Didier Elzinga helped Harry Potter move from the page to the theatre screen before starting Culture Amp, a company that gives businesses such as Airbnb and Squarespace the data and insights they need to understand and motivate employees.
Getting employees on the same frequency
There are lots of ways to lead, says Didier Elzinga. You can push. You can pull. You can create incentive programs. But Elzinga thinks leaders could achieve more by considering a basic physics lesson.
“The physics example is that when you hit a glass, and it’s got a certain amount of water at a certain size, it resonates with a certain frequency, other glasses will resonate, too,” Elzinga said. “What I like about the metaphor is the idea that it’s not that it will resonate with all things, it’s only at certain frequencies, and those certain frequencies, basically, line up with certain types of behaviors.”
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman calls it resonant leadership.
“It’s not me saying, ‘Hey come over here’ or ‘Mate go out in front of me’ military style,” Elzinga says. “Instead it’s going, ‘This is who I am, this is what I care about’ and you going, ‘Actually that moves me because I also feel that way, and I’m willing to act because of it.’ ”
Leadership is lonely
So how can leaders create this kind of culture? It’s not easy, Elzinga says.
“Being a leader is about having to make decisions that no one should have to make,” he said, “really tough decisions that there’s no winner, and you’re going to be left with blood on your hands, and you have to got to live with that. When the shit hits the fan everybody turns to you and says ‘What do we do?’ That high lofty space you aspired to is actually really, really lonely.”
At Rising Sun Pictures, where Elzinga and his team developed software used in movies including Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, he noticed that people promoted to leadership positions often made the same mistake: They assumed that now that they were in charge, plans would progress as long as everyone followed their directions. In reality, leaders actually have little ability to control people. That’s why they need to design environments where people believe in the corporate mission.
What are you willing to hurt for?
“There is a slide I like to use in my presentations. It’s an army guy with a corruption of Shakespeare written on his chest, ‘Bleed with me and I’ll forever be your brother.’ In a poetic, macho, testosterone way it captures for me part of the idea of what core values actually really are. It’s things you are willing to hurt for,” Elzinga said
A key to building strong cultures is understanding what employees believe, want and need. That’s one reason he started Culture Amp - to help companies collect the data they need to understand what drives employees.
“I just believe really, really strongly in a different way of engaging people in the process, in a different way of wanting to work on things, and that if I focus on that myself and what’s important to me, that the people for whom that is appropriate, will resonate, too,” he says.
A shared dream makes the difference
Software maker Adobe, for example, puts a lot of trust in its employees, one reason it consistently creates innovative products.
This quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the Little Prince, that Elzinga captures the spirit of resonant leadership:
‘One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.’