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An Inside Look at Elaina Shekhter’s Leadership Philosophy

Elaina Shekhter, EPAM’s CMO & Head of Strategy, was recently named one of The Software Report’s 2019 list of Top 25 Women Leaders in Tech Services and Consulting. These leaders were recognized for their exceptional work and deep expertise in the field of technology as well as their rapid progression to the senior-most levels within their organizations. We sat down with Elaina to discuss her leadership philosophy as well as how company culture impacts the workforce. Here’s what she had to say…

How do you personally work to foster better balance, a more equitable environment, where all employees feel safe to be creative and push boundaries?

It’s about ensuring that everybody understands and is on board with what we’re doing and why we are doing it. We’ve spoken a lot before about having an EPAM purpose that is bigger than just revenue or profit. For us, results are customer outcomes, and it’s really important that we try to convey what the company stands for. Marketing is a rather new organization for EPAM and really represents the ‘hybrid’ teams we speak of; so it’s even more important to have a clear mission and objectives. Beyond that, I try to connect people to each other and delegate as much of the decision making and the creative energy to the leaders within our organization. Ultimately, I work with our business leaders to create the vision for the work that we’re doing and then encourage teams to drive the vision into completion with their respective leadership. My responsibility is to make sure our leaders are the very best leaders we can possibly find, and to keep asking the questions, “Can we do something differently to make sure that these projects we’re all working on have a purpose and meaningful contributions from everybody on those teams?” and “What support should I be giving to the teams to bring out their very best?”

In such a fast paced, competitive industry how can leaders enable their employees to succeed?

I think that everyone has a path that we choose to follow, and our success is determined by a combination of our circumstances and our own efforts, our intellectual curiosity and desire to do something important. Leaders should be able to create a compelling vision and help employees understand the strategy. Enabling employees to succeed takes a combination of the right people, the right training and the right goals, supported by a variety of resources and tools that a company can provide to make things happen. This is one of the reasons that EPAM invests such a huge amount of time and resources into building platforms and teams that support our employees’ learning and growth ambitions. I think what you find in unsuccessful organizations is the reverse – there is no vision, not much of a strategy or support for growth, and leaders micromanage their employees toward some undefined objective.

What do you think are the most important elements of company culture?

We’re often asked questions about how to describe EPAM’s culture. Because we are a founder-led organization still, with a relatively long-standing group of senior leaders that have been with the company for many years, we retain a lot of the original entrepreneurial spirit. I think this is an attribute of the culture. Ultimately, however, culture in an organization is the answer to the question, “How do people get things done?” Some are hierarchical ‘command control’ organizations with orders coming from the top and groups of people responsible for managing the orders and the outcomes; some are more siloed with every leader claiming their own ‘turf;’ and others still are new community-driven cultures in which all decisions and actions are built on consensus making.

EPAM’s culture is evolving to accommodate new types of people, backgrounds and skills – we are adding consulting and design to our mix as an integration imperative. Inevitably, we will have to change the ways that we are doing things to bring a more collaborative, more networked, but still customer results-oriented way of doing things together.

I also think that purpose is an important element of company culture because how things get done is driven by why we are doing them. At EPAM, our purpose is a huge part of why people come to work every day, and while our missions change regularly, our purpose has been consistent for over 25 years. It’s easy to say that every company needs a purpose, but if the purpose isn’t part of the culture, then it doesn’t really work. So when you look at the mission statements of dying companies, and you know just from working with that company or interacting with it as a consumer that no one in the company pays any attention to their stated purpose or mission, it’s no wonder that the company is dying.

With regards to EPAM, how do these qualities fit into your vision for our company culture?

I would like to think that we satisfy each of the elements I’ve mentioned along with a few other attributes that make us unique. If I had to explain how we embody them in a singular vision, I’d say it’s very much embodied in our growth culture. We’ve been growing really fast for many years – building a very strong, global base of enterprise customers with ever-changing and complex demands. Demands that have moved from being a really strong development partner, to becoming an advisor – first around technology and now around business strategy. All of this new demand has led us to a new type of culture that insists that we value collaboration and outcomes over our personal command and control aspirations. The demands for change are very real and we must meet them in order to continue to evolve ourselves and to stay relevant to our customers.

I’m optimistic for us because we are an engineering-driven organization and there’s intrinsic value placed on intellectual honesty and experimentation; it’s not like you can say a product is working when it’s not. The same can apply as we look at changing our make-up and how we work together creatively.  Self-disruption is a very difficult project, and many companies have tried and failed to change themselves, preferring instead to take on twenty-first-century problems with twentieth-century solutions. I would like to think that we are different because we are used to going after difficult problems. It’s in our DNA and, I would say, it’s one of the biggest drivers of our company’s growth.

