external organizations. “We partner with Urban Synergy in London, Women in Banking and Finance, Coding Black Females, and more. We set up joint events to provide mentorship, career advancement, and exposure to professional settings. It has become a mutually rewarding relationship and a considerable aspect of culture within Symphony because not only do the participants of these organizations get access, coaching, and this experience, but our employees also get the opportunity to volunteer, share their knowledge, and be a part of the community.”
Panik Thinks of People Managers as “Culture Carriers”
“People managers are culture carriers. They are driving the majority of the work being performed at Symphony and interacting with more employees at scale and more frequently than more senior leaders,” Panik emphasized. “They really do set the tone.”
When it comes to developing leaders, Panik shared what she referred to as her “secret weapon.” “If you're a manager of managers, it’s expected that you co-facilitate with other leaders and managers on development topics. When you see your leader sharing advice, it amplifies the impact and creates a more conducive environment for learning,” she highlighted. “As a small company, we don't have one resource dedicated to learning and development. This area is spread between me and another person. But if we're able to partner with really successful people managers and leaders on these topics, they can help carry some of the load and share their experience and advice. That goes a lot further than human resources (HR) doing it alone.”
Panik’s Advice for CPOs: Distribute the Risk
Panik’s top piece of advice for a CPO is to “distribute the risk.” She remarked, “If somebody comes to you with a problem, you don't have to solve it alone. Tell your manager, tell the legal department, or talk about it with the leadership team. Bring other people in and solve that challenge with them. In the past, when I had to make a recommendation or come up with a solution, I would toil over it unnecessarily when I could have just sought support a lot earlier and reached a conclusion much faster.”