Online Courses in Mental Health

#40 Creating a better world of work – Didier Elzinga, CEO, Culture Amp (s02ep16)

Sep 2, 2022

Didier Elzinga is the Founder and CEO of Culture Amp, the world's leading workplace culture analytics platform. Culture Amp's mission is to create a better world of work, and they believe that putting culture first is crucial to that mission. Founded in 2009, they were recently valued at $2b and were named last year as one of the world's most innovative companies. They are currently monitoring 6000 workplaces and 25 million employees. So their culture driven approach is obviously working well for them. Didier embodies a caring CEO, so there's a lot to be learnt here for anyone else who believes in the value of caring.
"You've got to open up your brain, except the humbling lessons you're gonna learn and realize that it's a journey you'll never finish."
- Didier Elzinga


  • The 2 drivers needed to create a better world of work.
  • The idea of “Compound Privilege” and how to unwind this way of thinking.
  • The type of roles that will be evolving in the next few years.
  • The high rate of suicide amongst men.
  • How storytelling can change cultures and reduce stigma around mental health.


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Transcript from the interview

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Graeme Cowan, Didier Elzinga

Graeme Cowan 0:57 

It’s a real pleasure to interview Didier Elzinga today. Lovely to have you on the show, Didier.

Didier Elzinga 1:50 

Thanks, Graeme. I’m looking forward to being here. And you know, spending a bit of time talking about things we both care about.

Graeme Cowan 1:57 

What does care in the workplace mean to you?

Didier Elzinga 2:02 

Means many things, and I expect we’ll probably spend the rest of the podcast kind of pulling that apart. But for me, the core of it is, is how do leaders feel about people? What is the role of the people in the organization, and it’s one of the things we see in our data, which is highly engaged workplaces require people to believe that their leaders care about them as people, not just as resources or units or ways of achieving a business outcome? So, for me, that’s what it is. Do you consider more than just their capability to achieve what the work is required? And do you care about them as a human? It’s such a circular thing care. 

Graeme Cowan 2:44 

So, we at WeCARE365, you know, and this podcast, believe that a caring CEO champions, both the culture of care, and the culture of high performance and Culture Amp has certainly been a high performing organization. So how do you juggle those two things?

Didier Elzinga 3:03 

Eternally. I think there’s two pieces. So, the first piece is that we say up front that we think it matters, we want to be a place, you know, our mission at Culture Amp is to create a better world of work. And we have two drivers for that. One is we know that that’s what leads to better organizations and better outcomes, so our customers care. But secondly, for better or for worse, work is increasingly the way we create identity in our lives. And so, at the individual level, there’s almost a moral imperative there where the world of work has to be increasingly meaningful and supportive for individuals if we’re going to have people that can have constructive lives. And so that’s very much the mission we signed up for, we want to help on both those fronts. 

Graeme Cowan 3:50 

I interviewed previously a guy called Bob Chapman, he wrote the book, ‘Everybody Matters’. And, you know, he’s had a very successful career growing his company, Barry Wehmiller. And he also really believes in care and believes that if you do that in the workplace, it flows through to the home life and people have a good day at work. It helps to set up a good, a good day at home when you get home. And of course, there’s boundaries have been really melded with the whole COVID and the hybrid working and all that sort of stuff. But it is interesting, isn’t it, he even tentatively thought about trying to reduce the divorce rates, employees, I just love the way people view that as you know, it just doesn’t apply to work. It flows onto our whole life. 

Didier Elzinga 4:41

If I can ask what’s your working definition of care in the work context?

Graeme Cowan 4:46 

It’s very, very similar to what you’ve just outlined here, it leads to caring for customers, caring for employees and caring for suppliers. And I think and this is something that Bob Chapman talked about is that, you know, he first thought that you show your care by talking. And he now believes and that it’s really about empathetic listening, that really listening to people feel understood is how we really care. Right. And I think he’s, I think he’s right with that. When people feel understood, I think there’s a much greater chance that they will engage and, and, you know, agree with how we’re going to move forward and what the action is sort of thing.

Didier Elzinga 5:34 

And I love that.

Graeme Cowan 5:36 

You also have been very successful since the start of Culture Amp, and you now have 6000 organizations around the world that you monitor and about 25 million employees. Does it feel surreal that you’ve reached that sort of number? 

Didier Elzinga 5:55 

Well, thankfully, it’s on behalf of our customers, we listened to in the context of your caring, you know, tens of millions of people depending on how you cut that, take I don’t have 25 million employees, that would be quite, quite method. Sometimes I look at it and go, wow, this is all the things I set out that I wanted to do. But honestly, most of the time, it feels like we’re just scratching the surface. And, you know, I’m disappointed, we haven’t been able to make more progress. And I look forward to what we can do built upon what we already have. Because the big shift I’ve seen is, you know, 10 years ago, when I started this, people didn’t actually believe in the core concept they weren’t, that’s a nice idea, the idea that, you know, people need an employee experience platform, or that this is integral to running a successful company was a little bit out there. That’s much less so now. So, everybody’s like, yeah, actually, I do have to care about my people. But I think we’re still very much at the early days of actually doing that and doing it in a way that we can look at and go look what we did and see how the effect that it had on the business. So, for all the progress and all the success I’ve had so far, I can still say we’re in the first innings.

