The Quiet Radicals: Didier Elzinga

The mind behind Culture Amp is changing the way people work around the world.

Article by Jen Nurick

Didier ElzingaCulture Amp's Didier Elzinga. Art by Vincent Fantauzzo.

“You are what you pay attention to,” says Didier Elzinga, the founder and CEO of Culture Amp, which launched in 2009. He is borrowing from Buddhism, the teachings of which hark back to ancient India but are engraved in Elzinga’s brain as he helms Culture Amp, awork analytics platform that is improving the employee experience at more than 6,000companies around the globe.

Covid-19, technology, the trials of scaling — all have splintered his attention, he says. “How do I keep rebuilding that, refocusing that attention? Being more intentional, more mindful, more thoughtful about where I’m spending my energy?” he wonders aloud. “Because at any moment, there’s all these things that feel like I should be focusing on them, and for large periods of time I chase all those things and realise I didn’t create any of the value that I’m trying to create.” He is speaking about his challenges and how to problem-solve them, but his words could be taken as an analogy, his questions being the marker of a thriving workplace ecosystem that constantly checks itself — something Elzinga has tried to replicate since his 20s.

Graduating from the University of Adelaide, where he studied mathematical and computer sciences, Elzinga, like so many others, fell into his first job, as a systems administrator at the visual effects company Rising Sun Pictures. He joined a team of six that multiplied into hundreds over the years, shouldering more and more responsibilities — initially as a software engineer, then as a visual effects artist, visual effects supervisor and general manager— until he was appointed the CEO at age 26. There were no short cuts. “You just keep putting your hand up,” he says of his ascent. His appointment came in the wake of tragedy: the world was reeling from the events of 9/11 and, consequently, the film industry ground to a halt. “We literally had no work, no money,” he says. He recalls thinking, “We have to help people find other jobs. We’re stuffed.”

An opportunity to work on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films restored some momentum; “Harry Potter” and “Spider-Man” movies followed. Yet Elzinga foresaw future challenges; Hollywood’s extreme pendulum swings could deliver great highs, but he knew there were more lows to come. “One of my realisations in the film industry at the time was that I had no way of knowing whether we were going to be half the size or twice the size the following year,” he says. “It was, and still is, a really tough industry.”

It sounds like a Herculean feat: organizing groups of 150-plus people for three to nine months at a time. But it was while working on Hollywood’s hallowed sets that Elzinga conceived the idea behind Culture Amp — to make a better world of work. “The biggest lever we had was how we engaged people to work together,” says Elzinga, who was inspired by the thinking that emerged from the fields of aeronautics and software engineering, as well as the rise of the Australian company Atlassian. He envisioned psychology, engineering and user experience working in parallel. And while he still loves film, Elzinga knew he could have a real impact with a software company.

In 2010, he moved to Melbourne and refined his idea in a co-working space alongside two others, Jon Williams and Doug English, who were workshopping their own ventures. “You’re startup people looking for a problem,” Elzinga remembers saying to them. “I have a problem looking for an engineer. Why don’t we do this together?” Williams and English agreed, and they recruited the solution architect and consultant Rod Hamilton, establishing a founding team off our. “It was the best decision I made because, collectively, we had everything we needed to get it off the ground,” says Elzinga.

In 2021, the company reached a $2 billion valuation, formalising its unicorn status. Airbnb was an early adopter, with stablemates including Adobe, McDonald’s and Canva. The valuation is mission-affirming, but Elzinga is chasing something more substantive. “The key thing is how many customers are you helping and what are you doing for those customers?” he says. “I was prouder to pass $100 million in revenue than I was to pass a billion dollars in valuation.” As he sees it, revenue is “a proxy for the value we’re creating for our customers”.

Elzinga believes companies that put culture first optimise the wellbeing and performance of their staff. Culture Amp inextricably links the two, centring employees within a feedback loop. “One of my favourite definitions of engagement is essentially your emotional connection to the goals of the organisation,” says Elzinga, adding that cultures aren’t static but works in progress. No two cultures are the same, and it’s about progression, not maintenance. “The real question as we grow, as we scale, is how do we use that to be an even better version of our aspiration?” Elzinga says, reflecting on the culture of his own organisation and at Culture Amp offices around the world.

For many businesses, the pandemic has highlighted that work culture — rotten or roaring — is key. “It’s way more important than it’s ever been and it’s way harder than it’s ever been,” says Elzinga, citing Covid as a catalyst for belated reckonings on systemic inequities, especially related to race. “We were all thrust into each other’s humanity,” he says. At the peak, he felt like “the whole world’s going to hell in a handbasket and I’m online with these people. I need to know these people matter and they need to know about me. It challenged us in so many ways.” If work culture seemed esoteric before, it became intangible, though paramount. “There’s no consistency or continuity,” says Elzinga. “Everyone’s at home. You’ve got to invent it, you’ve got to deliver on it, you’ve got to say what it is.”

Part of that responsibility, Elzinga believes, falls on employees. But do we actually want to better ourselves? How visceral is the human instinct to instigate cultural change? “Most people are interested in being better and want to push themselves to grow and develop,” says Elzinga. “I think the bigger challenge is most of our attempts to give feedback actually often create more harm than good.” Thankfully, he has a wealth of tools to help with that. Even so, perhaps in a post-pandemic world, employers and employees would do well to heed ancient wisdom, adapting it as needed to enable a more modern way to work.

This is a short extract from our newest issue.

To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 56 of Issue #9, titled “The Quiet Radicals”.