Creative Best Practices

Zappos & the Importance of a Vibrant Corporate Culture

Posted by Michael Sprouse on February 22nd, 2010 at 12:00 am

Corporate culture is a topic that is very important and often overlooked by many businesses. The detractors claim that it is difficult or even impossible to measure the impact that corporate culture has on the bottom line. Phrases and topics like "employee empowerment," "managing from the bottom-up," "management training," and "employee perks" are still not widely embraced in most businesses.

My question is: Why not? I’d like to provide an alternate point of view. One of the tent poles of Epic Advertising over the past two years has been a focus on our culture and people. The result? Two consecutive years of great business success, double-digit percent year over year revenue growth, and a No. 3 ranking in Crain's New York Business “Best Places to Work” 2009 competition.

But my intent here is not to tout Epic. Perhaps the best example of the importance of corporate culture and how it is a key component to success is Zappos. In case you’re not familiar with Zappos, we featured them in our latest issue of Winning the Web. Zappos also has a fantastic subscription site - called Zappos Insights - devoted entirely to helping other businesses enhance their corporate culture and develop an innovative workplace.

Here’s a snippet of what we learned from Zappos:

Values are critical. These are, by definition, “things that a person or company is not willing to sacrifice.” The Zappos culture is entirely driven by their values; in fact, they claim that they don’t sell shoes, they sell “service." Even though times change, people change, the economy changes and even business models might change, the company believes that its core values will guide it through times of change and propel it to success more than any other factor.

People. In order for a company to live by their values, you must have the right people who not only believe in those same values, but live by them. Once you get the right people in the door, it’s much easier to create a culture where people love to work, offer great service and ultimately, drive the success of the business. At Zappos, they test people during the interview process for “unusualness” because that fits their culture.

Treat People Well. Think about when you have done your best work or when you have truly succeeded at something. I’d be willing to bet that you were happy and passionate about it. It doesn’t happen too often that you do really well in something that you hate (unless you’re Andre Agassi, who apparently hated tennis for decades). The challenge for companies, though, is that they can’t force employees to be happy or to be passionate. What they can do, however, is create an environment that engenders employees to do their best work and to be treated fairly. Paramount to this is strong leadership in place as role models who embrace the company’s core values. Interestingly, Zappos notes, the simple act of being “friendly” is a major factor in their internal success.

Senior management should be coaches, not bosses. This flies in the face of everything I was taught in formal business classes, which claimed “people need to be told what to do and when to do it.” That’s true . . . if there is no trust, communication, passion, values or understanding of a company’s strategic direction in place. However, if the characteristics above are present, the passionate and highly-informed people at your company don’t need a boss, they need a coach or mentor.

Your culture should reflect the business you are in, or, the classic “don’t fit a square peg into a round hole” argument. Zappos’ culture (and Epic's, for that matter) is a little bit more casual, which is akin to the Internet marketing and e-commerce industries. This creates an environment of comfort for employees, so that they can focus on producing their best possible product. Would this approach work at a law firm? Most definitely not. There is a misconception that casual means unprofessional, but this is not the case. Clearly, Zappos understands that better than anyone, and at Epic, we feel that we do, as well.

Industries differ as much as individual companies or individuals do. What works for one company or industry may not work in another. However, you might be surprised how these lessons can translate to more businesses than you might think, and they are good lessons for all of us to learn, and to be reminded about.

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