Graeme Cowan 7:06 

How do you, you know, think that the pandemic, and the change in working style has affected how we, you know, create culture and have a culture first mindset?

Didier Elzinga 7:19 

What a great question. I think, on the one hand, it doubled down on the things that people were seeing that they needed to respond to. And there’s two things that really played that. One is the idea that people matter. You know, suddenly, everybody was thrust into this crazy environment where they had to figure out how to go into the unknown with their team. And there were very few people through COVID that were going, ah cool. This has proven what I always thought that people don’t matter. Everybody going, I’ve always known it. But now I feel it in a way that I’ve never thought of before. So that was the first thing. The second thing was, and we’re still feeling the effects of this, that it– mental well-being has been a challenge forever. But for a very long period of time, it was considered off out of scope for work. And you know, people would go I hope nobody in my company has a mental illness. And I think pre COVID, we were just starting to get to that point where organizations were realizing actually, we have a role to play in this, all of us will have people working with us that are suffering at some level or another. And how we choose to show up at work can affect that COVID. Like many things, like working from home, like the use of technology, just put the foot flat on the accelerator, and took us to a whole new place. So that was one of the big challenges that every organization was suddenly dealing with huge amounts of trauma, huge amounts of challenge. Everybody has anxiety, like and I don’t mean to diminish it, I mean, that to actually call it how important and how powerful it’s been. So those things were strong lifts, if you will, in the desire to interact with it. On the other side, one of the things we’ve all seen is that because everybody’s scattered to the four winds, because everything was being done through zoom and other ways. And because of all this stuff that was going on in the water outside then, in many ways, many workplaces are much harder than they were before. There’s many less norms that you’re used to you’re not seeing people in person. The– you know, the cancel wars and all this stuff that’s going on in the world around, it’s all playing out and organizations, too. So we’re actually seeing a very difficult time for people trying to build culture at the moment. 

Graeme Cowan 9:32 

Yeah. And, you know, it’s been really interesting to see some of the research that has come out and I feel like quite a bit of your research, but there was something from a report called, ‘Return on Action’ by Atlassian or PWC. That showed that mental health is now the number one societal issue that employees care about. Does that surprise you? 

Didier Elzinga 9:56 

It doesn’t surprise me. It’s– I mean, you can see in the WHO data that it’s, I think the third most expensive disease burden in the world anyway. And by some measures the number one. But I definitely see in the last couple of years organizations have really realized that we can’t, just to get head in the sand and say it’s not, it’s not a work problem, like it is because the way we’re working is affecting it. And also, if we’re going to make progress, you can’t just ignore the working world. Like that’s actually where we have to start. So, I think it’s a worthy wake up. But it also means that we’re now asking and demanding so much more like the role of the manager just got really, really hard. You’re now expected to be able to navigate anxiety issues, you, you know, navigate all this stuff that’s going on in people’s lives. And that’s hard for trained clinicians, let alone people that are also trying to manage so yeah, this is, I think, the question of our time.

Graeme Cowan 10:57 

Yeah, and it’s really interesting, you know, I have my own really bad struggles with depression, I was a Vice President with Kearney Global Consulting Company, and then went through a really profound episode of depression, which lasted for five years. And I really learned from my psychiatrists, this concept of a mood-ometer, you know, when zero, you just feel hopeless, kind of get out of bed, 10, you’re firing on all cylinders. And I find that, you know, talking about something like that, where you have the green zone, amber zone, and red zone, really helps to reduce stigma. And one of the things that we just did was with an HR recruitment company called, ‘The Next Step’, we measured the mood of individuals, teams and organizations. And I’ll talk a little bit about that later on. But one of the things that I thought was still very interesting was that, although 67% of people felt that their manager cared about them, only 55% said, they will feel comfortable to discuss their own mental health issue with their manager. What are your thoughts around that? And how do you think that number could be improved?

Didier Elzinga 12:13 

I mean, you called out the word stigma. And I think that’s a big part of the work to be done is removing some of the stigma and trying to avoid the labels on some of these things, too. And I think one of the learnings from positive psychology too, is it’s not just about the treatment of a diagnosable condition. It’s something that affects all of us to a greater or lesser degree at different times. And I think that’s pivotal in understanding that it’s not like there might be a few people in your organization that are depressed, how might you treat them, but everyone in the organization is going to be going up and down. Some of them will probably be fine without any support, but some people will need support, and then may surprise you who those people are. And so, removing that stigma, I think, is key. On the other side, the thing that I think is a real challenge for organizations is you want to create that safe space, you want to create that more openness. But you also want to recognize that there doesn’t need to be boundaries. And Brene Brown talks has a great line where she said vulnerability without boundaries, is actually manipulation. And so how do we teach people to do this safely? How do we help people realize that, you know, I might be there wanting to help you? But if you are suffering anxiety, I might be doing more harm than good. So how do I help you go to someone who can help you? And how do I know the difference? And I think that’s where we’re starting to, you know, the mental health for– Mental Health First Aid, and other things are useful because they’re increasing this sophistication. But we have to be careful that we don’t sort of say, you know, it’s a manager’s job to make sure that your mental well-being is good, because men just can’t do that. They don’t have the skills; they don’t have the training. We’re setting them up for failure. If we try and make them do that.

