In his keynote address at the Culture First conference, our CEO, Didier Elzinga shared what inspired him to co-found Culture Amp and what it means to build a Culture First company.
“Before I started Culture Amp I was working for Hollywood at a visual effects company. The last 10 to 20 years had brought incredible advances to HR, and I was inspired by what I was reading about how to build a better workplace
Think about how much more we understand about how we think and operate in the workplace. The idea behind starting Culture Amp was – could we use software to help make these ideas more accessible?
Then, we could actually start to make the change that these ideas promised.
But, building a workplace improvement software wasn’t our only mission. My fellow Culture Amp founders and I wanted to build a legacy as well. We wanted to be a Culture First company – at scale.”
So, how do you start building a Culture First company? Here are highlights from Didier’s presentation in his own words.
Culture starts with values
I think whenever you’re talking about company culture, it has to start with the importance of values. These are the roots. This is the most important job of a founder – putting down roots and helping the company understand what it means to be. Values are not something that you go and design. Your values are already there. They need to be uncovered.
There are three things to clarify when you want to get values right: Meaning, relevance, and mutuality.
What does this value mean? Is it something that you can understand? If you can’t understand it, that’s not very helpful. Secondly is it relevant? Can you use this value? Does it help the organization do what is trying to do? I think the most important one is mutuality. What does this value tell you to expect from the company? But more importantly, what does it tell the company to expect from you?
Culture Amp’s company values
Have the courage to be vulnerable is our first and probably most important value. And I like to present it by reading the poem by Yeats.
When you join Culture Amp we want you to bring all that you are. When you lay those dreams down in front of us you’re stepping back on somebody else’s. And that’s that mutuality piece – you not only need to have the gift of the vulnerability but you also have to create space for others.
Learn faster through feedback. That is my wife on the right, and on the left is Zubin Mehta who is a famous conductor. I use this when we talk about learning faster through feedback because of what I’ve learned from watching her as a singer. Her ability and every musician’s ability to listen to what everybody else is saying and then either go with it or not go with it; That’s the difference between great music and good music. It’s also the way to exist as a startup – the only thing you can do is learn faster than other people.
Trust others to make decisions. Everybody who comes into the company is like, finally, an organization that will trust me to make a decision. We have four offices and there will come a time when somebody makes a decision on something for which you knew more than anybody and you were not even consulted. That is okay. That’s the cost of building an organization that prioritizes learning through feedback. That’s the cost of building an organization that wants to empower people to make decisions. It doesn’t mean that everybody’s decision is a good one, but we trust them to make it.
Amplify others. So we had those first three: have the courage to be vulnerable, and if you have the courage to be vulnerable then you can actually learn faster through feedback, and if you can learn faster through feedback then we can trust people to make decisions. Everyone said, ‘Look the first three are great from an individual point of view,’ but there’s something unique here where everybody is willing to help each other. Everybody is willing to amplify the people around them.
What do you do after putting down the roots?
The second thing after you put those roots down through your values is to embrace diversity. I say this as somebody who started a company with four white 30-something male brunettes. Zero diversity across the board and it’s a debt we’re still paying down.
I think the best metaphor for leadership is gardening. And the most magnificent gardens are not one plant. There are all sorts of different plants that come from all sorts of different parts of the world and they coexist in a wonderful and beautiful way. That’s what I want my company to look like, not row upon row of everybody looking the same.
What about managers?
If you’re going to build a culture first company, managers are the frontline, they’re the people that have to get this right.
I have a few ideas for you that I would like you to consider:
- Take the time to know yourself. Ask yourself where your ideas come from. How did they influence you?
- Grow people and let them fly. If you’re a manager at a startup, your number one job is to convince the best people to join your company. You have to go out and find these people and then you have to help them be the best version of themselves they can. The hardest thing then is to realize your job is to help them leave you.
- Be honest with people halfway up the mountain. So somebody comes to me and says I don’t think this person’s working out; I think we need to put them on a performance improvement plan. I’ll ask them, “Do you believe that this person could be successful?” No, not really. Well, then you have no choice but to say to them this is not going to work.
It takes everyone to make a culture work
You can’t just leave it up to the founder or the CEO or the manager. It’s something that everybody needs to be involved in. And that means you have to take responsibility for your own craft. You have to own it.
Once you know what you’re good at, realize that when you’re under pressure that strength can become a weakness. One of the most powerful things you can do is to name it and let other people call you out on it.
Most important, be kind to yourself. Self-compassion is allowing yourself space and the time to be kind to yourself. Keep trying and keep moving and realize it’s okay to mess up.
Be willing to fail. Be willing to open yourself up. Be willing to fight for something that matters.