How can leaders best navigate layoffs -- and rebuild for the future? Melbourne-based software firm Culture Amp recently conducted research on this question -- and then unexpectedly faced cuts of its own. CEO Didier Elzinga shares insights from the research and his applied experience, including common myths, surprising findings, and strategies his firm used to recalibrate and reprioritize. He also shared the tough realities leaders must keep in mind during times of change as well as his thoughts on how leaders can better protect healthy cultures at any time. He also shares his lessons learned from his previous career in visual effects - and how story telling insights from those days help him manage change as a leader today.
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Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: We can't just expect people to go, 'Ah cool, I'm here and I have a job now I'm going to work harder'. No they won't; they're going to find it even harder, because they're stressed and they're frightened.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Welcome to Meet the Leader, a podcast where top leaders share how they're tackling the world's toughest challenges. On today's episode, we talk about one of the hardest decisions leaders make – layoffs. We'll learn what some research says is needed to build trust and build resilience. And we'll learn how one leader took that research to heart. Subscribe to Meet the Leader on Apple, Spotify, and wherever you get your favourite podcasts. And please take a moment to read and review us. I'm Linda Lacina from the World Economic Forum and this is Meet the Leader.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: How do we as an organization create space to process the grief of the people leaving and also the people staying? That's probably the critical thing to sit down and figure out.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: The economy has had its share of shifts this year and we all watched as some of the biggest companies in the world, some in seemingly bulletproof fields like tech, saw layoffs for the first time ever.
Layoffs are a difficult decision and they are one that no leader wants to make, and they're also one that few leaders are fully prepared for. Few leaders have a full understanding of how job cuts affect the remaining team, or even the company's next steps.
Didier Elzinga has a unique perspective on this situation. His Melbourne-based software firm, Culture Amp conducted special research to better understand layoffs and how they impact teams' engagement. And then the impossible happened. Culture Amp faced cuts of its own this year, and when that hard day came, he had research in hand to better serve both his company, his previous staff and his team going forward.
He'll tell us about that research, what it taught him and how that very unique experience can help any leader, especially as companies could face more potential shifts in the coming year. He'll also talk about how he has evolved as a leader, including running a Hollywood visual effects company at just 26. He'll tell us about all that. But first, he'll talk to us about Culture Amp.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Everything starts for us at Culture Amp with the mission. So our mission is to create a better world of work and culture. The Culture Amp platform is a software platform to help companies put intentional culture at scale.
So how do you drive intentional culture at scale? And it's all the things that encompass the employee experience. So we give visibility to the experience of all your employees. What is that experience – and we're going to talk about some of that today in terms of what we see and what we've learned – driving the productivity and capability of managers and leaders.
And then the part that I'm the most excited about, which is how do you help the critical mass of people in your company move from culture consumers to culture creators? So that's the Culture Amp platform. We work with about 7,000 companies around the world, just passed 1.1 billion data points in terms of those employee experiences. And then how do we use those experiences and that data to drive impact in all the organizations we work with?
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And just to give us a sense of the type of topics your guys' research has looked into, give us a sense of that scope.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: So one of the reasons why we started Culture Amp is this idea that there's decades worth of learning in organization development, hire psychology and so on, but a lot of it's not actually being used inside organizations, it's not being applied. And so the science and the research that we draw upon, and then are also able to contribute to, is engagement, wellbeing, diversity and inclusion. What is the experience of your employees and how is that changing over time? And most importantly, how do you try to drive behaviour change around those experiences? So it's research in every aspect of the employee experience.
And probably just for people that aren't familiar with it, at its heart, a lot of what we do is surveys so that that may be obvious to some and not to others. So when people go, 'What is the experience of my employees. How do you figure that out?' One of the best ways is to ask them. And so the Culture Amp platform allows our companies and our customers to design surveys that understand and get into what is a bad experience.
So we're constantly looking at that over time. We did some really interesting research into performance management, into well-being, into diversity inclusion. And then over the last year, as we saw, the real economy shift happened and we saw companies starting to lay off at some scale. We thought, 'Okay, this is a really interesting opportunity to get some insight into what happens when companies go through layoffs.' So we have lots of companies that have gone through layoffs. What's the experience before? What's the experience after? How does that change and what might that tell us about any future layoffs that organizations have to go through?