Graeme Cowan 14:07 

I was involved with helping Gavin Larkin in the start, ‘R U OK?’, back in 2009. And it is wonderful to see how it’s become much more part of our lives, not just in work, but in schools and in the community areas. And, you know, just increasing the confidence to have that conversation. And I should say, you know, it’s not your job to be a therapist, it’s your job to show the person they feel, that they’re cared for and that you really are listening and really want to understand, but then to encourage them to find the help that they need the experts that they need. And, you know, I think that getting more and more sophistication around that being able to give them one of the things that we have in the WeCARE365 E-Learning Programs is having really practical tools like how to find a mental health savvy GP? How to prepare for mental health discussion? And again, these are quite layman things, but there’s just some simple principles to follow that can really help with that. And I know your wife as a psychologist, I think, isn’t that correct? And, and, you know, we just really need that human connection, don’t we, it’s, you know, that sense of belonging is fundamental to fundamental human need.

Didier Elzinga 15:31 

But I think the ‘R U OK?’ was so powerful in that it tapped into, as you say, that sense of community wasn’t trying to form get everyone to be a therapist, but it was reminding people, particularly in this modern world, how lonely a lot of us are, particularly at that moment of need. And that was something that was taken up with great fervor at Culture Amp, and it’s something that we engage in quite a lot. And one of the people that culture abdomen clots in his early life, he’d actually started to toughen the f-up thing, but it was actually really about trying to get men to realize that it’s not just about, you know, toughening your way through it. But that, you know, reaching your hand out when someone’s struggling and allowing them to share that is such a powerful thing.

Graeme Cowan 16:20 

Yeah. I’ve observed anecdotally, and I’m sure you will do this a much more rigorous basis, scientifically, but it seems that it’s been a very tough period for managers and leaders, you know, trying to create the right environment, trying to help people feel engaged. And I think it’s at times, you know, managers or leaders have rundown their own mental health. Have you seen any evidence around that in terms of your data?

Didier Elzinga 16:52 

Yes. 100%. It’s been a brutal time, particularly for, as you call out, you know, leaders that people responsibility, and also the people professionals like the HR leaders. And I’ve seen this both in our data. And also, anecdotally, in talking to people, leaders, like the number of great chief people, officers or heads of people that are actually just leaving the industry, they’re like, I’m done. I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep taking every, every boy. And, you know, the last three years have been such a crucible, because it’s not just been COVID a worldwide pandemic, there’s also been extraordinary reckoning on the race relations side, there’s been, you know, gender issues brought to the forefront, there’s been climate issues. There’s been war, like acts of terrorism, like there’s just anything, any one of those things, if you go back to the idea of like a life stress, stress inventory, and sort of like any one of those would take most people out and you’ve had 10 of them. So short of it is it’s been a brutal time for leaders and people are struggling.

Graeme Cowan 18:06 

What do you think is the way forward for leaders and teams to get supported and feel they’re part of something? What practical steps would you advise leaders who are really struggling to, to move forward?

Didier Elzinga 18:23 

I mean, I think the one thing is to recognize there’s no one answer. There’s no mythically wonderful people leader that is actually really good at all of these things. What I would suggest is practical things is the good thing is there are now some really great things that we can draw inspiration from so whether it’s, you know, someone like Brene Brown, helping us understand why vulnerability is not weakness, but strength. You know, that’s a really powerful idea and starting to transform, not just culture, but also how we as individuals choose to lead. And so, I think we can learn from people like that. I also think that you call it out earlier, there’s a lot of practical stuff, where people are starting to lean into what are the tools that are available to you, and this is something that my wife, Greta Bradman sort of introduced me to is, the old idea of psychology was coming to my room, told me what’s wrong with you, and I’ll diagnose you and give you a fix. And the more modern version is, everyone’s dealing with something, you’re not broken. Here’s my bag of tricks. Let’s, let’s go through the bag and find something that works for you. And I’ll teach you how to use it so that you can live a better life. And I think so the first thing is for people to take that mental model, you’re not broken, you’re not going to find a fix. You’re going to learn all this stuff we’ve learned in the last 10, 20 years, which of those are workable, which of those are useful, which of those might help you manage the stress which of those might help you navigate the situations you’re in. And once again, like you called out earlier, you can’t do it alone, you want to find other people that are also trying to go on this journey and learn from each other. Because the only thing that you know is there’ll be times where it will feel too hard. It’s somebody else to sit down and go, yep, I’m there too. But there’s no way out except forward.

Graeme Cowan 20:20 

I read previously that Scott Farquhar, the co-founder of Atlassian, really helped you have a better approach to challenges. Can you explain what that was about and why it was so helpful. 

