March 15, 2009
The Continuum from Google to Zappos
One interesting SXSW session from yesterday was Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh’s keynote on what makes his company tick. Among his most arresting lines was this (in paraphrase): Contrary to popular belief, the most important goal for us is not customer service. It’s culture. Hsieh proceeded to outline an exhaustive strategy for enforcing a fairly specific corporate culture, including the creation of an annual “Culture Book,” which features statements from Zappos employees characterizing the culture of the company.
Hsieh’s presentation was striking because it seemed to cut firmly against the grain of the current prevailing attitude towards corporate culture. We hear a lot nowadays that the best CEOs work hard to produce a sort of rigorous autonomy among their employees. Google, of course, famously permits its employees to spend a day a week merely following their own curiosity in the pursuit of work. The Obama campaign was praised for replicating the organizing structure of a good jazz group - a legion of micro-maestros, all empowered to excel at their own strategies in their many focused domains.
The Zappos of Hsieh’s description, on the other hand, is in some sense a very top-down, command-and-control environment. Prospective employees are carefully screened for conformance to a preordained culture, and anyone hired can be severed for failing to conform to that culture. One of Hsieh’s “10 commandments of Zappos” (how often do you hear “ten commandments” these days in companies?) - “build a positive team and family spirit” - is about eradicating the division between work and life, according to the company’s recruiting manager. “Employees work together, play together, break bread together and come to think of each other as members of an extended family,” she says. I.e., Zappos aims to encompass the entirety of its employees’ lives. This runs counter to, say, Best Buy’s much-praised embrace of allowing its employees unprecedented flexibility in scheduling and telecommuting.
Of course I’m simplifying. The “commandments” ostensibly allow room for plenty of employee autonomy. “Be adventurous, creative and open-minded” is on the list. Which reminds me of trying to come up with funny post-song banter for a cappella concerts in college. At some point, after even our lamest ideas had stopped trickling out, someone would croak out an exhausted, “Be funny!” And we’d all laugh. Because, of course, you can’t command humor into existence. Can you command creativity? And can you really make jazz when all your musicians were pre-screened for favoring the same improvisations and flourishes?
Also notable was the warm reaction Hsieh’s sessions got. Aside from some jokes about the cultish picture he was painting, and some grumbling about his sort of flat presentation style, the Twitterverse was surprisingly (I thought) aglow about what Hsieh was saying.
Is the dynamic changing? Is top-down the new bottom-up? What’s the right balance between Zappos’ approach and Google’s, or Best Buy’s?
Later, also: Robin got at some similar questions in his post about Apple, the iPhone, secrecy and transparency.