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Tell us a little bit about the pool of types of either companies, or the types of people, that were surveyed.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: About 7,000 customers around the world. Every company, every size, every industry. So smallest companies are 10 people, largest companies have 120,000 people. For the purpose of this, we sort of went through and we looked at organizations that were doing surveys before and after. We were able to get a pretty decent set of customers that fit that criteria. And then we're looking at which ones are using standard questions that we can benchmark.
So a lot of questions around engagement, attitude to managers, all of the sorts of different pieces that you might expect. And often when we're looking at research, they're being done on relatively small incisors, like they're being done with a small panel or something like this. We actually identified 150 customers, we were able to access that experience going through. And so across all of those, that's thousands and thousands and thousands of employees.
Linda Lacina: And with the surveys, what surprised you about this particular research? Was there any sort of development or any sort of answer that you thought, 'Gosh, like that wasn't something I was expecting?'
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: I think in some ways it wasn't that it was not expected, but the data showed out really strongly some things that maybe we had assumed or thought might be true. But the data really brought to bear.
One of the big ones is you don't just snap back from layoffs. And I think this is one of my own personal views – like I've been around industry a long time, I was in film before, I've seen this cycle – and oftentimes you get this line, particularly from board and investors where they're like, 'Oh, look, times are tough; just let go of the bottom 10%. You'll be a better company for layoffs.' And I know that's rubbish. It's just not true.
But what the data showed was it's actually much more significant. And that's not just a blip. You don't just do layoffs, and then a month later, everyone bounces back. And we even saw in the press, a lot of leaders talking about that going, 'Oh, you know, I didn't want to do it, but now we've done it with such a better company for it.' Well, the data shows us that just isn't true. It takes almost a year, sometimes a year and a half, for people to get back to the sorts of experiences that happened pre-layoffs.
The other one that maybe was - we weren't necessarily expecting, is that companies that had really good engagement pre-layoffs weren't immune. So it goes back to this idea that layoffs are at some level a breach of trust with your employees, and it changes things. So what we saw was that it was actually the companies that had the lowest engagement that bounced back the fastest – I guess, because people didn't expect much to begin with. But in those companies where you had strong cultures, you can't just rely on the fact that you had good engagement pre-layoffs to automatically assume that everything will be fine. You have to put a lot of work back in, to get it back to where it was.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: That year to 18 months that it takes to get back to the pre-layoff levels, that's an incredibly long time. You mentioned that, 'Yeah, it's a little bit surprising', but I would think that a lot of people would not have thought it would reach into a year-and-a-half mark. Tell me a bit about how that changes the calculus for what people aren't putting into place.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: It's not necessarily what people are putting into place. because I don't think what we saw was, 'Oh, you know, there's a series of things you should have done that you didn't realize.' It just speaks to the what's actually going on underneath, and so what it then informs us as leaders is to think about is you can't diminish how big a change this is. It can be the right thing to do. You needed to have given people a sense of what was coming, and why, and helping people understand it. But even if you do, it's still a shock. Like there is this trust thing and you have to rebuild trust. Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets. Layoffs reset you, and it will take a long time for you to rebuild that trust with people. So probably the thing that we see people taking away from this data is: it's not a 30- or 60-day change management exercise. Post layoffs. Cool. Get back to business. It's "We've done it. We actually have to focus on this for at least the next year to help get people back to a place where, you know, we can put that behind us."
You can't diminish how big a change this is. It can be the right thing to do. But even if you do, it's still a shock.”
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And in these cultures where they've done such a great job of engaging teams throughout their careers at the company, why is there not that sort of same prep maybe ahead of a big restructuring? Why does that piece not get put into place?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Once again, I'm not sure that it doesn't. I mean, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Firstly, when people are doing layoffs, by its very nature, you're not consulting with everyone in the company. You're not able to go and sit down with them and say, "Hey, look, we're thinking about this." So it tends to be ... it has to be done in a very small group, which means that when you actually do come time to doing it, it's shock for a very large number.
Now those organizations which have got high engagement are often more open, more collaborative, more connected. So the difference between those two experiences is very high. And once again, it's a recognition that, you know, you've got into a very difficult situation, you've had to make a very difficult choice. You don't want to back down from that choice. You've got to move forward, but you can't diminish it. So I keep coming back to that. It's not necessarily that people aren't doing things that they should have been doing. It's just that you can't diminish how big a thing this actually is. And you have to take that on board when you're thinking about what's going to happen next.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And given some of the insights that you saw from the survey, what might be important for leaders to consider when it comes to rebuilding that trust and engaging with employees that are remaining on the team after the layoffs?
Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.”
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Yeah, I think there's two really big things that we've seen and that I've talked to other leaders about.
The first one is going in knowing why you're doing it. And once again, there's a lot of myths and a lot of stuff that gets thrown around. And one of the classic ones is people saying, just drop the bottom 10%. It's B.S. First of all, you don't have the tools to really figure out who those people are. No matter how well you run the process, you will make mistakes. Good people will end up leaving because of it, either because you chose them or because they get annoyed with the process. And there's no bravado or heroism in this. One of the analogies that I often think of is it's not that you don't have to do it, but you're cutting off your arm to survive. You're not just getting fit.
So the first thing is take that off the table. It doesn't mean that you don't necessarily look at performance as part of the process, but that's not the driving factor. Really, it's one of two things. Either you're just in a dire situation and you have to get smaller and you have no real choice and basically 10% or 20% of people have to go, and it's that brutal. If that's what it is, be honest about it.
If you have more opportunity, then often what it is, is we're the wrong shape. Like the last X couple of years have meant that we're now looking at ourselves going, 'This is not the company that's going to be successful into the future. We're going to have to reshape the company.' And that's a different process than the other one. If you're doing the second one, you don't go to everyone and say, 'Tell me the 10% that you don't need.' You actually have to be much more strategic about which are the roles that we thought we needed, we don't need which of the roles that we might do, invested in. So going in know why you're doing it and be really clear about that.
On the other side, we had the pleasure of having Esther Perel talk about Culture First Global, and she and I had a great conversation about this and she was saying one of the things we don't get right in organizations is processing grief. And that's what layoffs are about. They are about grief – for the people that are leaving, but also for the people that stay and survive it. Survivor guilt is a real thing. And so how do we as an organization create the space to process the grief of the people leaving and also the people staying? That's probably the critical thing to sit down and figure out.
How do we as an organization process the grief of the people leaving and also the people staying? That's probably the critical thing to sit down and figure out.”
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And your research also finds that, you know, this is an opportunity for leaders to really step up. So given that and given all these opportunities, we're talking about giving people a window into what we actually need right now or processing grief. What are your thoughts? What should leaders be doing? What can they be thinking about that maybe they wouldn't have considered?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Well, one thing we saw happen through some of the layoffs – and it's something that I saw Atlassian do, it's something that we did, and some of the other companies I know do – is traditionally the perceived wisdom is when you do layoffs on the day the people that are leaving are gone. And the reason for that is to sort of corral the interruption. You don't want those people's severe anxiety, which is real, to then spill over into everybody else. And that's really hard to manage.
That's a really poor way of processing grief. The vast majority of people that are leaving did nothing wrong. Like the day before they were your friends and colleagues, people that you cared about and trusted. And now that you know they're gone. And that was doubly so during the pandemic when someone sitting at home the day before, and on screen their whole life is your company, and then the next day they're locked out of all the systems. So actually considering creating a little more space from once the decision has been made, and people have been communicated, to actually allow people to say goodbye, to allow people to sit down to it and to recognize that that's not all going to be pretty. Some of those people are going to be really upset and frustrated and they're going to want to tell you that. And as a leader, that's what your job is. You have to see that, you have to hear it. You have to realize that at some level, even if this is the right decision and you not choosing to do layoffs would have been a bigger failure of leadership, not bearing witness to the pain and the suffering that those layoffs creates is also a failure of leadership.
Not bearing witness to the pain and the suffering that layoffs creates is a failure of leadership.”
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Layoffs post-pandemic worked a little bit differently than maybe classic layoffs before that. Were there any sorts of tactics or approaches that you thought were maybe shocking, or even ones that you thought were like, gosh, you know what, for this kind of hybrid remote world, this is an appropriate way to do this, or this is maybe a helpful way to think about this? What kind of struck you?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Going through the whole thing, someone I was talking to said something that really rang true with me. There is no good way to do layoffs. They are just lots of bad ways. And so I think when we reflect on it and, you know, there was a lot of commentary on what people were doing, I want to be careful not to kind of go, 'Oh, that person did it really badly,' or go, 'Wow, I can't believe that company did that.' Because you're always trying to make really difficult trade-offs and one of the really hard trade-offs at the heart of it is: in a perfect world, every person that's been laid off gets an opportunity to have a to find out directly, to hear it from someone they know and trust, to be able to do that in a thoughtful way. At the same time, once you start telling people, everybody knows. And so, the only thing worse than not having that being communicated to you cleanly, is knowing that it's happening and not knowing if it's happened yet.