Didier Elzinga 20:34 

Trying to remember which one of his pieces of advice that was extremely helpful to me in many different situations. I think one of the things that we’re on record talking about was actually just early on in the company, when we were trying to figure out whether we should go for it, like, we built this good thing, but which we really good go for it. And he sorts of stepped back and walked me through some situations in his life, where he’d been offered similar choices. And what happened when he chose A and what happened when he chose B. And so, I think it was one of those examples of we can keep falling into these traps of thinking that we’re unique, and that the choice in front of us is a choice that no one’s ever had to face before. And there’s just so much power from hearing somebody else not because you’re gonna do it the way they did it necessarily. But it normalizes it makes you oh, okay, cool. This is, this is what I should consider. And then it gives you the confidence and the courage to jump forward. And I think a lot of you know, one of the lines that worked with me through everything is this idea of what matters, particularly in a startup is not matters, not how many people believe in you. Sorry, not how many people don’t believe in you, because there are legions, but it’s how many people do. And so mentally, we’re just like, 100, people think I’m crazy, therefore, I’m crazy. Doesn’t matter if 100 People think you’re crazy, or 1000 people think you’re crazy. Maybe crazy is bad choice of word. But if two or three people go, no, I see what you’re doing. I believe in you. That’s enough. That’s all you need to focus on. And so, I think it’s that idea that’s, that’s really helped drive me through stuff is I don’t need everybody that told me what I’m doing is a good idea. I might want to be the case. 

Graeme Cowan 22:25 

And I know that you’ve really strive to have a more inclusive organization. Why do you think that’s important? And one of the steps that you’ve taken, which has really helped to move in the right direction?

Didier Elzinga 22:42 

Yeah, for me, that’s been an education. Once again, it was my wife, Greta, who introduced me to the idea of compound privilege, and a realization that, hopefully, and I believe so that I’m here in this role as the CEO of this company, because I’m smart, and I’m clever, and I work hard and all of those things. But I also have to accept that there are probably hundreds, if not 1000s of people that could have been in this same situation that had all those same attributes that never had that opportunity, because every step of the way, they weren’t given that hand. I was growing up with relatively cheap education, universal health care. My parents had postgraduate qualifications, I had stable upbringing. You know, I was white, I was male. I was given everything the world could be, could provide. And so yeah, great. I was successful, but not because of me. It’s humbling thing to realize. And I spoke to a journalist, and she said to me something which really stuck with me where she said, ‘The hallmark of privilege is you can’t see it when you have it.’ And so, as I started to appreciate it, I made a point to myself of going part of my job is to call out the privilege that’s got me here, to identify as privilege. And then to seek opportunities to make choices that don’t necessarily unwind that but look to reduce the compound burden of that privilege than others. And that’s work that will never finish. And so, part of it was just appreciation of that. And that’s why we do it. Because like, if we with privilege aren’t looking to unwind that privilege, it is never going to change. In terms of what we’ve done about it. Firstly, that act I was a little, almost concerned when I first got up on stage and said that because I was kind of like a little bit like, do people even really care if they want to hear me say this? Like, is it gonna feel disingenuous? I’m gonna do it anyway. And I did and it was great, because the feedback that I got was from a lot of people going, thank you, you know, thank you for calling out that privilege and recognizing that situation because it makes it easier for us to move forward. So, my first step was just to continue to do that. Call it out. And it’s amazing now I find myself in conversations and I hear somebody saying something like, like this is so ridiculous. Surely, if we’re hiring somebody, it should just be about who the best candidate is. And like, I understand why you have that view. But you need to step back and look at the system that produced those people. If we don’t, if we don’t take a broader view than this, if we don’t think about how we unwind that privilege, nothing’s ever going to change, and we have to change it. So once calling out the privilege to internalize, you just have to be super intentional. You have to sit down and say, we never going to hire anybody who isn’t amazing. Like the bar is up here. You’re not hiring and saying, oh, this is a diversity, hire whatever, you’re hiring a great person. But the world is full of great people. And how hard are you going to go looking for somebody who’s not only great but is also bringing something you don’t have. And it’s not just gender. It’s not just race. It’s how are you forcing yourself to think outside the box. And like I said earlier, it’s a very humbling process. Like I, I wrote a list and I, I’d recommend everyone do this, I wrote a list and said, what are the 50 books that have influenced me, I love reading. What are the 50 books that have influenced my thinking in work? So, this whole list, then I looked at it and I went in this festival, how many of them are men? And how many are women? And what was fascinating is there was only like seven women on that list. Now, three of the top five books were women, but still, then I asked, well, where are they all from? Large parts of the world where I haven’t read anything from those people. And some of that is the compound privilege that most management education came out of western, the western world, and particularly the US. But you’re going to challenge yourself. So now I go looking and grow. How do I you know; how do I force myself to read new things. And like, one of the books that really changed my thinking in the last year was ‘How to be anti-racist?’ by Dr. Abraham Kennedy. And it really challenged my thinking on a whole bunch of things. So, you’ve got to open up your brain, except the humbling lessons you’re gonna learn and realize that it’s a journey you’ll never finish?

Graeme Cowan 26:58 

Yeah. And what was sort of– what was the key point that came out of that, that you took away?

Didier Elzinga 27:04 

Out of the book? Yeah, he does a really good job of getting you to change your thinking from, you know, are you racist? Are you anti racist? And he opposes the idea that and you know, I’m not going to do a good enough job in in two lines, but I’ll try. He poses the idea that rather than thinking of it as being an inherent trait, that you are racist or anti racist, you look at it as a as a measure of, of the choices you’re making. So, every choice you make, is that increasing or decreasing systemic oppression? The choices you’re doing perpetuating a model that is systemically unfair, or is it unwinding that oppression in that compound privilege? And so that lens kind of helped change the way I think about things, change how I choose to do things in certain situations, because I’m actually getting out of the, but I’m a good person, you know, I don’t, I’m not racist, I treat everyone the same, fine. But the choices you made? Are they unwinding the system that’s creating all of this inequality or not? If they’re not, they’re not anti-racist, and you can’t call yourself for it. And so, it was a very provocative and challenging book to read.

