Women of the Year 2021: Hootsuite’s Tara Ataya is Redefining the Power of Corporate Culture
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Chief People and Diversity Officer, Hootsuite
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Tara Ataya: Believe in the power of what’s possible.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Tara Ataya: The People—One of my favourite TedTalks from 2014 is Drew Dudley talking about Everyday Leadership. He talks about “Lollipop Moments” and how there are moments of everyday leadership “where someone says or does something that fundamentally makes your life better.” I have been gifted so many of these moments in my career by the remarkable people around me who make everything possible. There is an old proverb that says if you want to go quickly, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you need to go together. I have been so lucky in my life to work with teams and individuals who are emotionally and intellectually generous with their time, knowledge, and leadership. The work I am doing at Hootsuite has graced this part of my career journey with such an amazing team of people, whom I learn from every day.
The Butterfly Effect—The idea is that every positive change has a ripple effect that can change the world. My hope is that the work we are doing has a butterfly effect within the industry and society, that the work we are doing is not only enhancing the lives of our employees but is also having ripple effects in the industry. I am so excited by the belief that real change is possible. That we can shift how culture is shaped by focusing on the role organizations play in the employee experience.
What does the future of work culture look like from your vantage point?
Tara Ataya: There is a time coming in the not too distant future where corporate culture will be your one true competitive advantage. People are at the heart of every business and the health of your people is important for the whole business to succeed. The pandemic has taught many companies that culture is not about the office spaces (food in the kitchens, gyms, on-site facilities, and so on). All of these things are great, but culture is so much more.
Culture is about a collection of relationships between employees, teams, departments, and the market around them—but also the relationship that each employee has with the company they work at. Healthy cultures are ones that have transparency, have psychological safety, flexibility, and are composed of diverse people who have strong relationships with each other. I see a future where organizations invest heavily in fostering cultures that are inclusive and focused on the wellness of their people. I see the future of work and work-culture defined by companies who understand that they are the catalysts to building a psychologically and physically healthy society.
How can companies foster a more inclusive internal environment where they feel supported and heard?
Tara Ataya: One, apply the new Golden Rule: Treat everyone the way that THEY want to be treated. Two, how do you know how people want to be treated? Hold space for them to tell you. You ask, you listen, you learn, and you challenge yourself to meet people where they are and invest in their success by decentering leadership and holding space for understanding. Three, focus on breaking down barriers and fixing structural elements of the employee experience that can become significant barriers to people thriving.
What has proven to be effective in your experience?
Tara Ataya: A few things have proven to be effective:
- We re-worked our promotion process to make it more equitable by slowing it down and including a diverse panel as a part of the process.
- We have launched a DEI Committee.
- We offer diverse learning opportunities (courses like ‘unconscious bias training’ and many more.)
- We have redesigned our benefits offerings to focus on choice and inclusivity. We include things like fertility treatment coverage, gender affirmation surgery coverage, 100 percent mental health coverage, financial health benefits like RRSP matching, and more.
- We are redesigning our global offices as hubs for collaboration and creativity, with DEI at the heart of the spaces.
- We have redesigned our Guiding Principles as an organization. It was a six-month process that included employees from across the company. We had 89 percent of employees actively participate either through a survey or focus groups. Not only was the process inclusive but the results are also centred around DEI.
- We have set up corporate, company-wide ‘Key Results’ focused on hiring from underrepresented groups. In Q2 2021, 67 percent of our hires were from underrepresented groups.
- We have a lifelong commitment to zero pay inequities company-wide and have achieved our goal of global pay equity—not only from a gender perspective but across the entire company. This includes elements such as race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, neuro divergence, people with disabilities, etc. We use a third party to analyze the data.
- We have specific DEI-related metrics like hiring through our partnership with the Black Professionals in Technology Network (Canada), the hiring and retention of our underrepresented groups, maintaining pay equity, and more.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Tara Ataya: My impact is not mine alone. I work with an amazing team that has been able to drive significant changes to the employee experience—and have also sparked changes in the community and industry.
The moments in which I feel that I’ve made the most impact in my career and in my community have been the small moments within the relationships I have developed with people along the way. Every moment has led me to where I am today. I am also a mentor and a mentee, which brings me a lot of fulfillment. I think it is such a special and symbiotic relationship—in that a mentor allows you to really lean into your generosity and vulnerability as a leader.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Tara Ataya: From a DEI perspective, the “solution” is about the bigger picture and creating tangible social change. As a society (and as an organization), we’ve had to look deeper and address where DEI efforts are lacking. Organizations are working hard to adjust and change policies while we’re living through an incredibly uncertain and volatile climate.
It’s so important that we all work together and remember that we’re all on this journey. We have to ask: how can we foster a sense of belonging in the workplace, how can we develop and manage DEI programs that move the needle, and how can we continue to lead with empathy when the difficulties and challenges employees are facing outside of work are so real and can be so overwhelming to navigate? These are big topics, and there’s no clear pathway.
What does progress look like to you?