And so all the companies were trying to resolve that. Some people did it by sending emails out to everybody. Some people did it by trying to run meetings. But in this entirely global world, you couldn't do the way that a lot of people used to do it. It used to be like a rolling process where it would start somewhere, and that happened in other places and you can sort of rely on the fact that the information can get out... That doesn't fly anymore. So I think everyone's still trying to find the right way to do that. So it wasn't necessarily shocking, but it was challenging.
One thing that the good companies did right – and I guess I wouldn't call it shocking, but if companies aren't doing it, it's a really serious miss – is doing adverse impact analysis when they go through the process. Where it's really hard to figure out who it is you're going to end up laying off, but at some point you actually have to stop and go, 'Have we inadvertently taken out a section of the -- of our employee base that we didn't even realize is putting us back three years on our diversity inclusion efforts?' And that's a really easy thing to do even if you don't if you're not paying attention. So something that the best companies are doing is actually doing that in a very thoughtful and very analytical way.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And Culture Amp went through its own layoffs this year. Can you talk a little bit about the the change, the pivot, that Culture Amp needed to make?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Yeah. So we're a fast growth tech company. We're affected by all the same things as every other company, which was, you know, late last year you started to see all our customers hit the brakes, budgets got put to zero, hiring got slashed. And so late in the year, we started to get the same feedback that all the VC boards were getting, which is like, "Hey, you know, this is a different world. You should be cutting costs. You should consider cutting your burn. You should be thinking doing layoffs." The research we did was actually part of me going to the board and saying, 'I'm not making that call, not yet. You know, here's the path, here's what we're going to do. We want to see if we can run this through without doing layoffs. And here's the research and here's why.' So it was actually really powerful to have that research. It helped me explain to the board why we weren't going to do what a lot of our competitors and peers were doing. So we held that line and then we held it for another three or four months.
And then what we found was that the world had continued to change, we were continuing to try and get to a place that we weren't yet at. We were like, 'If we can just improve the situation, then we won't have to make this call.' But also the layoff drumbeat had got so loud, so many companies had done it. It was one of those things where a lot of people were like, ;Well, if we are going to have to do it at some point, let's just call it. There's no point having it hanging over your head, because we don't know when this is going to change.'
But essentially it got to the point where I looked at it and went, 'I can't keep running the company on the hope that we will be able to change to where we need to be. I need to change the company to what the reality is. And then once we've done that, then we're back in the path where we can ride that out as long as it takes.' And so' as always, that is the toughest choice you have to make. So for me, it was more the latter. The company had got to a sort of structure and size that was not right for the world that we were now in, and we had to make that change.
And so we did. And we took on board a lot of the things that we had learnt through the research in terms of how to manage that space. We created an extra week off the end once we told people to allow them to say goodbye. We actually ran AMAs internally – so 'ask me anythings' – not just for all the staff that was staying, but also for those that were leaving. And some of those were really challenging, because there were people that were legitimately and appropriately really annoyed, really upset, really frustrated.
And so as I said before, I think it was actually an important part of managing that experience is actually creating that space. And something else that we did that I think worked really well too, is we created a channel in Slack for all those people that were leaving and the people that were still coming to talk to each other and share those things, because not everybody wants to do it in person. Some people need a space, not a person, to talk to. So we engaged as much as we could in creating that space and obviously looking after people in a way that to the best extent we could, gave them as long, longer runway to figure out what that was going to do next.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And then the remaining team, what steps and what things did you put in place to make sure that that group was feeling engaged, that the trust was strengthened with that group, that you could kind of steel yourself for that 12 to 18 months until the company kind of gets back to that, that normal that you saw in the research? What kind of things did you put in place for the remaining team?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: So, I mean, firstly, just acknowledging what had happened, and acknowledging that just because people still had a job, they're not necessarily going to just be happy about that. They were going to be people that are annoyed because of the choices you've made. There are people that aren't going to understand why we made those choices. And so a lot of it comes back to re-communicating what we're doing and then focusing as best you can on prioritization. Because the other big part of our research is you go from having 100% of your resources to having 80 or 90% of your resources, and yet at the same time you're trying to grow or... you can't just ask everybody to do more with less.
