When Company Culture Isn’t An Oxymoron – A Zappos Experience

August 2, 2012 in News & Events, Other Than That - news, business & other nonsense | Comments (0)


First impressions, they say, are lasting ones, but if there’s one thing that becomes abundantly clear after spending a few hours in downtown Las Vegas it’s that of another old adage – things are not what they seem.

While there is no question that certain streets and byways carry a distinctly post apocalyptic air – desolate, void of foot traffic or cars, vacant lots encased by chain link fence that are pocked with weeds under which the faintest outline of a motel’s foundation peeks through (more on that in a following post) – if you peel things back just a bit there seems to be a glimmer of something.

No, it’s not neon. Nor is it glitter. It seems to be hope.

But I get ahead of myself. Really what today was all about, at least for starters, was getting a sense of the Zappos culture. For that, I took one of their famed tours. People talk in almost reverent tones about the Zappos company culture. They talk about what an amazing place it is to work. They talk about how happy the employees are and how it’s a place infused with a true sense of compassion and connection both among the staff as well as towards the customers.

Being the born-and-bred East Coast gal that I am, I embarked upon this tour fully prepared to debunk any and all stories I’d heard about this place. I mean, I’ve worked in large companies. I know how they operate. People talk about how great a culture is or how much they love working there, but in the end, the sad truth is “corporate culture” ironically often means precisely the opposite. More often than not it represents the hammering out of individuality, the watering down of spirit and the overlay of a bureaucratic film that results in soul deadening process, procedure and productivity.

I know. I know. I’m a cynic.

Yet, never let it be said that I do not admit when my cynicism is misplaced, because even in a relatively short exposure on Thursday it’s seems pretty clear Zappos is a place where process exists, procedure is in place and productivity is a pleasantly wonderful by-product of a healthy and empowered employee base.

It started well as we were greeted by Brittany – an artfully inked and appropriately chipper shuttle driver who picked me and another visitor up in the lobby of The Ogden – and took us to Zappos HQ, which is presently in Henderson, NV (about a 25 minute scoot up the highway). In 2013 they’re moving to downtown Las Vegas (of course a crucial contributing factor to the urgency of The Downtown Project … but that shall be covered in my next post). She was interested in us, asking where we were from, how we came to be taking the tour and then shared her story about working at Zappos. It was decidedly devoid of scripting, fresh, engaging and fun. She deposited us in the lobby of the main building where another fresh-faced, smiling young woman got us set up with badges and we sat to await our tour guide.

Truth is, I could probably write a blow-by-blow tome about the tour experience. If you’re interested in more specifics, feel free to ask in the comments or send me an email, but in the interest of catching up with some blog posts I’ll distill to a few key takeaways:

Valerie Stiles - Zappos 'Culture Clown'

The people who work at Zappos are perfectly selected.
Valerie, the lovely woman (pictured above) who squired my group around the place previously worked at a Disney property as one of the characters (and true to their practice, she did not reveal which one). While that prior work certainly tailors her well for the effervescent, cheery demeanor required of such a position, what impressed me even more was her masterful grasp of the company business. She spoke fluently and in deep detail about pretty much every business aspect, proffering statistical data to support every point. On the few occasions when she hit a point she didn’t know, invariably a head popped up from a nearby cubicle with someone who had the answer. It’s not just Valerie, though. Every single employee is clearly carefully chosen. Turns out they have quite an application form … which includes questions like – “What superhero would you be, and why?” Which leads me to the next point…

Being an employee at Zappos isn’t just about what your job may be, it’s about being part of something bigger.
These people know their company’s business, they are proud of it and love to share it. Whether loading sodas into the cooler in the Bistro, working at the front desk, handling tours, or being part of the department that actually selects the products that are sold, the people who work at Zappos take pride in their company and in each other. The company also has an incredible personal coaching program that is available to any and all employees. You get to pick a personal goal you wish to attain and as part of your employment are given access to a coach to help you get there. More about coaching powerhouse Augusta Scott in another post…

At Zappos it’s not just about listening, it’s about paying attention.
The customer service team at Zappos is famed for how they engage with customers. How they listen and remember details about people, sometimes even sending personalized thank you notes. This isn’t a gimmick. This is how they are. When I boarded the shuttle bus after the tour, John the driver greeted me by name and made note of things that I had discussed with Brittany on the way to the tour. I’d asked her several questions and he specifically asked if I had those questions answered. There’s a mindfulness about others that seems to permeate pretty much all aspects of how Zapponians interact with others – whether they be part of the company or not.

This culture, this distinctly unique culture, saturates the way people at Zappos do their jobs. People come from all over the world to take tours and study how Zappos does its business, with the express intention of figuring out how they might replicate it in their own organizations.

Here’s the thing. You can’t just replicate a culture. It doesn’t work. What you can do, however, is study the process for developing a culture and then use that process to help find the culture that is uniquely fit to your own organization. It is this philosophy that lies underneath the Downtown Project – an aggressive campaign to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.

In my next post, first impressions of the ambitious endeavor that is the Downtown Project…

A full photo gallery from Day 1 of my Zappos & Downtown Project Adventures can be found here.


Comments are closed.