Birdies, albatrosses, and caddies: My struggles to create a cohesive culture


Matt Conger

I'd like to give readers another look inside our company, Cadence Translate.

This weekend, a lot of sports fans around the world are watching the 2018 Masters golf tournament because Tiger Woods is finally back in contention. Although as of today, it would take a miracle for him to win the event, it has nonetheless drawn the world's attention to golf. As CEO of a research company primarily aimed at helping people overcome language barriers, I've always loved the evocative terminology of golf.



The Turn.

Green Jacket.

These words spark a lot of emotion in any golf fan but are somewhat inscrutable to outsiders. I started my career at Bain & Company, where internal company vocabulary helped build an amazing culture (ask any Bain alumni about BWC or ACT and they’ll likely smile and tell you a story). As an entrepreneur, I was keen to use terminology as a spark to build a happy, healthy culture.

I settled on golf as the theme around which I’d orient our terminology.

To soften the blow of asking people to work the graveyard shift, for example, I called it the groundskeeper shift, since that is the person whose responsibility it is to tend to the course overnight for players the next day.

I thought I'd score points for cleverness. Instead, I got confusion and even a bit of antipathy.

This made me nervous. A company's culture can be shaped by its leadership but is ultimately proven healthy and sustainable by its team members. If people didn't identify with phrases like "Are you working the front 9 or back 9 tomorrow?", did this indicate I was heavy-handed in imposing other aspects of culture on the business?

Our Client Service Associates are all based in Beijing, which is not exactly a city known for its love of golf (thanks to Papa Xi for that). The team itself is quite international, as our hometowns span the globe from Venezuela to Indonesia to Malaysia to Denmark. But for whatever reason, when I asked who at the company had played a round of 18 in the last few years, I was the only one. Yikes! I asked this question right before walking the team through my new plan for providing 24-hour service to accounts. 

YouTube to the rescue

My mistake as CEO was that I made too many assumptions about people's knowledge of golf. The internal name for our employees is Caddies, an innocuous term given that our company name is Cadence Translate, right? Wrong. The team pushed back and said the word has negative connotations because it implies a type of second-class citizen or even a master-slave type of arrangement. This makes sense for outsiders new to the sport, but here I was as a white male trying to explain to a group of mostly non-white-males why they should embrace this moniker. 

I felt that a caddie is a perfect way to describe our relationship with our clients. We help them survey the situation at hand and select from a set of resources available to us which one is best for the particular task ahead. We put ourselves in our client’s mindset. We celebrate victories together, and we analyze mistakes together. By contrast, our competitors are more like the staff in the pro shop: they get clients on their way without regards to building a relationship or offering any bespoke service.

Surely there must be something other than the dry USGA Handbook for Caddies that explains this relationship?

ESPN came to the rescue, with a video they posted in 2015 which profiled Jordan Speith’s caddie.

It was six minutes long and hit all the right emotional notes. I showed it during our onboarding and I swear I heard at least one sniffle (those ESPN videos can be such tearjerkers).

What they don’t tell you on Glassdoor

In the end, the YouTube video helped start a conversation about company culture terminology. And I believe the team appreciated my passion for focusing on something (internal terminology) that probably doesn’t get management’s attention in other offices in Beijing. Three months later, I’m happy to say our vocabulary is mostly integrated into our daily conversations. Here are some of my favorites:

Front 9 / Back 9

In golf: most golfers play 18 holes, and these terms refer to the first and last set of nine holes

At Cadence: refers to what time of day people generally work (morning or afternoon). Most people work nine hours in the office, so the Front 9 often starts around 7:30am and the Back 9 starts around 2:30pm. 

Birdie / Eagle / Albatross

In golf: refers to increasingly positive outcomes of a hole. A birdie is one stroke fewer than the expected amount (par). An eagle is two strokes fewer. And an albatross, quite rare, is three strokes fewer.

At Cadence: refers to how staffed-up an account is. We say that if a single team member covers an account, it is a Birdie account. Two team members makes it an Eagle, and 3+ makes it an Albatross. We also have two accounts which are so special that we call them Hole-in-one accounts.

Tee Shot

In golf: the first shot of each hole, which is always hit from the tee box.

At Cadence: refers to an account that is qualified by our marketing team and/or through word-of-mouth but has yet to request service. These days, I handle all tee shots for our capital markets clients. My colleagues will handle tee shots for our other industry verticals. 

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to some failures. I tried to use the term 19th Hole for when we go out for drinks as a team. In golf, it is the informal phrase for having a few cold beverages with your playing partners after a round. At Bain, we simply called after-word drinks Manager Beers. At Cadence, this phrase never quite stuck. 

As the weather gets nicer, I’m hopeful I can take the team golfing in the next few months. They can experience what they’ve only known in abstract. The American Chamber of Commerce usually hosts a golf tournament in nearby Tianjin twice a year, and I’m sure there are some indoor driving ranges in Beijing. 

Fellow entrepreneurs or employees of growing companies, have you used a theme when creating company terminology? Did it go over well? 

(Picture at top is Danielle Kang from the US fistbumps her caddie, courtesy of