And that's a really hard line to run because there is an element of that's what you are doing and the only path through that is ruthless prioritization. So how do we get everyone aligned on what's most important? How do we allow people to drop things that aren't important and how do we focus everybody on the things that will make a difference and how we move the needle? And so that's really what we've been focussed on, in terms of what we're communicating at leadership lab.
We have a thing which we call the Situation Room. So twice a week anyone in the company can come along and we do an update on how we're going as a business. We share like company level strategic objective updates and it's really designed to give everyone in the company like a bird's eye view on what's going on. And we actually kind of overhauled and shifted the way we were communicating in that meeting, like the way we were talking about what we were talking about, the things we're focussed on, because we realized like this is our most important opportunity to help people understand what the path out looks like. We can't just expect people to go, 'Ah cool, I'm here and I have a job now I'm going to work harder'. Which, once again, is a little bit of what you hear in the press of, 'Now that we've done layoffs, people will finally work hard.' No they won't; they're going to find it even harder, because they're stressed and they're frightened.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: What was that change that you made in in the communication and in the alignment there that you felt like really made made a difference, for that particular context?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: You constantly have to reinvent these things, but I think we'd sort of fallen into almost just reading out, "Here are all the numbers that the business is run by", and we weren't giving enough strategic context. And we also aren't giving enough insight into what had changed. So what we really did was we got the two things. We first of all focussed it down and said, "Here are the five key numbers for the whole company in priority order." Cash was number one, as it was for a lot of companies. After the layoffs, we were able to go, "That's still important, but that's not priority anymore. Another metric is the priority." And so we go through them in priority order and that helps people understand that here's where we're focusing our attention.
But a key part of it was also going... more of a momentum focus. So we do those updates every two weeks. We interlink different meetings. And so it's in the last two weeks, are we on track? Are we not on track? If we're not on track, are we making up ground or losing ground? And if we're losing ground, it's us as a company versus the problem. Not why is that one person not doing their job? And so what we've found is that's really helped in getting everyone aligned to where are we going, getting more clarity. And then trying to manage that that burnout issue.
Now, we're not perfect, like we're still a growth business, we're growing quickly. And so managing burnout and all the work that needs to be done is a perennial challenge, and prioritization is really the only way that you can navigate that.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: It's interesting as you speak about this, that a lot of drama comes with headlines that say 'such and such companies cutting this' or 'there's a risk that there might be more job cuts in this industry'. But there's not really a lot of talk about the decisions that need to be made, once those cuts happen and little snippets of help to leaders of companies of all size, teams of all size and what they need to do with fewer and fewer resources. What is your thoughts about that? Why don't we give people the tools more when it comes to these big changes?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: I mean, part of it is we've all just come off big boom runs. And so everybody was what everybody wanted to know was, how do I get scale and how do I grow really fast and how do I hire lots of people? And now people are sitting, not going, 'Yeah, how do I do more with less?' And the trick here is not trying to get through that with bravado. And that's the thing of sitting down and going, 'It's something we all have to figure out how to do together.'
But equally, we can't solve that problem by just lowering all our goals. And go, 'Well, we just we just got to give up. There's no way we can achieve at a really high level anymore. We just have to lick our wounds.' We can't do that either. And so there is a line in the middle where we sit down and go, 'Okay, what does it look like to be truly great? How do we do that together? And then how do we be truly great for a long time?'
And in some ways I think this is actually a good and healthy thing because one of the downsides of the previous growth model was that in some ways people punted on that second thing. They're like, 'We're just going to grow really, really, really fast and we going to grow so fast we can paste over any of the gaps. And if we burn people out, they'll still be new people we can bring in, so we'll be fine.' Whereas now we're like, 'I'm actually we have to look after the people we've got. We've got to help them perform at a really high level and we have to figure out how we can all do that collectively for a very, very long time.' That's what it takes to build a really great business. That's the sort of intentional culture of scale that we're fascinated and passionate about.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: You were talking about scale and how the big goal was how do we get bigger and better? And because that's what the opportunity was, there wasn't a capability built for "let's do as much as we can with as little as possible". And so what I think was helpful is that this tool that you have of asking these couple of questions of how can we be the best company that we can be and how do we do that going into the future? Those are questions that companies can ask themselves at any time, and it taps into the capabilities that they already had, which is, "I want to be great. I want to be the best." And so it builds on something, a strength that they already have.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. I think in some ways we're going back to fundamental stuff, which is good. It doesn't mean it's easy though. And one of the things I take a lot of inspiration from, if you look at professional sport, we've got the women's soccer World Cup on in Australia at the moment, know we've just come out of the NBA finals. What I find fascinating is when you hear coaches talk about sporting teams at the highest level, they'll talk about 'we have an identity, a culture. And the challenge is not having an identity or culture; the challenge is how do you keep it when everyone else is trying to take it away from you? And so I think that's actually the really fascinating question for the company is not just 'what makes us great?', but 'how do we hold to that, what makes us great, even when the world is against us, even when things are hard, even when we don't have the resources that we need?' Those are the things that are trying to build you out of what you need to be. If you can hold it, the great companies are the ones that maintain that culture no matter what.
