How to Build a Movement, Not Just a Company

with Didier Elzinga. Culture Amp

Thought Leadership

What does it take to really change the world? One of Australia’s most successful companies, Culture Amp, was born from the desire to create a better world of work. The man behind that vision is Didier Elzinga.

Culture and values are at the heart of everything Didier builds, and Culture Amp was no different. Seeking to build a true culture-first company, Didier now creates a massive impact in other organisations through his work and the Culture Amp platform. 

In this episode, Didier unpacks what he’s learnt about leadership over his career, why he’s not fond of commission based salaries, and why he believes culture should come first in every organisation.   

So you first became CEO at just 26, do you think there was a certain quality you possessed that made you take on that much responsibility at such a young age? 

[Didier:] The founders of rising sun were amazing in the sense that they put so much faith in me at that age. But they were also quite insightful in themselves. They knew they didn't want to be CEOs. They loved what they did, but they didn't want to run the company. 

And there weren’t many people in the company at that time that wanted the responsibility. So maybe I was just naive, but I said I'll do that. I'll pick it up.Then once I got it there was no looking back. 

What prompted you to then leave that role to start Culture Amp? 

[Didier:] I wanted to build something that was going to really change the world, and software seemed like a much better way to do it. I had already built another software company on the side in the film space, but it was a very small one. But I started thinking maybe I need to make this my full time thing. And it was actually my wife, who really gave me the courage. She just said, ‘Look, you’ve got to try this.’ 

It was quite hard to walk away, as the CEO of a Hollywood visual effects company. But I thought, if we don't challenge ourselves, we're not going to get anywhere. And so I was inspired by what Atlassian were doing with their software company. I thought I could build a software company. And I noticed that there was nothing out there that spoke to me as a CEO that cared about people and culture. There was administrative HR software, and that was it. And so that was really my impetus to build Culture Amp.

For a long time, Culture Amp only paid their employees a base salary, even to sales teams. And that’s quite unheard of, especially in the SaaS space. What prompted that decision? 

For a long time, we had no variable comp at all. We do now have variable comp on the sales side. Part of the reason for that is when I started this whole thing, a lot of what we were doing was trying to bring to people a more modern approach to how to think about culture and how to think about the systems and the structures that support that. 

When we talk about a commission model, and I've had some fun chats with people over Twitter and they're like, sales is all about commission structures and all those things. And I just asked why? And often people would reply, well, salespeople are coin operated. They're a different type of person. 

And a whole bunch of things go off in my head when somebody says that. Firstly, that's a psychological model that's about 150 years old. We are more complicated than that. And in fact, money is a good motivator for low cognitive load work. If you just need somebody to do something simple faster, money can work. But if you need somebody to engage in high cognitive load work and to be a creative problem solver, money is actually an inhibitor. So this idea that by putting money on the line, you drive better behaviour is something that for me doesn't really add up.

My big thing on this is not to say to people you shouldn't use commissions, my big thing is to say, take ownership over how you're building your culture. Think about what you're rewarding, and what you're not and how you're designing your incentive structures. Because it matters. And salespeople are humans first.

Tell me more about why you’re so passionate about building a culture first community. 

I think, first of all, you have to be purposeful and mission led. Our mission is to create a better world of work. And we can do some of that by putting software in our clients hands. But there is a much bigger group of people that you can affect than just the people that are paying to use your software today. And so from the beginning, I said look, we want to achieve the mission. We're a software company. But at the end of the day, it's not just about how people use our software, it's about achieving the mission and anything is up for grabs. 

So part of it is being mission oriented, and the long view. And then the mission is also about creating energy for us. So we could sit in the corner and do our stuff, but where everybody lights up at Culture Amp, is when we get out there, and talk to people. Talking to people that are actually dealing with these challenges, and they may or may not be in a situation where they want to buy a platform like Culture Amp but their problems are the same. And it's so rewarding and enriching to be in that group of people and be helping them.

Tell us about your journey towards building an anti-racist organisation? 

Hopefully, I'm the CEO and Founder of Culture Amp because I'm smart and talented and driven and all of those things. But I have to acknowledge that there's many people out there that possibly could have done a better job than me, but never even got onto the playing field because every step along the way they weren’t given those opportunities. 

I'm here because I had the fortune of having a fairly good education. I had everything I needed. I had my health and education and all those other things. And so I started from the front.  I was talking to a journalist once and she said, to me, the hallmark of privilege is that you can't see it when you have it. And so that's the thing I have tried to own and I try to get up in front of people and say, I am here as a product of compound privilege. 

And part of my job is to try and unwind that to the best of my ability. I get frustrated when people say what's the economic business case, or the ROI for diversity? And I turn around and say what's the economic case for not having diversity? There is none.

What would you say is the biggest challenge to building a culture first organisation?

It requires you to be incredibly intentional. Culture is there, whether you choose to influence it or not. Culture is the way things get done. It's the norms, it's the interactions. And so the first step is to get clear about what your culture is. A lot of that work is often foundational, what are the values of your company? What are the golden and the shadow sides of those behaviours? And how do they play out? 

And how do you help people understand that and be a place that self-selects? Culture is not soft and fluffy. I often say brand is a promise to a customer, culture is how you deliver on that promise. And so we have to be really clear about what we are building here. And it should be something that allows people to self-select. It's not a situation where we have the moral high ground, therefore our culture is better. It needs to be this is what we care about, and why we care about it. And if you care about this too, come on this journey with us. It’s hard for a lot of companies and for a lot of CEOs and founders to be intentional about the culture they are creating.

There’s more to this episode! To hear all of Didier’s insights, listen to the full episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. 

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