Culture Amp, building “culture first” companies

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Friday, 1.30 pm, San Francisco, CA

When we arrived in Culture Amp’s offices, on the 5th floor of a very well located building in down town San Francisco, everything was silent. And the reason was that everybody was watching TV in the common area. On the screen, you could observe Didier Elzinga, co-founder and CEO of the company who was explaining his vision of the company’s culture. During this keynote which took place in Australia, he was also detailing the company’s values, such as diversity (which is very important to him and americans in general).

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  • What is Culture Amp doing?

Culture Amp offers two products that help companies to assess their employees’ engagement and effectiveness. Those products are platforms which gather different kinds of surveys, with many templates such as 360° reviews, exit surveys etc.

But it goes farther. It’s a platform that they pay for annually, and that they can use as much as they want. Every company has its own goal with this software, but it globally helps create “culture first companies”.

Here is how Didier Elzinga describes a culture first company: “Putting culture first means turning traditional boardroom conversations upside down. Instead of concentrating first on the end result (profits to shareholders) a Culture First company focuses first on employees, as the driver of that performance.”

  • How Culture Amp used to be organized?

Culture Amp has known a very fast growth those last few years. In order to be able to go along with the turnover growth, the company had to hire employees, and now they are close to 100 people big. With this growth the company turned to have a classical way of management.

Once again, we were lucky to arrive in a transition time for the company: last June, Culture Amp decided to transform this model into a flatter management structure. In order to do so, the teams and the roles have been redefined. Before the transformation, the company was organized in a classic way. If you had looked at the organigram back at that time, then you would have seen that Culture Amp was divided into different business units, just like most companies nowadays. Even if there was not a lot of layers of management, they still decided to switch their structure so that it became more “team based”.

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The company structure : before (left) and after (right)

  • How are they organized now?

The model they have adopted is inspired from the book Team of teams (https://www.amazon.com/Team-Teams-Rules-Engagement-Complex/dp/1591847486). This best seller was written by a combat veteran who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and was a great inspiration to many mangers.

Now, the teams are cross-functional and decision power has been more decentralized. Every team will have members with diverse skills and different objectives. There is a “growth team” whose mission is to ensure that every team has what they need in order to achieve their missions. The growth team will be in charge of hiring, for example. At a long run horizon, it is possible that every team will have to take care of those questions (P&L, Hiring, Budget…) by itself.

  • What are the obstacles for Culture Amp?

“As the transformation in Culture Amp is still in progress – does a transformation ever end? – the company still has some things to figure out. It seems that even if the teams are now working on a cross functional way, their members can still feel like they are part of functional teams, as they used to be. Culture Amp is also using their product to ask employees how the transformation is progressing, and have used those insights to find better ways to fully understand how this new model works and where it’s taking them. A transformation takes time. We’ll keep you posted on this one.”

Les baroudeurs