Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Culture: An Interview with Zappos

The 2014 Word of the Year, according to Webster Dictionary, was Culture.   Webster’s defines it as “the beliefs, customs, arts of a particular society, group, place or time; a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization.”  Culture is an intangible asset that many leaders of strong cultures such as Zappos, Nordstroms, Southwest Airlines point to as secrets of their success. 
Culture is hard to describe.  We can recognize a strong organizational culture when their stated beliefs match their employees’ behaviors and their customers’ experience.  And we can also recognize a company culture which doesn’t hold employee behavior accountable to its stated mission or value statements. 

Culture is important.  So important that Peter Drucker coined the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” meaning that strategy must be rooted in the cultural strengths and the cultural needs of the business.  Knowing what business you are in, the culture you have and the culture you need to support future success is the key to sustained growth.
Here’s what Jon Wolske,  Culture Evangelist for Zappos Insights had to share about their successful culture.
1.  You've built a world-class culture at Zappos - why is culture so important to your business?
ZAPPOS:    As we grew, we realized that with more and more people coming into the company the culture of the company would change. If we wanted to continue to grow and continue to remain the same brand we were going to have to define what that really meant and who we really are. From those early steps in 2005 to a commitment to live our 10 Core Values in everything we do in 2006, we have defined our culture and committed to it as our #1 priority knowing that if we get the culture right, everything else will fall into place (that’s a quote from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos!)  Another one of my favorites is Culture and Brand are two sides of the same coin – meaning that we can define our culture and live it AS our brand and we aren’t putting one image out in our marketing but living something completely different when you do business with us.
At Zappos we are a Service Company that happens to sell (shoes, clothes, accessories, etc…) and we have a “Culture of Service” that helps make that happen!
2.  What do you do to ensure that your culture is sustainable and continues to evolve? 
ZAPPOS: We hire and fire based on Culture Fit. Half of the assessment for employment is based on alignment with our Core Values, not the ability to put up with it or to change to be a fit. If we have addressed issues of behaviors or actions that go against our culture with feedback but see no attempt to align future actions with the culture, we will separate from that individual. 
Everyone gets to see that they are a part of the culture and can (and should) affect change as needed. We give people opportunities to bring up their ideas and see if they make sense to put into action.
Pay is competitive, but we aren’t trying to pay the most. If pay is the most important driver to a prospective employee, this may not be the place for them. We try to think about the big picture and make sure we are working towards the purpose of providing great experiences in all 360 directions. The culture is kind of a benefit unto itself if you are aligned to our values – you get to be yourself all day every day.
We’ve made sure that our new office space is very open (our old office space was pretty open, too!) so people can collaborate, but also have a lot of conference rooms so that if someone needs to get out of the open environment they can. Many phone calls or meetings take place every day out in the open, and many take place in conference rooms.
We have a ‘Fun Team’ that comes up with themed events, but these are not ‘the culture’ as much as they are Zappos living the ‘Deliver WOW through Service’ core value to team members. The Fun Team can also act as party planners for other departments that want to host an event (our Merchandising Dept holds a couple of themed days where they bring vendors in from a category to show off their wares, give folks a chance to see what is new and host fun games and activities) because they have relationships with party supply companies and production companies that can help make events go very smoothly.

3.   What is one suggestion you have for leaders trying to improve their organizational culture to embrace the Future of Work?
ZAPPOS: Open up the dialogue. Your success has happened because of smart business decisions that have been made, and because people have been there to make the right decisions. Your culture isn’t the product you make or the services you offer, it isn’t even ‘How you do things’ – it is WHO you are. Let everyone on every level of your organization have a voice in the process of defining your brand, and you’ll get to the heart of what your brand really is.

About Jon Wolske
Jon Wolske is the Culture Evangelist for Zappos Insights, a part of the Zappos Family of companies headquartered in Las Vegas, NV. After a year and a half in the Customer Loyalty Team and a brief stint with the Zappos New Hire Training team, Jon became the companies first full-time Tours Lead. In a little over a year’s time, Jon had grown the tours team to include a handful of ‘Culture Guides’ and the experience had grown into a business-tourist attraction in Las Vegas. Today the tours team averages over 1800 guests each month who come to see the Zappos culture in action.   Jon has presented at meetings and conferences for companies from around the world, including Microsoft, Humana, Bath & Body Works, Aetna, Merck, Samsung Electronics, Eli Lilly and AOL. Jon gave his first TED talk at TEDxLoyolaMarymountU in April of 2013. Watch it here:




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