Graeme Cowan 28:20 

And it’s what just looking at gender, it’s quite well documented that, you know, if men have six out of 10 qualities for job, and women have six out of 10 qualities, the guys will just jump in there. And the women will say, well, actually don’t have four. How do you address that interview situation like I was a recruiting Hinata for about 15 years, and I just had this sort of back of the mind thing that you know, you wind up women’s, what they say by 25%, and you cut back men by 25%? Have you looked at other ways to address that sort of different approach to whether someone’s ready for a role? 

Didier Elzinga 28:58 

Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. And it’s something that we actually just in all of our job ads, just actually call that out. So, we specifically say in the job ad, data shows that a certain group of people predominantly more true for women and for men, but it’s not just on gender lines will only apply if they tick all the boxes and others will apply if they take three. And we make a point of saying even if you don’t tick all the boxes still apply, because we’d love to talk to you. And what’s been fascinating is just that simple act of adding those two lines to our job ads, has significantly changed the people that we get to interview, and they will say to us, I literally was not going to apply and then I read that two line and went, you know what, you’re right, I am going to apply. So, it’s a very little thing, but it’s made a massive difference to the people that then we get the opportunity to speak to and then you basically have to educate your hiring managers and once again say our goal here is not to find the safest bet that ticks all the boxes. Our goal here is to find the person who has the potential to be what we need them to be. And we need to go looking for it. And so, it’s an imprecise science, but it’s just opening yourself up to that possibility. And recognizing that people don’t– there’s a really great guy. Thomas Pizarro Chizik, who wrote a book. And the core of his book was, we promote confidence rather than competence, which is in men. So, the title of his book was why do we keep promoting incompetent men? And he said, It’s because we, we, we overweight confidence.

Graeme Cowan 30:36 

It’s really interesting. He just talking about those two things you added to an ad, which changed the people that came forward. And I’ve heard another version of that I interviewed previously, Susan Metcalf is the Chief Executive of Chief Executive women’s so although, you know, cinemas around the place, and she mentioned the website, and I can’t remember, which enable you to put in a role that you have. What is it? What is it? Sorry 

Didier Elzinga 31:03 

It’s called, Text IO.

Graeme Cowan 31:05 

Yeah, yeah. I thought, yeah, it’s that amazing, you know, that you can make it. And even surely there could– yeah, surely that can be applied to other biases, as well. My wife is a professor and epidemiology, and she has, you know, about 120 researchers working to there’s some real, you know, cognitive diversity, there are people that are amazing data wizards, but they may not be great in conventional communication. And just realizing that the unique contribution people make doesn’t mean that they’re going to be, you know, natural communicators, or work stand out as often they can work very differently.

Didier Elzinga 31:46 

Yeah, I mean, that idea of neuro diversity is definitely an important part of diversity work now. And I think tools like Text IO are great, because they basically hold up a mirror, and they allow you to look at it and go, if you write the ad this way, this is how it’s likely to be perceived, you may be fine with that. Or you may go I had no idea; I could just change that one word. And this will land better for a new group. And actually, that’s the group I’m going for. We’re seeing a lot of that stuff happen. And even them, we’re seeing in the, in the tech space, a company here in Australia, one of our customers, they were reflecting on the fact that didn’t have enough women in engineering, and somebody made a really good observation was like, it’s because all of our roles are full time. If we could have part time roles, we’d have access to a different part of the workforce that happens to have more women in it than, than the other one. And so that, once again, it was not an easy thing to do. But once they open themselves up to that opportunity, there was significantly able to change the gender mix of their workforce.

Graeme Cowan 32:42 

Yeah, I know, you have a big team of people, scientists, what’s– what have they added to the way you run the business?

Didier Elzinga 32:53 

I’d say it’s even more than adding their foundational. So, our first employee was Dr. Jason McPherson, he was our people, scientist. And he brought all of that and since that time, that team has grown and grown. And so, they’re at the heart of everything. They’re at the heart of how we build our product. They’re at the heart of how we work with our customers. They’re at the heart of where we’re trying to take the world. So, our mission to create a better world of work is really, how do we substantially change the way organizations are run drawing upon modern IO psychology, that’s what we’re trying to do. And so, people scientists are, you know, at the heart of what that looks like, what does the research tell us? And how do we take that research and put it into tools that are available to everyone? And the magic that they do at Culture Amp is, it’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s not that we don’t have lots of research telling us how to build more successful organizations. It’s that it’s not accessible to most people. It’s not available, it’s not being delivered in daily, daily interaction. So, people scientists are our navigators for that. So absolutely foundational to everything that Culture Amp is. 

Graeme Cowan 33:57 

Yeah. What do you think, important new roles are going to evolve out of the next sort of two to five years roles that we may not have now, but you see, as will be foundational, just looking at the research and how things are evolving?