One of the biggest challenges in any purpose led company is how you balance pursuit of that purpose, with the standards and levels of performance that are required to be world class.”
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And when you ask yourself that question, you know, how will we hold on to this? What is the main ingredient that Culture AMP needs, do you think?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: One of the biggest challenges in any purpose led company is how you balance pursuit of that purpose, with the standards and levels of performance that are required to be world class. So in some companies they get away with this by just basically going, 'We don't care about you as a human, we just need you to achieve this thing. We care about how much money you make, that's all we care about.' And that's a horrible place to be, and it's a horrible place to work.
Our mission is to create a better world of work. No-one works at Culture Amp because they don't want to create a better world of work. The work required to build the best product in the world to help our customers do that is really, really hard. We hold ourselves to a very high level, and a very high bar. Managing the tension between those two... yeah, Culture Amp is probably emotionally one of the most exhausting places to work because you both have to do great work, you have to care about people, you have to really lean into things that are difficult, and you have to do all of that all of the time. And so for us at Culture Amp, it's navigating that. It's the helping everyone in the company constantly balance that. Yeah, I think that's probably the heart of it.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: One of your earliest biggest leadership experiences was you ran a visual effects company. You were the head of that company at 26. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Yeah. So I'm a computer scientist by training. Fell out of uni straight into this small five person post-production company that was doing TV commercials and websites and so on. And I started as a software engineer or actually a sysadmin software engineer. Then I was an artist, then a supervisor and ultimately the CEO. And we transformed as a company into a Hollywood visual effects company. So we worked on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Batman, Superman. I've realized that it doesn't matter what I do with Culture Amp, it's cooler that I worked on Harry Potter. So yes, that part's done and behind me.
And what we did was computer generated imagery. So in the Goblet of Fire, we created the Goblet of Fire, that type of stuff. And what I learned through that was, you know, we would have 200 people working for two years on a Hollywood blockbuster, and we would be bringing people in from all over the world. And that team would be working crazy hours, insane amounts of work to try and get that film out the door. And so I got really, really interested in the power of culture and how do you bring people together to be successful in those environments?
And so the reason I ultimately left that industry to start Culture Amp was, I was like, am I going to make a big enough change in the world making Expendables 26? Probably not. Like, alright, I think I can make a greater scale by going back to software. I'd already built another software company in the image space. I'm going to give the software company, what do I care about?
As a CEO, you're a glorified psychiatrist. So, like, I care about people and culture – and that's where that mission of creating a better world of work came from. How do we amplify the experience and the impact of over 100 million people at work? So that idea for me is the genesis of Culture Amp. And it was actually my wife who gave me the confidence when she said like, 'Look, you're young enough to fail. Try. Step out. Let's see if you can do it.' So it was that that was the shift for me from from film to software.
My wife who gave me the confidence when she said like, 'Look, you're young enough to fail. Try. Step out. Let's see if you can do it.'”
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: When you were working at the visual effects company, when you took on the CEO role, it was right after 9/11 and film was at a complete standstill. How did that sort of prepare you maybe for some of these other challenges that we've had in recent years, including COVID?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: So film was definitely a crucible. You mentioned 9/11, and I remember the moment I remember when it happened and what happened post that was film was a confidence industry. So just after 9/11, no one was greenlighting films, because no-one knew what the future was going to look like. So because we're in visual effects at the end, basically an air bubble went through the film process, and about nine months later there was no work, like none. It was just no films being made, so there was no work. And so that was my first experience, at age 24, 25, I was a general manager at the time and all that work just evaporated. We had about 30 people and I had to turn around and say to the team, many of which I'd gone to school with, "We can't hit payroll next week. Like, we just ... everything's just gone."
