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How a culture-first CEO sees HR, diversity and inclusion

Culture Amp's CEO says, when it comes to D&I, "There’s no right, there’s no ‘best practice and if you just do that you’ll be fine.’ There’s just better than where you are now."

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How a culture-first CEO sees HR, diversity and inclusion

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What does culture look like in the workplace? What does it mean for CEOs, and what does it mean when “culture” is embedded into the products and solutions you offer and even the company’s name?

To find out more, I spoke last week with Didier Elzinga, CEO of Culture Amp, which uses its technology platform to “make your company a better place to work – by making it really easy to collect, understand and act on employee feedback.” Our conversation came just after the company’s Culture First conference, and we discussed what’s important to CultureAmp’s business success, why internal culture matters and what he’s learned over his career.

He also posited a mindset that could be useful for other companies, leaders and officials: What if we treated diversity and inclusion as the default? What if the burden of proof was on showing those concepts don’t work?

Here are some insights from that conversation.

Saying “yes”

Elzinga has what might be an unusual career path, with time as a software engineer, CEO of Rising Sun Pictures, terms as nonexecutive director at Atlassian and also Tourism Australia, and being an adviser to Centor (door and window tech) and Art Processors (museum tech).

This mix of industries and roles doesn’t necessarily have a straight through line, and Elzinga said it resulted from saying “Yes” early and often,. For instance, when asked how he got to work in Hollywood from Australia, “I was too naive to know that I couldn’t.”

“Yeses lead to opportunities, and it leads to experience. And if you grab those opportunities and run with them, and I did in the early years,” he told me, literally to the point of taking people up on offers to visit them. “The worst thing is it comes to nothing. It could be really interesting.”

Eventually, Elzinga says, “you have to get really good at triage and say ‘no’” or else you run out of energy and focus. And, he’s realized how fortunate he was to have these opportunities.

“I have made a conscious decision that … in the limited time I do have to advise companies, it’s to be given to people that did not have the privileges that I had to get to here.”

Diversity and inclusion as the default

Elzinga discussed his awareness of diversity and inclusion issues in a few contexts: his personal journey, D&I in public discussion such as the conference and how Culture Amp has worked toward D&I improvements with customers as well as internally. 

All of this goes back to culture, Elzinga says. “Culture is the way we relate to each other. Culture is the way things are done around here. It’s foundational — so when we say culture first, what we mean is culture comes first. Culture is what will create your outcomes. And whether you do anything or care about it, it’s there.”

Culture is also about how people relate to each other and, ideally, is a living concept that changes over time, he says.

“Wanting to be culture first is a commitment to amplifying what your people are capable of being and achieving. And if you take that lens, it’s very hard not to want to be more inclusive.”

D&I, Elzinga noted, often comes with a question about return on investment. And there is research suggesting that diverse teams can be more successful. But he proposes we not start with that mindset — looking for proof that D&I belongs.

“I think you should do it because we want to build companies that are symbolic of the society that we want to live in. Like you can’t go and build a monoculture on the side and say, ‘but I want to live in a diverse world.’ In some ways, when we talk about ROI on diversity, we should be turning it around and saying, ‘Where’s the evidence that a monoculture is more successful?’ … And unless you can demonstrate to me, provably, that a monoculture creates better business outcomes than a diverse one, why should we build one?”

He also wants to reassess some of the language around the people we’re talking about in a D&I context.

“It’s less about saying ‘I want to have a representative workforce,’ because I think that can be a dangerous place to go, and it’s more about saying, ‘we need to create an environment’” for what Elzinga says his D&I head Steven Huang calls “underestimated groups.”

The formerly incarcerated, as I’ve written about and he cited, are an example of people with skills who aren’t as welcomed as they could be. Being culture-first is about creating a place where those people feel encouraged to go — and the business results follow.

Lessons from within

Culture Amp’s work on D&I started out customer-facing, with a “starter kit” made available to clients and other companies. From there, Elzinga said, Culture Amp has looked to apply those principles from within. A couple of hard truths have emerged: 

  1. It’s difficult.
  2. You can’t get it 100% right.

“I think more than anything, what we learned from that process is just how hard it is,” he told me. “There’s no right, there’s no ‘best practice and if you just do that you’ll be fine.’ There’s just better than where you are now. So it’s very humbling to start to explore these issues, and start to work out where these challenges are.”

The phrase at Culture Amp that’s been coined by an employee is “Be brave, not perfect.”

Where does HR fit into the CEO’s thinking

Culture Amp has a head of diversity and inclusion, and it has a chief people officer. And Elzinga has been specific about what he thinks HR heads should be capable of.

He immediately made two distinctions about silos and the breadth of HR’s potential impact.

“I’m not a big believer in the concept of a chief diversity officer. And my reason for that is that if you create a CDO role, what’s that saying about everybody else on the exec team? ‘I don’t have to worry about that!’ To me, diversity has to be built into everything.”

That, he says, is the difference between having a person as the lead on D&I and a C-level officer who only focuses on that.

For chief HR officers, chief people officers and similar titles, Elzinga looks to them as part of the key business success chain: finance relies on customer centricity, which relies on culture. “Brand is a promise to the customer. Culture is how you deliver it,” is a Culture Amp slogan Elzinga referenced to me and has previously discussed.

HR and people heads need, then, to create the right employee experience that leads to successful customer outcomes. This isn’t a new concept, Elzinga notes, but it remains difficult. “It is brass tacks stuff like management training, leadership training, and so on, but it’s also like, ‘What are we? What is our core ethos and focus?’”

It’s in that area, he says, where HR needs to be the partner, the “confidant” for the other executive team members for the tricky, complex, complicated questions of making the most of the company’s talent and culture. Teamwork is required — especially in a workforce like Culture Amp that is distributed across multiple continents.

HR is a function, but the transformational change comes when HR leaders can inspire great leadership throughout the organization. As Elzinga once wrote for the company blog: “They need to build a system that attracts, retains and grows the right people. And they need to take the rest of their executive team on that journey with them.”


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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