We often hear companies talking about transparency and collaboration, but how is EPAM unique in its demonstration of these principles?

If you think about the fact that we have globally distributed, interdisciplinary teams – transparency and collaboration are mandatory. It’s not like we can decide tomorrow that we’ve had enough of this and just do it on our own. Collaboration is not just a good idea that we implement – it’s imperative for us. If we don’t do it, we fail our customers and we fail each other because we lose the opportunity to build a valuable team, and personal and professional networks.

For as long as I’ve been with EPAM, we’ve put tremendous emphasis on democratizing information – it’s the reason we started building the platforms that power our delivery and people organizations today.  As a result of these multi-year and often global efforts, we have connected people to each other in informal ways and, through working on joint customer engagements, have created information and social networks that empower direct communication and collaboration between people.

With that said, we probably need to do a lot more formal and corporate communications, and we’ve taken some steps to do more through our InfoPortal, newsletters and more interactive media, such as our video and events platforms. There is a lot more work to do and we are investing more in powering collaboration through better communications and more transparency between our leadership and the company. I know we will do more because the need for collaboration creates a positive pressure, meaning that people begin with a baseline assumption that they are going to work on multi-dimensional teams across locations and disciplines, and there’s an expectation that each person not only must be a strong contributor but also an ultra-reliable member of each team they are a part of. For teams to work, communication and transparency are necessities.

In your opinion, do you think it’s essential for company culture to evolve over time?

Yes, I do. I think that evolution theory shows us that any organism—whether it’s a bacterium, animal, person or a company—must change. Change is a fundamental element of what it means to be alive. 

I do, however, think this evolutionary process varies from company to company. In our case, we disrupt ourselves, which means we constantly reach for things that are unfamiliar and we take risks to move ourselves toward where we aren’t the best or the biggest, and, in doing so, that level of disruption changes our culture over time.

What’s necessary to achieve this, in my opinion, is that we have the right people who break the mold or don’t fit the established norms. As a company grows, it can be difficult to accept mold breakers and outliers, and it becomes even more difficult to attract those people, to onboard them and to make them feel like there’s something here for them. On a personal level, I’ve always been one of those people who puts forth an idea even when it’s unconventional. I’ve seen the most growth at those times, and I think that, as a company, we also benefit and see a significant change in the culture when we welcome similar practices from our people – both long-term EPAMers and new EPAMers.

What do you think are some of the challenges to attracting those mold breakers once a company reaches one of our size?

People like to work with people who inspire them, but also with whom they feel a connection. So, you come and meet people on site, and you try to look around and find your tribe within the company, asking yourself, “Who acts and thinks like me? Would I find people on the same wavelength as me in this company?” If what you find is a company of processes and pencil pushers, people who tell you to sit here or stand there, fill out this form, etc., then I think it becomes more difficult for those mold breakers to feel at home. They feel like they’re wasting their time or do what they feel is unimportant work in a company that values the wrong things – like some process over the opportunity to engage deeply with a client, for example.

At times I ask myself, “If I were interviewing with EPAM, would I want to come work here?” I have to be honest with you, the answer isn’t always “yes.” Of course, it depends where I think we are at any given time and what our prospects will be to move quickly, but I don’t always feel like my response is “100%, sign me up.” So, I ask myself these questions: What would I change? Can I change it? How can I change it? We have to be fearless to ask these kinds of questions as leaders – not only of the company, but also of yourself – and then be willing to put your skin in the game to make the changes happen. 

So, when EPAM tries to cultivate a culture that attracts the mold breakers and outliers, is it something that is driven from the top down? How do you, as a leader, strike a balance between driving the evolution of a company and its values in a way that also fosters organic evolution amongst the employees themselves?

If the ideas that you say you value aren’t reaching your people, then all you are doing is fooling yourself. One of the reasons that our CEO Arkadiy Dobkin speaks directly to, for example, our developers, is because he’s constantly looking for these outliers. I find myself and other leaders at EPAM in a similar boat. We spend a lot of time trying to understand what’s happening in the field and trying to talk to people outside of the company to get a better sense of what we’re not seeing or what we haven’t considered. 

The more I learn about something, the more I’m certain that I’m missing crucial details or insights from real experts. What I find most remarkable about EPAM is that some of the best experts and the mold-breakers on any given range of topics are right here! We have access to the brightest, most creative minds and some of the best people in the world – it’s just a matter of knowing whom to reach and how to reach them. This is why Ark and the leadership team are spending a lot of time trying to understand our own organization better – who is part of the 34,000 people who call EPAM home, and how can we leverage their expertise and energy better?