And that was a formative and awful experience, a part of my experience that I've had to go through it, and I refuse to romanticize it or glorify because it's a horrible situation to be in. Now, what actually happened was we went through that process. We sort of figured out what we were going to do. Three days later, we managed to get work on Lord of the Rings, Return of the King. So we actually didn't end up having to lay anyone off in that process, even though we'd done all of the horrible work to have to prepare for it.
And we rebounded almost straight away and then ended up building this big company off the back of it. But film taught me just how fast stuff can change, and how difficult a lot of these things can be. It also taught me the power of storytelling, and so it's funny that I now reflect... like I don't think I realized when I was working for Hollywood just how much I was learning about it. But most of what I do today is storytelling. Like, how do you help people understand what the data says? How do you help people turn that into something that they can give to other people to help change behaviour?
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: What's a surprising way that you sort of leverage that movie background into your work at Culture Amp?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: When we hit COVID, I actually did a video back to the team every day for three months. You know, I think one of your roles as a leader is to absorb fear. So how do you help people understand the space we're in? And you don't absorb fear by having answers all the time. You absorb fear by sharing stories and sharing experiences. And so what I was doing in that process was just like, 'Here's what's going on in my life. Here's what I'm thinking about. Here's what I'm worried about. Here's what I'm taking energy and excitement from'
One of your roles as a leader is to absorb fear. And you don't absorb fear by having answers all the time. You absorb fear by sharing stories and sharing experiences.”
And I felt a little silly doing it to begin with. I was kind of doing it because I intellectually knew it was a good idea. But, as we went through the whole process, it was something that I got a lot of feedback from people that just helped provide an anchor. Storytelling is quite primal. It's about sitting around a fire and hearing about other people's experiences. That's the heart of what storytelling is. And so I think I was reminded very viscerally of that during COVID, and it's something that I probably talk about with other CEOs and other leaders a lot.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: I read that there's a quote from you, "You are what you pay attention to." Tell me a little bit about that.
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: It's a Buddhist quote: "You are what you pay attention to." It's a reminder that in this world, our attention is constantly being stolen and taken it to different places. And it's a reminder to myself to step back and go where I choose to put my attention is what I am. So I can say that I want to be this, but if I'm not actually paying attention to that, then I'm not. And so, like one of the little examples of this my wife and I do on the weekends, is we have a kind of a rule with each other, which is if we take our phone out, we have to say to the other person what we're doing. And so it's just a sort of mindful hack where you go, 'Oh, I'm pulling my phone out to check the score of a game that I want to see if it's finished.' And the reason you do it is half the time you pull out your phone and you're like, 'I don't know why I just took my phone out.'
It's just that I've been trained to get some sort of endorphin hit by looking at something. I'm not very good at doing that all the time. But when we're together with the kids or on the weekend, that little act itself is a reminder of where my attention goes. But the same thing ladders up as a CEO. So I constantly sit down and look at where is my time being spent, and does that time line up to where it should be spent for what Culture Amp's CEO ought to be doing? So 'you are what you pay attention to' is a constant reminder of how I need to be better.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Is there a particular thing that you're paying attention to at Culture Amp, or even just in life in general, that you think is really important?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: We could spend the whole hour talking about that topic. For me, a constant reminder of the three things I strive to spend the most time on, as the CEO is brand culture and product. And brand for me is as much just talking to customers, like how are people experiencing our products and services? You can never get enough of that as a CEO, hearing it directly from customers. Product is obvious. We are a product company, but once you get to a thousand people, it's really easy to get subsumed in the bazillion things that you need to do that are about creating a great product. So, once again, it's just constant reminding myself to come back to that.
And then culture, obviously, that's who we are and what we do. But once again, you can get dragged away from it a lot. And so those are the three kind of attention lodestones for me, in my role. They'll be different for different people, but for me those are the three. In my own life, it's spending more time not trying to do something, because I think we're we're so goal focussed and goal orientated. It's actually... that's not natural and it's actually really important to your brain to spend some time not doing that. Once again, easy for me to say, hard for me to do.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And how would that play out in your day to day, if you were not trying to do something? What would that look like?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Well, so there's a really great book, Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. And one of the things he really brings home is that I think we're all caught up in the idea that just sitting on a bench in a park feels like a wasted opportunity. There's emails we could be answering, there's Instagram feeds we could be looking at, there's people we could be calling, there's runs we could be doing... all of these things. But actually in the context of living a full and fulfilling life, just sitting on a park bench is actually right up there. And so for me, that's kind of what it is sometimes. I mean, if you spend your whole life sitting on a park bench, maybe not. But for many of us, we could spend more time sitting on a park bench and be all the richer for it. Sorry that the two dogs you can probably hear in the background is Zubin and Clara.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Zubin and Clara, as I kind of chat, let them kind of get what they needed from each other...
