How to Have a Fantastic Work Culture: “Creativity and innovation are the future of any company” with Naveed Sherwani and Chaya Weiner

Productivity, profitability and employee health and wellbeing are current or short-term metrics. More importantly, unhappiness will affect creativity. Creativity and innovation are the future of any company. Leaders should worry more about that. If people are not putting their creative energy and their heart into their work in order to come up with solutions for […]

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Productivity, profitability and employee health and wellbeing are current or short-term metrics. More importantly, unhappiness will affect creativity. Creativity and innovation are the future of any company. Leaders should worry more about that. If people are not putting their creative energy and their heart into their work in order to come up with solutions for future problems, then they are not personally invested in the company’s future. Unhappiness leads to a disconnect from the mission and the vision.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Naveed Sherwani. Dr. Sherwani has over 30 years of experience in entrepreneurship, technical engineering and general management. Dr. Sherwani currently serves as president and CEO of SiFive, a fabless company that is leading the RISC-V revolution. Dr. Sherwani started his first company, when he was only 18 years old. He has founded and co-founded multiple companies. Prior to joining SiFive, he founded PeerNova, a company focused on technology solutions based on blockchain technology. Dr. Sherwani served as Chairman, President and CEO of PeerNova. Prior to PeerNova, Dr. Sherwani co-founded Open-Silicon, a leading provider of ASIC solutions. Under his leadership, Open-Silicon designed over 300 ASICs. 
 Prior to Open-Silicon, as the founder and General Manager of Intel Microelectronics Services, he pioneered Open methodology for ASICs. He also founded Brite Semi, a leading ASIC solution provider in China/APAC. 
 He has served on the boards of various companies, including Touchstone Semiconductor, and Integration associates (sold to Silicon Labs). Dr. Sherwani worked at Intel for nearly a decade, where he co-architected the Intel microprocessor design methodology and design environment used in several microprocessors and received the prestigious Intel achievement Award in 1997. Dr. Sherwani is a noted author having authored several books and over 100 articles on various aspects of VLSI Physical Design Automation and ASICs. Dr. Sherwani served as a Professor at Western Michigan University, where his research focused on ASICs, EDA, Combinatorics, graph algorithms and parallel computing. He received his Ph.D from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have been in silicon for over 30 years. After getting my Ph.D from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was a professor at Western Michigan University. I wrote the book on algorithms for VLSI physical design (it’s still in use, which I think is shame and reflects the lack of progress in the field). I joined Intel and eventually started Intel Microelectronics while there (Intel Microelectronics was a leading provider of ASIC solutions using an Open Framework). I spun Intel Microelectronics out into Open-Silicon. I also founded Brite Semiconductor. I have founded over 9 companies, many of which were silicon ventures. Each time, I have tried to tackle a specific set of problems in an effort to simplify the complexity of chip design. Becoming the President and CEO of SiFive is the sixth time I making an effort towards that same goal. I believe SiFive has the potential to make the biggest change to the hardware industry. So this is a continuation of my life’s work, which is to democratize silicon and thereby democratize compute. I believe that people all over the world should be able to , and free to, design chips for their needs and not be locked or beholden to a chosen few geographic areas, IPs, architectures, and companies.

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

Seeing the reaction across the table during a sales meeting when, shortly after the launch of a Core IP Series, we told the prospect that we were launching another entirely new Core IP Series in both 32-bit and 64-bit embedded and Linux-capable versions with vastly customizable features. At SiFive, the team can design an entire Core IP Series in weeks. It takes others several quarters to do the same. The speed of innovation and the fact that we can do it repeatedly really stuns people. It stunned me, too. It still does. The initial shock at that meeting has given way to a close partnership and collaboration. Once people see what we can do, they start believing in our way of doing things. I really think that a revolution is building.

