Many business leaders dissect the ascendency of Zappos when studying the power of corporate culture -- and for good reason. The online retailer grew into a multibillion-dollar company based on the reputation and power of its unique organizational personality.
But strip Zappos down to the bare bones of its business structure, and the company had been little more than an online retailer employing hundreds of call-center employees (not the most compelling or exciting company story line).
Tony Hsieh was the mastermind behind an incredible shaping of culture, turning what could have been one of the dullest and most robotic of companies into a shining example of employee engagement and customer service.
Today, many company culture successes are in industries with a natural excitement and energy to them: leading technology companies like Google and Facebook or outdoor industry retailers like Patagonia. But what makes Zappos incredibly powerful is that it took call-center jobs and online retailing order-fulfillment work and wove them into one of the most talked about corporate cultures in the nation.
Zappos provides a road map for building a company culture in an industry without a reputation for excitement or innovation. Here's how you can follow that example to become the Zappos of your business sector:
1. Write the company’s obituary.
Start with the end. Write down what you would like your company to be known for when all is said and done. This will lay out your vision for your company in stark terms. It will begin the process of codifying what you find important. It will pin the destination point on the road map of your company's journey, letting you know where you want to go.
2. Develop core values.
Now set down some core values to arrive at your goal. Keep the list to four or five core values, using no more than nine or 10 words total. The key is to make the core values easy to remember. Select more than 10 words total and that set things up to spell failure.
Cognitive scientist George Miller is famous for his Miller’s law that supports the idea that the number of objects a person can usually hold in working memory is seven -- plus or minus two.
Keep the list of values short, sweet and memorable for all employees. The values should not relate to any product or service but to the company's personality, ethics and vision. And they should not have to change if the organization pivots, adopts a different product line or shifts directions.
A quick test to see if you did this right is to ask if these core values would be relevant 100 years from now, assuming your company is around, which frankly should be the goal when building an organization.
3. Make the goals come to life.
Creating core values is just the first step. Many companies with a poor company culture have a set of core values tacked to the wall or on the website. Enron, which ended in perhaps the most spectacular disaster in U.S. corporate history, had a great set of core values.
What will make your company different is the way core values are integrated into every facet of its operations. Reinforce them through rewards. Remind staff of them during team-building events.
Use them as the basis for evaluations and hiring decisions. Your core values should be the guiding light for every decision at the company. When properly crafted, they will lead the team and provide guidance without the need for managerial interference.
4. Use software tools.
When people think of company culture, they think of team building and retreats, but culture needs day-to-day oversight and reinforcement. And software systems can help you build, grow and maintain your corporate culture.
My company, Endeavor America Loan Services, relies on YouEarnedIt, an employee-recognition tool that lets co-workers reward one another for superior work that's aligned with the core values. Points are awarded in real time, giving instant recognition to a staff person who excels through an easily managed, democratic employee-driven process.
In addition, our employees use 15Five as a way to communicate with managers and executives -- the idea being that all staffers should take 15 minutes each week to jot down feedback to a supervisor that takes just five minutes to read. This feedback can be passed to the highest levels of the company and gives an accurate picture of how employees are aligning with the company’s core values.