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#CultureFirst: The Labels That We Share and Wear

“Pick three.”

I scanned a table full of one-inch buttons with different labels. It was supposed to be a lesson in being vulnerable and honest — getting beyond job titles to talk about ourselves. Most of the descriptions didn’t fit me: Religious, middle child, conservative, queer… So I picked a description that may be obvious at first glance (straight white male), one that is not so obvious (introvert — though I tend to be more of an ambivert), and one that might provoke a reaction (carnivore).

The second person I met in the morning was wearing a vegan button. Of course.

We introduced ourselves and both of us somewhat uncomfortably laughed about the carnivore button. It was a weird description: I mean, no human is actually carnivore. I certainly wasn’t, I was eating a scone and some fruit for breakfast.

I told her why I picked it: My family has been in the meat business for three generations. I told her about Walla Walla and what its idyllic pastures and landscapes looked like, cows grazing next to vineyards. Okay, I embellished a little. She told me about her own struggle with becoming a vegan and the challenge of living that way in the south. She loves it there, though.

I’ve had conversations like this at conferences before but they usually involved alcohol as a truth serum. This one was happening before a 9:00 a.m. keynote. All thanks to a label that I chose for myself and pinned to my lanyard.

That was my introduction to Culture First, the first major conference put on by Culture Amp. Culture Amp has been putting on many smaller meetups for years and cultivating a community of over 40,000 members through their People Geeks initiative.

I’ll be honest, at times it felt like I was transported back to WorkHuman, an event that Globoforce, another technology company in HR, runs. It’s heavy on thought leadership and community, less on product — at least on the main stage. It doesn’t look like a user conference that a tech company would run.

That’s not a bad thing.

The refreshing honesty of the Culture Amp team—a willingness to tell people where they’ve failed and where they’re unsure of the evolution in this strange category that they play in—is to me a sign of enlightenment instead of weakness. Other companies substitute a lack of crystal ball clarity about the future with empty bravado and false promises. Culture Amp told their story, laid out a vision that was humble and open to change if and when conditions shifted. It felt true and it wasn’t limited to just their product.

And employee engagement, culture, feedback: It’s all changing.

That brings me back to the buttons and labels.

Categories in any market sector are necessary. Sometimes, they are a necessary evil, especially as a segment changes or evolves.

Culture Amp today describes their product as an employee feedback software. That’s the label that they share and it’s really a category that fits the market today. If you know Culture Amp, you probably know about things like surveys and reporting and all of that other fun employee insights. They’ve told you this. The same way I would tell you about what I do or my job, or maybe even the city I live in. But in a few years, that label may change or shift— or buyers can expect something else entirely.

But in times of uncertainty and change, business leaders need to look past RFP checklists and product roadmaps. Here’s what I want to know as a buyer of any software in this category: Do these people get me and what I am trying to accomplish and do I get them and their approach to solving these issues? Those are the labels that every company wears. It’s rarely stated but always there. Culture Amp focused heavy on wearing their labels on their sleeve.

Is it an emotional connection? For sure. Can it feel irrational? Of course! However, it also manifests itself in the way tech companies design and prioritize product development and releases, or how they offer services surrounding their product. That part is tangible and very rational.

A day with Culture Amp helped me understand the labels they embrace that don’t always translate to marketing messages or product sheets. It gave me a peek into a nuanced worldview and vision of the future of work and engagement that’s rare. Engagement and culture doesn’t begin or end with their product. They’ve embraced their role as a key piece that every organization must solve: How do you understand and embrace the employee voices at your company?

The broader market category they play in, employee engagement, is changing rapidly. Culture Amp clearly has the technical pieces in place to compete and evolve into whatever this category will become. But they also have the, in the words of Patti McCord, spirit to compete. I have a point of view about those shifts as well that I’ll be sharing at InfluenceHR.

It also gave me insight into myself and even forced me out of my comfort zone, at least for a little bit. Even if it made me a little hungry and hyperaware of my need for space.