A Deep Dive On Culture With Culture Amp CEO Didier Elzinga

culture ampDidier Elzinga is CEO of employee feedback platform Culture Amp, a solution that allows businesses to take the pulse of workers and take action quickly, so company culture isn’t just an important aspect of his business—it’s the primary focus.

But it’s important to remember that there’s no one-size-fits all solution that will solve the company culture puzzle for all organizations, according to Elzinga.

“There’s no such thing as a perfect culture,” Elzinga says. “It’s about building a culture that is appropriate for the type of company you’re building. And the way I think about that, if it’s done right, is that good values make you as an individual want to be a better version of yourself.”

Culture Amp draws data from its questions and content from across 1,600 customers globally— a community that’s almost 50,000 strong. Last month, the company announced it had secured $40M in Series D funding, bringing Culture Amp’s total amount of equity funding to about $76M since it was founded eight years ago.

Elzinga told Chief Executive about the importance of employee feedback for CEOs, how to manage relationships with outside investors and how he’s managing his own company’s culture. Here’s what he had to say:

Why employee feedback really matters

Oftentimes as a CEO, you’re ultimately trying to achieve some financial result and have to talk to your shareholders and board members and so on. And most CEOs know that if they’re trying to be profitable, revenue growth or whatever it might be, they’ll ask, “Well, how do I get that? What’s the lead indicator on that thing?” At the end of the day, that’s the score, but what’s going to drive it?

And most people realize that if you want to be financially successful, you have to be customer-centric. And so you really have to focus on the experience that you’re delivering your customers. And that if you do that right, that’ll create the financial results. And then culture comes in as one step back to that, which is, “How do you deliver that experience to customers?” We deliver that experience to customers by putting culture first. We like to say that, “Brand is a promise to a customer, culture is how you deliver that promise.”

And so the first thing, I think, for CEOs to realize is that people and culture is not something that’s just done up on the side. It’s not just yet another thing on your plate that you have to worry about. It’s the thing that, if you focus on it, will lead everything else in the direction you want it to go. And the purpose of employee feedback and all the things around it, it’s giving you tools to actually get in there and do something about it. What is the change that you have to drive at your organization?

Trends in improving company culture

The thing that comes probably through the strongest is the engagement of your staff—how much extra discretionary that people are willing to bring, how long they’re intending to stay at your company, how proud they are, whether they’ll recommend you to other people. The biggest driver of that across all the companies is around learning and development. So do I as an individual see your organization as a place where I can grow in my career? If I do, if I think this is a good place for me to grow, then I’m much more likely to be engaged.

We’ve seen a lot of companies really focusing on this in terms of, “How do we create that environment? How do we allow people to grow when they’re at our company?” And that in itself is a core piece of everything. There are also the different ways that you do that, but that core idea of, “How do we become a place…?” I think Patty McCord from Netflix was on stage at the first event a few weeks ago where she said, “At Netflix, we wanted to be a great company to have come from.” And that’s a truly really powerful idea, that if you can build a company which is a great place to come from, then people will paradoxically stay longer. And so that idea is core.

“True inclusion is very, very hard and something that I think people are only just starting to wrap their brains around.”

The other thing that we’re seeing, which is probably a more recent trend but a really fascinating and important one is around diversity and inclusion. We’ve done a lot of work in terms of helping people understand diversity and inclusion inside their own organization, and particularly around the inclusion component.

What does it mean to create a culture where people feel like they can truly belong no matter who they are or where they come from? And we’re definitely seeing a lot more of that, relatively, for obvious reasons, because people are looking around seeing the sorts of things that have happened when they haven’t been putting that on the agenda. And I think at the board level, that conversation of, “Are we doing what we need to be doing to create the type of organization that we want to be?” You can’t just leave that to chance anymore. And so we’re seeing a lot of people really focusing on that and making it more than a lip service. And it’s not easy. True inclusion is very, very hard and something that I think people are only just starting to wrap their brains around.

Keys to developing and nurturing relationships with outside investors

I think one thing that can be a challenge when you’re the VC-funded world is as you get further on the journey and you get more visibility and people know that you’ve taken money, you get an endless barrage of people that are interested in what you’re doing. And it’s a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy in that if you’re successful, more people want to know about why you’re successful and potentially want to be part of it. And one of the big challenges as a CEO is actually how you manage your time.

So I’ll probably get inbound investor interests once or twice a day. In the beginning, you kind of take meetings with everybody because you don’t know, and then as you go on, you have to be a lot more judicious. And you have to try and work out good ways of engaging in that. And I’ve tried lots of different techniques but you don’t want to annoy anybody or not give anybody the respect that they deserve, but you also have to remember that at the end of the day taking meetings with people that might give you money doesn’t add any value to the company at all. So you have to be very careful.

And on the flip side, when you do decide to raise money and you go out and you talk to people and you get multiple offers and you choose who you’re going to partner with, you must think about what’s going to happen in both the ups but also the downs. And so when I’m taking money from an investor, one of the things I’m focusing on is I’ll go and talk to other founders that they’ve invested in and I’m always interested in what happens if something didn’t work out, “Have you ever had a period where you’ve missed a quarter? Have you ever had something that went wrong? What did the investor do? How did they react? Did they demand an immediate board meeting and berate you? Did they jump on the line and say, ‘How can I help? I’ve seen this happen before. It happens to all the companies. Keep your head up. Let’s get through this.'”

Company culture at Culture Amp and how it has evolved

I think the biggest forcing function on our culture has been that we went global quite quickly. Ee started in Melbourne, and that’s where most of our engineering still is. But we opened our San Francisco office in 2015, New York in 2016, London in 2017, give or take. So we now have these four offices, and we’re only a 230-person company at this point, but we’re doubling year on year. So just with that focus of having to work across all those different offices and those different time zones, and we strive to be one company in four places and that creates, obviously, an overhead, but also a wonderful diversity and richness. But just dealing with that’s been huge. When we added London, just at a very tactical point, it broke out our format because you now couldn’t find a single time zone that would work across all four offices. So we had to move to a rotating model where we went through the different time zones and had people on and off schedule and so on.

So there was a lot of sort of practical stuff. In terms of what the culture is, I think as we’ve grown we’ve had the opportunity to continue to explore that, which has been really great, too. And for example, I have an “ask me anything” where anyone in the company can write an anonymous question and then I’ll answer that question in #CEOChannel. It’s like a fact channel where I talk about things that are going on at the CEO level. And last night, we spent about 45 minutes having a long conversation on one of our values, which is trust people to make decisions, and what does that mean, and how does that work, and how does that work in what is essentially a team of teams or a network of teams-type model, which is the way we work.

So for me, one of the key parts of what makes culture at Culture Amp is that we truly believe that you need to put culture first if you want to be successful and that part of putting culture is swaying your values and really thinking about, “What is the type of company that we want to be?”

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