Didier Elzinga 34:14 

That is such an incredibly good question. I think as an entrepreneur, I’m always a little bit of a fluid thinker in terms of roles, like I don’t tend to think of, you know, that I tend to think a lot more about what are the skills that and capabilities that need and experiences that need to be brought to bear? And once again, I think that’s where this is going to come from. There will always be specialization, but I think the value increasingly is that ability to tap things that have historically not been connected. So, we want storytellers who are data scientists. We want you know, brand people that are really analytical. We want you know, engineers that think like designers and so where I see these roles coming from, they come from the, you know, the cross collaboration of practices that have not collaborated enough. And people that can sit across those and do that. I mean, at its core, we’re drowning in data. So, I think increasingly roles that know how to apply data to different problems inside organizations. I mean, you think about the last three years, and you said your partner was in epidemiology. Most people couldn’t even spell epidemiology. And now, everyone’s in our chair. 

Graeme Cowan 35:36 

Where do we– I’m in my second marriage now. And when we first started going out, I came to introduce yourself as an epidemiologist, you can’t say that no as the first clue what a bet. I think it’s a skin doctor.

Didier Elzinga 35:50 

Now they’re like, oh, what’s gonna happen?

Graeme Cowan 35:57 

Just looking now at gender, we’ve talked about some of the things that have held women back, but men are responsible for 75% of suicides. Why– And I know, this isn’t your specialist theory, but I’m just interested in any observations you might have. Why do you think it is that way? And what can be done to address it in your view?

Didier Elzinga 36:23 

Well, I’m, I’m definitely out of my area of expertise on this. So, I don’t know, I’m very high level familiar with some of the research, but there’s a lot more research that I’m not familiar with. So, I’m not going to profess to know why that is the case. I do think there is a– this idea going back to the thing that Damon worked on, there is a social script, or a social model, that as men, you don’t express your feelings, and you tough, it’s all about being not, you don’t, you can’t be overwhelmed, you can’t be vulnerable. And I don’t think that it’s possible to navigate the real tribulations that the world throws at you without getting in touch with your feelings. And so, to the extent that men are less capable of processing that, or, actually that’s wrong, they’re not less capable. They’re taught to be less willing. That is a serious challenge. So, I do think there is a need for us to get away from unhelpful ideas on how to handle the challenges that get thrown at us. It sounds like an area you would be more qualified to provide. 

Graeme Cowan 37:45 

I think, and this really, you know, is congruent with what you just said, I think men have been socialized to be problem solvers. And, you know, they, and I know, when I went through my really, really difficult times, you know, I think subconsciously, I thought, well, I should be able to sort this out myself, I should be able to solve it. And if, if it didn’t change, it wasn’t looking good. There’s just a really greater sense of hopelessness. And, and so when men can talk about their struggles, or the things that are stressing them, it’s the whole concept of a problem shared is a problem halved. And, you know, I had a really, really bad breakdown, which lasted for five years. And as I emerged from it, I was very, very conscious of building up friendships with other men, where I could have those conversations about vulnerability and worries and that sort of thing. And it’s a lovely, lovely situation to be in. And, you know, I’ve because of my background, I will have vulnerability to mental illness. But, you know, I can say to people, I’m struggling at the moment, if you want to help ask me to go for a walk outside and you’re walking in fresh air, and you can also talk properly, and but you also then take on the responsibility and obligation to listen to them when they’re going through a tough time as well. And I read yesterday, a story of a guy who wrote it had been in the men’s group for 36 years, with the same group of six men, and you know, they’ve been through divorces and job losses and all that sort of thing. And they just talked about it as being a really fundamental part of getting forward and I was actually just caught up this morning with my nephew. He’s an exercise physiologist, and he’s– I think 30, but he told me, I’ve got into a men’s group. And I thought how fantastic, you know, and it’s not just all about talking about sport. It’s talking about the real stuff as well. And you know, hopefully, we do see, and society evolve where it becomes easier for men to speak about the real, the real concerns and the real problems.

Didier Elzinga 40:08 

Yeah, I mean, I, I was exposed to it when I was just coming out of university, my dad’s a psychologist as well. I had a good friend of mine at university that also suffered severe depression, largely brought about through drug use, and got to the point where he ended up taking his own life. And as I went through that journey with him, to your point about being problem solvers, I remember just feeling helpless, because like, I, I just wanted to solve it help or do something. And I remember my dad saying, to me, it’s like, there’s nothing you can do. Like, it may or may not make it through, all you can do is be his friend. And, you know, that was a very humbling experience to go through too because up until that point, you know, I hadn’t seen a problem I didn’t want to try and solve. You’re always faced with something where this was not something to be solved. This was something to be shared. And yeah, and I know Anna had that tragic ending, too. So, it’s, there’s more of that. I think, as you get older, the world just gets more complex. Makes less sense.

Graeme Cowan 41:13 

Yeah, our theme for ‘Are you okay?’ this year is ask are you okay, no qualifications needed. And it came from research, which we did, which showed that 40% of people believe that a therapist is much better at asking that question or dealing with someone. And through my own firsthand experience, I just know that’s not the case. You know, because there’s a subtle difference, you pay a therapist, they have to know listen to you. But as someone that you’re not paying and reaches out and offers care and support in an unconditional way that counts for so much. And I, you know, it’s one of our great wishes when we started, are you okay, one of the biggest reasons people didn’t ask was because they were concerned, they couldn’t help or wouldn’t know how to assist. But just showing that you care that you support makes a massive, massive difference. It really does.  