Tara Ataya: If we challenge ourselves and take small, incremental steps towards our big audacious goals, we can make a true difference. To me, that’s progress.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Tara Ataya: My hope is that there is nothing that I am doing that no one else is doing. I say this because the work around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and creating the best human and employee experience is a journey that I believe everyone should be on.
While I know that we are pushing the boundaries on things around pay equity, our approach to benefits, mental health, and new, innovative programs, my hope is that there is a collective of leaders focused on those things and beyond—so that together, we can change the world for the better.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Tara Ataya: While I would love to have one big defining moment that was a turning point in my career, as I reflect on my life and career experiences, I know that I have been exactly where I need to be along the way. Whether it was for a lesson I needed to learn, a leader I needed to learn from, or an experience I was meant to have, each prepared me for the next. For example, when an economic downturn happened early in my career, I remember leaders I worked with agreeing to take pay cuts to ensure that they would avoid layoffs of any of their employees. When someone asked why we wouldn’t tell the employees that the leaders were taking pay cuts to keep everyone employed, the most senior leader said, “they don’t need to know that we are doing that; we are doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and all they need to know is that they are safe.” This is a moment that I carry with me, and when the pandemic hit, I told our leadership team the story and we all agreed unequivocally that we would do whatever we needed to do to get our employees onto the other side of this pandemic healthy and thriving at work.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve helped build Hootsuite and your career?
Tara Ataya: Coming to Hootsuite has felt like coming home. I have learned that there is incredible strength in leading with empathy, vulnerability, and transparency in an organization like Hootsuite that celebrates the idea that we are free to be ourselves at work.
What has been the most challenging part of building the business and your department?
Tara Ataya: The most challenging moments of the last year and a half have been the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic and navigating unprecedented times and the societal injustices and atrocities that have continued throughout that time as well—like the murder of George Floyd.
As a leader in a global organization, I strive to make sure that, despite the uncertainties in the external world, we have a safe place for people to come to work and that the space and time needed to focus on mental health and wellbeing is awarded to everyone within the organization.
What has been the most rewarding part?
Tara Ataya: Specific to my time at Hootsuite, I would highlight the big changes that we have made like reaching pay equity across all of our underrepresented groups, but the moments that I feel the impact of the work we are doing the most are when I hear our current employees feel they truly belong— or when 100 percent of our new hires answer in their survey that they feel welcomed. The collective, positive experience of others can affect monumental change. To me, that’s incredibly rewarding.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Tara Ataya: Are you ready to be the kind of leader that everyone deserves? Are you willing to give of yourself to your people to enable them to be incredibly successful? What are you willing to struggle for?
In your experience, what has proven to make for a great corporate culture?
Tara Ataya: Great company cultures are built on a commitment. Culture is a collection of relationships. Relationships thrive through hard work and a commitment to always work through things together—even when it’s hard.
The organization and its leaders need to be committed to their people and have employees’ best interest at heart—always. The employees need to be committed to each other, the collective success of the organization and its people, their customers, their partners, and the vision of the company. When companies have healthy relationships with their people, and the internal relationships are healthy too, magic can happen. The customers are given a better experience, and a better product exists because people can do their best work.
Belonging creates an opportunity for autonomy, self-actualization, and community within the workplace. People need to feel seen, supported, and challenged at work.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Tara Ataya: My mission in life is to leave this world a better place than when I found it. This applies to every company I have ever worked at. My hope is that when I leave a company, it is better than when I joined.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Tara Ataya: Success is a journey, not a destination. We try, sometimes we fail, sometimes we achieve, we learn, we try again and we grow. Holistically, this is a success.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work? Tara Ataya: Collectively, we have the ability to change society for the better, one equitable program, one inclusive policy, one everyday leadership moment at a time—when you are unwavering in your belief that people are at the heart of your business, you will do the right thing for them even when it is the hard thing.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Tara Ataya: I would tell myself that in the quiet moments where self-doubt crept in, that I was enough and I was exactly where I was meant to be. I would also encourage myself to find my voice in the face of self-doubt. In life, every moment leads to the next. Your career is a journey, and learning is at the centre of it. For example, one of my early memories of self-doubt came from being in a leadership meeting where I was the youngest person by a decade or more. There was a suggestion on how to handle a very complex situation. I disagreed with the suggestion but questioned myself because I assumed that everyone would wonder what I knew. What I was completely missing was that I was in the meeting for a reason. I was there because others could see the value that my perspective could bring. Those were the type of moments that I would love to help my younger self overcome.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Tara Ataya: My mom. She is the type of leader I aspire to be. I truly think that if I can be half of the amazing person she is, I will be doing really well. Growing up, I watched her choose to challenge norms, beliefs, and stereotypes in a profoundly powerful way. Her leadership embodies strength, empathy, and inclusiveness in both her professional and personal life. She has been the greatest woman leader I know. She is unapologetically true to her beliefs and treats everyone with empathy, respect, and kindness. I love and admire her.