5 Memorable Quotes from Culture First

Advice for people ops teams

Note: There are a lot of ways to define culture — for the sake of clarity and consistency, I’m going to use the following from HBR’s piece on organizational culture as a working definition for “culture” throughout this piece:

Organizational culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.

Culture Amp’s Culture First conference was two days of back to back keynotes and panels at Pier 27 in San Francisco. My team and I were really excited about attending the conference because it addressed using culture as a competitive edge, approaching difficult conversations around diversity & inclusion, and accommodating new ways of working.

Pier 27 via SF Travel

We were blown away by the amount and quality of content delivered by the speakers. So in the spirit of augmenting collective intelligence, we’re sharing our biggest takeaways about culture.


“Culture first is about performance, not perks.”

Didier Elzinga, CEO and Co-founder of Culture Amp

It’s easy to mistake culture for perks when trying to build a “good culture.” Put bluntly by Patty McCord, the former head of HR at Netflix and author of Powerful: “I make employees happy is not a job.”

There is rarely such a thing as a good or bad culture — only an effective one. By tapping into individual motivation to drive performance, culture gives your people their why and makes your company a great place to be from.

Patty McCord via TED Talks

“You don’t want culture fit, you want culture contribution.”

Adam Grant, author of The Originals, referencing Diego Rodriguez from IDEO.

via LinkedIn

Hiring for cultural contribution forces you to think about the direction of your organization and who you need to get there. Hiring for culture fit works fine when you’re a small — it can help startups gel and stay focused on growth. But at a certain point, having a homogeneous workforce makes it harder for companies to innovate or address needs of their diverse users.

Hiring for cultural contribution allows companies to improve their culture, focusing on how a person will bring missing viewpoints or challenge existing thinking and processes.

Hearing Adam Grant speak about Culture Contribution rather than Culture Fit was revolutionary for me. I always looked at new hires or new members of a team from a “fit” perspective — how friendly they were, how energetic, how outgoing, etc. I didn’t realize I was picking people just like me. As a small startup, it’s imperative that our first hires are culture contributors.
— Ben Stanfield, Co-Founder at Skipper

Tatyana Mamut via Twitter

“Culture sets the context for how people behave — it’s a self reinforcing mechanism.”

Tatyana Mamut, former tech executive at Amazon, Salesforce, and IDEO

Companies are generally well intentioned when creating the core values that are the basis for their culture. Unfortunately, some values (think “be innovative” or “be transparent”) aren’t clear or rigorous enough to actually guide behavior on a day to day basis.

A more productive way to think about values is as principles: clear and concise written agreements that govern culture. Principles shape behaviors and establish self reinforcing mechanisms so that culture doesn’t rely on good intentions. Here’s a principle I liked from Amazon:

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

This principle could have easily conveyed a similar meaning as “be innovative” or “have integrity.” By expanding the core value into a principle, Amazon creates an agreement for how their employees (“Leaders”) will act.


Susan Lee via LinkedIn

“Identity can happen at any time in your life.”

— Susan Lee, Head of People at Warby Parker

Your people should be able to feel like they can belong at your company or on your team no matter how they identify at any point in their lives. (From a practical standpoint, belonging has a strong correlation with engagement and impacts churn and customer satisfaction)

It’s unreasonable to expect one initiative to be a complete solution. One hour of unconscious bias training won’t unpack decades of real world context. Creating a truly inclusive workplace involves committing to difficult conversations about racial bias, pregnancy discrimination, and more beyond the Title VII categories of inclusion. Individuals should take it upon themselves to start those discussions or address conflict. Some of my favorite resources for people ops teams to help unpack context and facilitate giving feedback are:


“We listen to anecdotes and act on data.”

—Panel: Patreon, WeWork, Warby Parker, and Casper

Left to right: Katelin Holloway, Elizabeth Wolfson, Susan Lee, Lucia Guillory and Jon Slavet via Twitter

Creating a business case to put culture first can be difficult. Part of the challenge is that culture is a “squishy thing” that’s difficult to quantitatively measure. Over and over again, we heard from speakers and attendees that there aren’t enough tools to tie the effectiveness of culture changes to the bottom line. Since we’re building Skipper, we were excited to hear that there were so many people geeks looking to measure their culture quantitatively.

Culture is a “squishy thing.”

As Culture Amp and other HR tech products have demonstrated, culture can be broken down into individual, measurable components that drive high performance and results (a few of those factors are alignment, engagement, and motivation). Ultimately, providing those company success stories backed up by numbers will help get culture on the executive agenda, which is a key first step in putting culture first.


The three of us with Kristina, an amazing sales exec at Culture Amp!

At Skipper, we’re building a tool to show people operations teams how they can maximize engagement, productivity, and well being for their company, and tie culture initiatives to the bottom line. Check us out at skipper.ai or e-mail me at mimi@skipper.ai to learn more!