Didier Elzinga 42:14 

Yeah, I think that’s so true. And something we keep forgetting.

Graeme Cowan 42:21 

Before Culture Amp, you worked with rising Sun Productions. Can you say to our listeners, what that was about and your role there? 

Didier Elzinga 42:31 

Yeah, so Rising Sun Pictures was a Hollywood visual effects company. Well, that’s what it became. When I joined it, I was like employee number five or six. It was a small postproduction company that worked on TV commercials and CD-ROMs and multimedia. And then, as the company grew, I grew with it. And we ended up becoming a film specialist. And Rising Sun Pictures is now one of the top 10 or 15, visual effects companies in the world. And I had the pleasure of 13 years in film, and I started as a software engineer, worked as an artist and ended as the CEO. And, you know, we, we brought stories to life, you know, we did it was all computer generated imagery, we worked on Superman, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, since I left to found called, Tramp, they’ve gone on to work on, you know, many of the Marvel movies, you know, all these amazing things, Game of Thrones, and all of that sort of stuff. And so that was, you know, an incredible privilege to get the chance to do that. And to do it from Adelaide, actually, we had an office in Adelaide and office in Sydney, and we worked for London and LA. And so much of what I do today, I, I realized is informed heavily by what I learned about storytelling in those years.

Graeme Cowan 43:47 

How can storytelling we use to change cultures?

Didier Elzinga 43:54 

I think storytelling is the only tool you have to change cultures. You know, it’s the power. In fact, in many ways, I’ve learned that more working with companies on culture than I have making movies. Because you realize that with all the data in the world, you know, I can come and bring all this data and show it to you and you nod your head and say, okay, I think we should do this, or we can do that. But there’s no will to change. There’s no true understanding of the transformation required. Whereas when we can come and we can tell a story, we can make that real for people, we can make that something that makes them want to move and so that can be used for the evil as well as for good. But storytelling is such a powerful tool for getting people to want to act and to want to change and I would say in many ways, it’s the only tool. It’s the way that we do it.

Graeme Cowan 44:49 

And I– we talked before about stigma, and I 100% believe what you say it is about people sharing their stories, you know, if they’ve been through something really tough, then they can share what they did, how they felt, but how they came through it, it has a huge impact in terms of making it okay to speak about it. And I obviously speak about my story a lot. You know, when I, when I do keynote presentations, and that sort of thing, it’s just amazing how many people come up and say, well, let me tell you about this, you know, and whether it’s for them or someone close to them. And I really, really believe that it’s fundamental, when we talk about launching an initiative to make a more friendly, mentally healthy workplace, if you can engage employees to tell their story. And it has to be at the right stage of their recovery to do that, you know, some people want to do it, but it’s just too new and too fresh. But I remember once that I did some work with NAB, in their internal consulting area. And, you know, I share my story. And then we previously agreed this, there was a guy there who had worked there for 15 years, but he talked about something 13 years ago, when he basically just couldn’t work anymore, had to move away, and he got into exercise. And he’s doing to Hawaiian triathlons, you know, just unbelievable. But people didn’t know that part in a lot of the, you know, didn’t know that background. And once he told that story, people were able to then talk about, you know, some of the things and struggles, I think, not sleeping properly. And all this sort of thing. And, and so yeah, providing guidance on getting employees to tell stories about their tough times and have they came through, it really does help to bring them that stigma really does.

Didier Elzinga 46:52 

And I think that’s the power of story is that when you hear a story that’s told, well, it connects you to your own experience. And it connects you to that shared experience. And I remember being in a, in a forum, actually here in Melbourne. And then it was a person talking about how you build websites for people that are visually impaired. And it was fast, it was such a great presentation. And then he did something at the end, that was really interesting, where he said, how many of you in the room, that’s about 50 of us in the room, how many of you in the room, know someone relatively close to you, that has severely visually impaired that sort of work, that we’re doing effects and about a third of the room put their hand up. That’s why we do this. And then he said, he almost did the classic, like when it’s up one more thing, how many of you know someone close to you that are severely impaired by mental illness, every person in the room put their hand up. And he’s like, and yet we do all this work for this not to but we have to, but we really don’t have any way of trying to help over here. And then it was a really powerful reflection to me of the universality of this challenge. And how much more work there is to be done.

Graeme Cowan 48:03 

And that’s something that I, you know, usually do when I’m presenting as well. And it’s the same thing, you know, 95% of hands go up. And then I say, well, you know, there’ll be 25% in this room that has personally experienced, firsthand experience when you’re doing if you’re so alone, don’t you? And for the rest of you, you know, you support one or know someone that’s going through that. And even when you’re doing that you think you’re so alone as well. Because, you know, no one talks about a lot. And just by recognizing how broad that impact is, is, you know, so, so important for having the more caring and supportive cultures that really can make a big, big difference like that. I read about a great lesson that you’ve got. And it was, it was from Marquette, Rising Sun. And it was around a– you are producing a piece of work for a director, which didn’t meet expectations and that director called Mark–

Didier Elzinga 49:16 

It’s Tony.

