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Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


After I returned from the United Kingdom, where we wrapped up our second Culture First Forum, I wanted to share my thoughts on our new event series. This Forum was held at Soho House in Oxfordshire, a beautiful retreat from the daily grind and a fantastic environment for contemplating how to build better workplaces. The earlier Australian event was staged in the equally tranquil Blue Mountains. But it wasn’t the locations that stunned me, it was the people.

Amazing things happen when you put exceptional people together. That’s the biggest thing I’ve taken away from these events. 

In the video below, you'll get my immediate reaction from our first event in the Blue Mountains of Australia. 


Each of these leadership retreats has brought together around 75 Chief People Officers, CEOs and other senior HR executives to reflect on the challenges facing the sector and its future. We deliberately designed the events to build on the expertise of the participants, encouraging and facilitating co-active learning and peer-to-peer mentoring: beautiful and private locations, challenging ideas and speakers, and expert facilitation.

It struck me that alongside the content and venues, there was a huge amount of value just in how the event was run. When you see it in action, you get what it means to create intimacy at scale. Our co-creator and facilitator, Sue Heilbronner wrote a great piece about it that’s well worth checking out. A lot of the people in the room were professional facilitators and presenters. And yet, everyone I spoke to told me there were ideas and tips they would take back and use to better run sessions around complex issues.

It was an inspiring experience to sit at the table with these leaders as we went on a journey together of the one and a half days. Their openness and vulnerability – and their willingness to share their experiences – created valuable discussions and debate about how to execute a Culture First approach to organisation in challenging times.

The conversations were wide-ranging and surfaced many issues, but there were two points that really stuck out to me.

It’s lonely being a Chief People Officer

More and more is being asked of CPOs. The days of only worrying about staff retention and payroll are long gone. Things that fall into the HR remit are now potentially front page news. And because of their nature, it’s not appropriate to discuss these problems with most people. Outside of confidentiality issues, there’s often only a small group of people that understand the challenges.

What I observed was the value to participants in sharing, in some cases for the first time, their experiences. Critical questions explored the context in which participants were brought into their organisations, and what kind of change mandate they were being asked to deliver on, and – importantly – were they supported to do it.

These aren’t inconsequential conversations. We designed the Culture First Forum to help highly experienced people have the space to do some learning they often don’t get allowed to do in their day to day: collectively learn and grow.

CPOs have never been more important – or faced more complex challenges

There is so much speculation about the future and the trends that will impact how we work. And don’t get me wrong, I love thinking about this stuff, but it so often lacks substance – it’s all pie in the sky. What was striking about the discussions at the Forum was how, because the participants are on the front lines of these changes, the conversation took a more concrete form. We looked at the logical conclusions of some of the trends we’re seeing today and contemplated.

Challenges abound. Throw a stone and you’ll hit one. How do we deal with that? Everything from #MeToo, further automation, the rise (or not) of the gig economy, mental wellbeing, and diversity and inclusion was on the table. What we looked at were our obligations in navigating each of these challenges. The range of the responses was exhilarating to witness. What was great in this forum was the opportunity to see just how sharp these people are. Hearing other people’s feedback and comments would lead you to go deeper on your own practices.

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