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: This is just proving this is post-COVID.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Exactly. Is there something that you do now, as a leader that maybe would never have occurred to you at the beginning of your career, something some habit that you've sort of developed over time or something that you just can't work without?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: I think my biggest journey as a leader is having to learn not to get involved. If people are familiar with the drama triangle, one of my weaknesses is a rescuer. So I will see something and want to get in there and help. And one of the things you realize is that as a CEO, it's great for you to get in there and help. It's great to talk to people, it's great to be accessible. But at some level, if you get in and help, that itself is a failure. Like what it does is it acknowledges that something out there isn't working right. And the fact that you had to come in and make it better is something that's probably not right.
And so the thing I've had to learn how to do is look at stuff and I'm still terrible at it and go, 'Okay, maybe I could help here, maybe I could fix this. But then what? Like, actually, I need to sit on my hands and not get engaged.' And it's so hard. It's so hard.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And is that basically the question that you ask yourself? And then what?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: It is totally. And then what? And then who's going to do what? Like I get in and help, and then what? And then what's going to happen? And who's going to run with this? And is there is there a better way to navigate?
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Absolutely. You mentioned one book already that you that you enjoyed, but is there a book that you recommend?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: I'm a huge reader, so there's like hundreds of books. But probably the book that I would recommend the most to other leaders is The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Terrible cover, terrible title. Jim Loehr is a sports psychologist, the core of the book is what we need to do is manage energy, not time. And he talks about the rituals and the behaviours that you create around different types of energy. And so it's fundamentally interesting and important to what I was talking about before around attention and other things. And as a leader, it gets right to the heart –you've got physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy. And we tend to be overtrained and under supported in different ones, depending on our lives. So that's the book I would recommend.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: And if someone read that, how would it shape them? How would it impact them?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: Once again, it goes back to when we think about productivity, we're constantly thinking about how do I spend my time? But the point that they make in the book is that the energy that you bring to that time, is probably more determinative of the outcome than the time itself. So understanding for yourself how to manage your days in your life, and putting in appropriate rituals to allow you to have the energy when you need it, not just the time.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Is there a piece of advice that you've always been grateful for?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: One piece of advice, and it's actually on a T-shirt that I own, and it's an old Danish proverb, which is: He knows the water best, who has waded through it. And I think it's just a reminder that doing great things is hard. Like when things are hard, that's telling you you're in the right place, and you have the right to talk about whatever it is that you're doing. It's not all sweetness and rainbows. And often I think that's what you need, just to pick yourself up and keep going.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: Is there anything else that is really important that you'd like people to be thinking about, or that you'd like to leave listeners with?
Didier Elzinga, Culture Amp: I mentioned earlier that we did this work with Esther Perel, and the thing that she talked about that I'm really thinking on, so I offer this out for everybody else too, is: we find ourselves in a world where everybody's been so hammered, through everything that we're all in threat-based mode. And we're not our best in threat-based mode. And so we're in a world that's seeking increasing amounts of polarization. And you only have to look at politics and all of these things to understand that. And so I spent a lot of time thinking about how can we get out of that? Because this is not a path that we want to go down. Polarization doesn't help anybody. And I think if the next five years are going to be better than the last five years, collectively, we're going to have to find a way to stop polarizing everything so massively inside so heavily.
Linda Lacina, Meet The Leader: That was Didier Elzinga. Thanks so much to him. And thanks to you for listening. A transcript of this episode and my colleagues episodes, Radio Davos and the Book Club podcast are available at wef.ch/podcasts. This episode of Meet the Leader was presented and produced by me with Jere Johansson as editor and Gareth Nolan driving studio production. That's it for now. I'm Linda Lacina, with the World Economic Forum. Have a great day.
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
Many aspects of the ways that governments and businesses operate are in flux, due in large part to the sweeping technology changes propelling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Leadership is no exception. As a new generation of leaders take on challenges such as striking a healthy balance of views expressed on their social media platforms, developing private efforts to fill gaps in public social protections, and crafting public policies that govern technology access, an ability to apply responsibility and purpose will be key.