Graeme Cowan 49:17 

Oh, Tony. Sorry, sorry. And could you just tell us about what you learned from that? 

Didier Elzinga 49:25 

Yeah, if my mind is going to the right situation. This was a film that we were working on. I was working on shot I was the artist on the shot at the time. It was a big shot in this particular film. We were doing the final version of it and we’d send it across and there was a problem and the director called and Tony was sitting next to me and he let loose like he was tearing into the shop, into the company, into everything it was like, how could you have done this you bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, you know, just Fully went for it. And totally, I could hear it. And Tony just sat there, and he just went, okay. Like, let me understand what the problem is, you know, we will solve it like, basically had to get on a plane to take this film to film shows like Tony’s like working out how quickly can we get there? Can we get a tape, we’ll get another version of it? And then he like he put the phone down, he turned to me anyway, okay, this is the problem, we’ve got to fix it. And we went through, and we fix it. And the thing that stuck with me. So first of all, when all was said and done, the problem actually wasn’t ours, there was an issue that had happened somewhere else that we were able to figure out. But what I learned from that was that everything in that would have been for him to get defensive, to deflect that to me, to turn around and go, what have you done? Like, but in that moment, he just went fully into, okay, this is where we are. Let’s figure out what we can do. We’re all going to do this together. And not once did his confidence in me waver, not once did he sit down and go, what have you done? He just fully– and he probably didn’t even think much of it at the time. But you know, the confidence that gives you in yourself, you’re like, alright, cool, I know that you’ve got my back at the worst, you know, I’m gonna make sure I’m doing the same for you. And so that’s something that I’ve always reflected on to its– there’s always kind of against some of the stuff we said earlier, I haven’t set that scene that many problems that at the end of the day, with enough time and energy, you can’t get past it. So, deflection and blame and all of these things just get in the way.

Graeme Cowan 51:35 

Yeah. One of the things I do in my keynote is ask people reflect on a great team they’ve been in and think about what made it different or that sort of stuff, and then use mentee to get people to vote on you know, what are the main things and there’s always the top three came up, and one of them is we had each other’s back. We cared about each other. And we enjoyed ourselves. It’s always the top three, and there’s such, there’s nothing technical there isn’t it’s all about, you know, soft skills, so called soft skills, but they’re just, just really, really you know, foundational to building great teams and great organizations. It’s been an absolute pleasure catching up today, Didier, I feel we could speak for another hour, but we’re getting to the to the end. But I just be interested in your thoughts about knowing what you know, now, through what you learned at Rising Sun and also Culture Amp, if you could speak to your 20-year-old self? What advice would you give that 24-year-old self?

Didier Elzinga 52:39 

I think it’s, it’s I sort of reflect on this question from time to time. In some ways, you don’t want to rob anyone of the journey and the experiences because somebody’s telling you to do something, it’s not the same as experiencing it. I think the thing that I’ve had to learn, particularly as a CEO, is to be able to look at things over longer timeframes and to ask myself, and then what? So, there’ll be a situation that will come up, and I might feel that I can contribute to that situation in a positive way. And let’s say I do, then what, like, then where does it go? And who picks that up? And what am I going to do? And I’ve realized over the, over the long run, that there are situations where two or three times I’ll reach in, and so I can help here, I’m going to help here. But then what? And in fact, you do that 10 times and you end up with 10 things that haven’t gone anywhere. And so, in many ways, my advice would be, you know, be judicious think not just about what’s in front of you. But then what that entails. And swing less often. Swing harder and swing less often. 

Graeme Cowan 54:07 

Yeah, I love that. Ad it’s wonderful.

Didier Elzinga 54:10 

I don’t think I’ve learned the lesson yet.

Graeme Cowan 54:14 

It’s always a journey. It’s always a journey. And if you could, you know, share–

Didier Elzinga 54:20 

Well, actually sorry. One other thing I should say too, just reflecting on that more. If I was to say back to my 20-year-old self. Don’t let those stories that you tell yourself about what you need to do and what you should be doing frame the way you think about children. And what I mean by that is like we had our first child, I was CEO, you know, I just worked through it. I wasn’t there, not in the way that I could have or should have been. And I don’t think you know, we’re fortunate that we had many things that went really well. So, I don’t think it was necessarily a challenge for the children, but certainly for Greta, it was like, I put my career ahead of hers. And honestly, at the time, I don’t think I even really thought about the fact that I was doing that. And so that advice would be think much more deeply about that and do it differently. 

Graeme Cowan 55:17 

Yeah. And I share that same. Same belief, you know, wishing I had done things a bit differently. But, you know, you live and learn, don’t you?

Didier Elzinga 55:26 


Graeme Cowan 55:28 

It’s been an absolute pleasure catching up today Didier and, you know, you truly do embody the caring CEO where you’re striving, both a culture of care and, and high performance. And, you know, it’s, it’s a journey, and I love how you recognize that quite there. But it is about intention. It’s about intention and moving in the right direction.

Didier Elzinga 55:53 

Awesome. Well, thank you for having me on the show. I look forward to listening to it and your other guests.

Graeme Cowan 55:57 

My pleasure.

Didier Elzinga 55:59 

Thanks, Graeme.

Graeme Cowan

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