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

I think that the most exciting project that I am working on is being able to deliver this capability to anyone in the world — to democratize silicon and computing by simplifying the design process to the point where millions of people can design solutions to meet their needs. Look at the innovation that has been unleashed in software. Hardware needs a similar revolution. We are working with some of the largest companies in the world to make this happen.

Ok, lets 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?

I wonder if the finding by the Conference Board that 53 percent of the American workforce is unhappy, as per the Forbes article that you mentioned, holds true across the tech and semiconductor industries. But if the general sentiment is correct, then I think that this unhappiness happens, based on my experience, when the leaders of the company do not take the time to align people to the mission and the vision of the company. You have to inspire people. When I was being trained, communicating the mission and the vision of the company was taken as the leadership’s moral and ethical duty. Without that shared goal, everything is just an assignment or a delegated task. Leadership must make sure that everyone knows how their job is relevant to global goals.

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?

It affects all three in a very negative way. But productivity, profitability and employee health and wellbeing are current or short-term metrics. More importantly, unhappiness will affect creativity. Creativity and innovation are the future of any company. Leaders should worry more about that. If people are not putting their creative energy and their heart into their work in order to come up with solutions for future problems, then they are not personally invested in the company’s future. Unhappiness leads to a disconnect from the mission and the vision.

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?

First, I think that the most important thing is communication — consistently and honestly communicating with the team. At SiFive, we do that. Everything that we report to our board, we report to our team. We literally present the same deck. By doing so, we make ourselves as accountable to our colleagues as we are to our board. We share good and bad news. And if there is a problem, we put it out in the open and put our best people on it.

Second, inclusion is vital. The wider team should be included in making decisions regarding the direction of the company. They should set the direction, not some unseen higher-up or unknown outside force. We have a strategic summit every six months where all team leads gather and give key input and make critical decisions for the strategy of the company. We make our MBO’s bottom-up, not top-down. Everyone has direct input in defining their own goals.

Third, recognize people’s work. We have company-wide awards, we have events, we acknowledge people in meetings, etc. You must acknowledge contributions and celebrate the success of teams and individuals.

Fourth, value people as people. A company should feel like a family. We should care about each other’s issues and help where we can. You have to be flexible so that as people go through different phases or challenges in life, you empower them to succeed in those phases and meet those challenges. Of course, this means having the right resources, benefits, and policies in place but it has to be done an individual level.

Fifth, create opportunities and and rewards on the basis of merit. Everyone should know that they have unlimited opportunities and opportunities to succeed. They should know that they will be rewarded for their hard work and will be treated fairly. We try to do that at every level. Celebrate and recognize the right people. Hire and promote the right people. I have a real open-door policy where anyone can speak to me directly and we can discuss how they can meet their career aspirations and challenges.

A company that does these things will have happier team members. Or, if they are unhappy, it will create opportunities to address the underlying issues. If people are unhappy or if there is a genuine issue, there should be a mechanism to take and give feedback, solve the problem, and get everyone back to making positive contributions. Doing this improves everyone’s development.

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 work culture?

The biggest change we can make is to pursue big goals at the individual, company and national level. Big goals are unifying and uplifting. And they should be harmonized so that they are to the benefit of the individual, family, community, company and country. If your work has real impact, solves real problems, or aims for the stars, it has a transformative effect that radiates outwards. That makes the work meaningful.

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

Once you have a vision, a mission and plan (which all should be done collaboratively as discussed), then you then need to inspire people to go achieve it. Leadership and inspiration is more important than mere management. For example, I try not to have too many one-on-one meetings with people. Rather, i try to help them get to a point where they can own the task and drive it. Most of the people that we have are extremely capable. If they are inspired and understand the context (again, the mission and vision) then they will go after it. And in most cases, they have a greater depth of knowledge than I do in their specific fields. So we basically agree on the goal, the end-state, and the timeline. Then we make sure that they are sufficiently empowered and resourced in order to make it happen. Reports and updates are given to a team, not an individual. We all own our progress to our commonly stated mission and vision.

