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From our CEO: Leading a global business from Australia

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Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


Culture Amp now has over 110 employees in four offices across the globe. 80% of our customers are from outside Australia. But there’s no denying we’re still an Australian company at heart.

I was prompted to write this article recently when a member of our American team told me that we had a very “Australian interview style.” It was a timely reminder of just how much the background of the founders influences the culture of a company. Given we started with four Australian founders it's not surprising that we ended up with a company that “feels Australian.”

Between Culture Amp and Rising Sun Pictures, I’ve now led two Australian companies making an impact on the global stage. I’m far from an expert, but here’s what I know about leading a company with Australian DNA in the global market.

1. To achieve global success from Australia you have to embrace your “difference”

When I worked in film there was a fair share of Australians working in the industry. I’d often find myself talking to people about what defined Australians, and the words that would often come back were ‘passion’ and ‘persistence.’ Australians deeply care about what they’re working on. Making a film is a labor of love.

When you layer that enthusiasm with the relatively small size of the Australian film industry, you end up with a group of people who are passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re used to working on the smell of an oily rag. Australians are just used to doing incredibly creative things with very, very little. This is something that people overseas really appreciate.

I think this ethos holds true for a lot of Australian companies that are globally successful. Australia is a relatively small economy a long way from everywhere. While there aren't many companies who expand and manage to be successful on the world stage, those that do are more resilient.

The same principles are at work in the startup world. There's a lot of value to being in Silicon Valley, because of the amazing talent, resource and growth mindset. But one of the challenges is that it’s easy to look just like every other venture-funded business. That’s why sometimes the outside view can be a real competitive advantage.

Australian companies come at things from a totally different angle and that’s why they’re often successful. Just look at Westfield, Macquarie Bank, CSL and even NewsCorp. They’ve built their own unique cultures that differentiate them from the global industries they compete in.

2. To succeed in the US you have to think and talk bigger

When you’re an Australian CEO in the US it doesn't pay to be too humble. Australians tend to be wary of being a tall poppy so they underplay things and use a lot of sarcasm. But in America, generally the expectation is that you'll actually be less than what you say you are.

So if you come in and underplay your hand, they’ll assume you’re actually much less than you already are. You have to shift your mindset and think about what you're doing and saying on a bigger scale. You've got to know what game you're playing and adjust accordingly.

This is actually one of the reasons I really enjoy going to the US. It constantly reminds me to think bigger. Whatever I’m thinking about, I have to add a zero to it. So if I’m thinking of hiring 10 people, I’ll start thinking about what the business will look like if I hire 100 people.

This mentality of thinking bigger is one of the best things about running a VC-backed global business.  

3. Leading a global startup from Australia involves big communication challenges

Thinking bigger is one of the reasons we decided to go global so quickly. We opened our San Francisco office only a few years in, followed soon after by New York and then London. We wanted to be a global company, and we knew that with our product and target market it wasn’t possible to do that remotely.

But with these international offices came big communication challenges. The challenge of running a truly global business at any scale is it takes much longer for any message to be heard. As a CEO, being able to land your message is critical, and remote and multiple offices just make that exponentially harder. Time zones are one of the great challenges of the modern organization.

At Culture Amp, we went from having one all-hands meeting to having rotating all-hands that goes through different time slots. It’s not just about New York watching the same presentation at 10 o'clock at night. We needed to find a way for everybody to have the opportunity to watch it in the middle of their day rather than just in the middle of Melbourne’s day. Being able to achieve this is so valuable to your people but it adds a lot of overhead to your work as a leader.

Side note - Maybe there’s a very large startup waiting to be founded that solves the time-zone challenges of communicating with four offices around the world? I don’t know what it looks like, but it is a problem that literally stops me sleeping :)

In the end it’s all about communication, but it’s more than just communicating in the right time zone. You also have to be conscious of how you communicate. That can be challenging in a global company because you don’t always notice the specific idiosyncrasies of the culture or language that you speak in. But when you work in a global business you are made aware of those “Australian-isms” that make some people go 'huh.’ For example, I didn't realize until recently that “fortnight” is a very Australian and English term.

Given the time-zone and language challenges, you have no choice but to overinvest in communication.

The starting point is always conscious incompetence

Regardless of where you’re from, when you’re dealing with people at a global level, you can never underestimate the importance of being aware of the cultures that you're playing into. Whether you’re talking to your team or meeting with international media, you have to be conscious of how they might interpret what you say and adjust your approach to get your point across.

Like with company culture, the starting point is conscious incompetence. To have any chance at success, awareness of difference is where you must start.

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