From start-up culture to a culture of equality: A conversation with Ceridian’s David Ossip

By Marty Parker

Transforming culture is neither a fast nor an easy process. It takes patience, a deep understanding of where your organization is today and where you want to be in the future, and trust in the processes and people that are leading the change.

I recently sat down with David Ossip, chairman and CEO at Ceridian, to talk about what he’s learned along his journey from successful entrepreneur to merging businesses, to transforming leadership teams and markets, and becoming a skilled professional management CEO.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
David, tell us a little bit about the culture that you’ve really transformed.

David Ossip:
In terms of culture … it probably took me about 30 years to properly understand the importance of culture. At Ceridian we’ve obviously transformed from what I would call a start-up culture (which is really everyone’s on the party bus), through the founder-led culture (where you’ve got a strong founder and a strong team around the founder, where people upward delegate decisions), and the last two years we’ve really been focused on equality across the organization, which effectively is driving decisions and autonomy throughout the company and making sure that we have clarity about roles and responsibilities, we have alignment of KPIs across the organization, and the culture starts from that now in terms of how we all behave.

Marty Parker:
As an entrepreneur and a founder, at what point did you start talking about culture and the type of culture that you wanted to have to drive success?

David Ossip:
It evolved. I’ve had five companies over the period. If I go back to say ’92, my focus over there was really on doing a very difficult problem and doing most of it myself. I was able to do the coding and implementation and sales. And then I built people around who could effectively support me. And that went very, very nicely. We grew very quickly and the company eventually was sold to a Japanese company in ’97. And the main reason it was sold was that I was hitting burnout. I was effectively doing everything from the coding, implementation, sales and working as close as possible to 24 by seven. So exiting that I realized that in order to build a company, you’d have to scale it, you’d have to build culture.

And that led to the Workbrain years, which went from 2000 to 2007, also a very successful company. When I used to speak about culture at Workbrain, I used to speak about FIT. We used to look for fun people, not “rah rah” fun, but if you were getting on a plane with a co-worker, would you try and get the seat next to the person or at the other end of the plane? So we wanted people who’d be compatible. We looked for intelligence and we define intelligence as people who had the ability to learn. We already had learned at that point that you couldn’t scale a company with mavericks, that you really had to get these intelligent people. And then the T obviously was the teamwork. And so we always used to speak about FIT and FIT being the foundation of culture.

Early days after Dayforce, very much the start-up culture, everyone’s on the party bus. You do everything together. You work together, you play together. We then started to morph it into a larger organization. And with the merger of Ceridian we had a unique challenge. Dayforce had a very strong culture, but a start-up culture. Ceridian at the time did not have a good culture. It had gone through some very difficult years. And at that point there was effectively a culture of survival, which had come from the reduction in workforce that started happening on a very regular basis. So at that point in time we kind of went out and we redefined the values of the organization.

We came up with a brand promise, and the brand promise was, Makes Work Life Better. And then surrounding our brand promise, we selected a set of values that reflected Makes Work Life Better, but also reflected who we were. And we carefully defined each of those values. So values like optimism, where we would define and say, optimism begins with careful preparation, that preparation leads to knowledge and that knowledge creates confidence and that confidence leads to success, and success is a reason for optimism. If you’re optimistic and you’re not properly prepared, well, then you’re just foolish. So very, very specific. And that set of values, we call our way, which was our way of acting and behaving.

We chose our way to define it because we didn’t want it to be the Dayforce culture, we didn’t want it to be the Ceridian culture. We wanted it to be our culture, our way of doing things.

By 2018, the company was becoming very, very successful. …[it] was continuing to grow at a very rapid pace, and we started to look towards the future in terms of how do we sustain scale. Now, when we looked at the culture at that point in time, it was evident that we had that founder-led culture. Founder-led culture is you have a strong CEO, a strong founder, and then around the founder you have other individuals who are equally strong, and the founder can trust each of those people. And a lot of the rest of the organization upward delegate. So if you’re doing a sales forecast, the sales VP will put together a forecast, give it to someone in that founder-led team, and they would massage the forecast into a forecast that the business would use. But that’s not the way it should be done. There should be no upward delegation of decisions, you should have a strong team where each group is able to run their business in accordance with the KPI targets that you have set out for them.

The other challenge we were having with the founder-led culture was that with the founder-led culture two things happen. One, you get burnout of the core team, and the second part about it as well is you start upsetting other people in the organization, because there is some element of favoritism. And you can’t scale an organization if you have favoritism. Everyone has to have an equal opportunity to acquire equity, to promote it, to attain their career aspirations.

So at that point in time, I went back out into the market and we brought in Leagh Turner into the organization … Leagh’s marching orders effectively were to add process and structure to the organization that would allow it to continue to scale. And that required moving from this founder-led culture into this culture of equality. Again, a culture of equality starts with very clear job descriptions, KPIs for each of the act that measure success or determines success of the actual job that are aligned to the overall KPIs of the organization.

And we’ve been going through that transition now for the last few years, and obviously it’s turning out very, very nicely.

Marty Parker:
David, I found in all the years that we’ve known each other, that you’ve really been an early and committed champion of employee, team member engagement. Talk about where that came from and of some of the successes you’ve had. Because that’s one thing in a start-up, that’s another thing when you’re putting two sizeable organizations together.

David Ossip:
I learned, I think after the first company or the second company I had in about ’97, that it was less about me but more about the team. And just what that meant and how to actually build out a scalable culture, I would say has evolved through just simply experience.

A couple of decades of experience, you learn effectively what are the leverage points that you can have within an employer organization and how do you build out that culture that leads to performance. I think it’s actually quite common now across the organization, and most organizations take an employee first approach to organizations. And then if you get that employee experience worked out, it translates into an amazing customer experience. And you get alignment between how you’re creating value at the customer side, as well as internally, how you’re creating value for the customers.

Marty Parker:
If you’ve been asked to mentor, which I know you were all the time, a young up-and-comer, what is the one piece of advice that you’d share with them?

David Ossip:
Most likely that you can’t build a team around mavericks.

That one of the reasons, if not the reason that most companies hit a ceiling, isn’t usually tied to lack of market, usually it’s tied to capability of team. And so if you’re building a company and if it is scaling, you have to build a culture where you are going to have to reach back out to market, to find people who have proven successful at the next level of growth for your organization.

And I know myself personally, and I believe other entrepreneurs that I’ve spoken to really struggle with that. When they build a company that is successful, they have a group around them who are all uber-performers, but they haven’t yet had the experience at the net next level, and if you want to continue growing, you have to work at how do you do that and how do you bring in new people without losing your identity.