So it is better to agree on goals, find the best people to take on those goals, and then convince and inspire those people to meet and exceed those goals.

There is no one way to manage people anymore. This isn’t routine, 9-to-5 work. People work in various ways. In a distributed company like ours, our mantra has to be to inspire and empower people and teams and let them do wonders.

SiFive is doing pioneering work. We need to inspire the people inside and outside our company in order to meet these goals.

And when you think big, you have to remain calm and consistent. You can’t think or react emotionally.

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?

I have been extremely fortunate in this regard. There have been many people that have helped me immensely. It starts with my parents, my siblings, my wife, and my daughter. They have molded me into the person that I am. I have been lucky to have some incredible teachers and professors that expanded my horizons and my thinking. At Intel, several senior managers were great mentors to me. Pioneering VCs like Pierre Lamond taught me a great deal. There are around 20 people who have made massive contributions to my life. I owe them a great deal.

As one strives for excellence, I think that one should let people into one’s life. Be sincere, be open and honest, seek understanding and be willing to work hard.

And those who come across such people should empower them and watch them do wonders. Mentoring people is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and it is how I am going to repay those who took the time and the pain to mentor me.

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

I helped my wife, Sabahat, found a charity called UWR (United We REACH). She relentlessly serves as its executive director. We partner with government schools in Africa and Asia and provide an advanced STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, English, Arts, and Mathematics) to children. The government and the community are stakeholders and help to upgrade existing schools, and we provide the technology and curriculum. The curriculum meets California standards and is delivered by teachers who have a full class script and have undergone teacher training. Students are assessed by individualized, computer-adaptive tests. We track attendance and student health. As we gather data and analytics, we constantly refine the system. After some successful pilot schools, our program is being adopted by several large provinces and national bodies. We have begun a multi-phase rollout that will eventually change education for nearly 500,000 students.

I think that being in an industry for a long time gives you visibility. That is more important than success. That visibility brings responsibility. I feel a responsibility to help young people make their path shorter and more efficient than the path that I took.

We should use our skills and visibility to do some good for the global society. UWR is my attempt to do so. I also help to sponsor and fundraise for several engineering scholarship programs. I advise governmental bodies on technology initiatives. I am helping to set up the China-Pakistan Microelectronics Center to provide education, training, and design solutions for several countries. I want to see this hardware revolution become a global phenomenon.

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

I think that quotes are sometimes too short. I prefer to have guiding principles and values, which I have shared with you. We should look to people whose lives can serve as lessons. Again, I have been very fortunate to be able to learn from the example of great people. One such person is Abdul Sattar Edhi. He started his humanitarian work in Pakistan in 1947, shortly after partition. The Edhi Foundation provides ambulance and other basic essential services. Abdul Sattar Edhi started his charity at age 20 with a meagre sum. He literally begged for donations. He lived a humble life until his death a few years ago at age 89. He believed that no religion is higher than humanity. Now the Edhi Foundation has over 300 welfare centres across Pakistan, over 1,800 ambulances and is the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world. Edhi orphanages have saved over 50,000 babies and have fought legal suits for orphans’ rights. The life lesson that he preached was “live and help live.”

So the example of the impact that someone like Edhi can have is a profound life lesson for me.

And in all things, incredible impact only comes through unrelenting hard work over many years.

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.

I would like to inspire a movement where we take our commitment to all these various causes from education to emergency services and somehow inspire people across the globe to consider every child in the world as their own child. If we can truly care for the fate of all children, we can bring about the biggest change. But we don’t see their hunger, their lack of opportunity, their misery, their illness, and their lack of basic services from nutrition to education to healthcare. We have this disconnect from humanity where we don’t even see it as our problem. We are too tribal. If we can somehow have a movement that succeeds in inspiring people to look beyond our obvious bonds and value our shared human bond then I think we will see the greatest changes in history.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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