Zappos’ Jon Wolske on Why Workplace Culture Matters

Posted in: PSA Partnership

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They think of themselves as one big family, and strive to give all employees — regardless of stature — a sense of ownership in what they do.

If you attended the recent PSA Partnership event, “Being Intentional About Your Culture,” you know I’m talking about the online shoe retailer, Zappos, headquartered in Las Vegas and now wholly owned by Amazon but independently operated. The company’s gross sales climbed from $1.2 million in 2000 to more than a billion in 2008, and 75 percent of its customers are return shoppers, of which 40 percent refer a friend. These factors allowed Zappos to become one of the biggest names in e-commerce.

If numbers alone can tell a story, then Zappos has a good one. Yet there’s more than savvy business to their success. What’s the secret? “In a word, culture,” Jon Wolske told a crowd of professionals and executives during a recent Partnership event at PSA’s headquarters in Hunt Valley. Wolske serves as the shoe giant’s “culture evangelist” — that’s both his official and self-proclaimed job title — and he came to PSA to share stories about the meaning of culture and how it shapes everything at Zappos, from the company’s unique model of customer support to its intent that all employees “work hard, but play hard, too.”

What makes culture key to Zappos’ success? And what can we learn from their example? Here, I summarize the takeaways of Wolske’s talk — and the advice he imparted to companies big and small.

Know What Culture Means

Most of us know that in today’s global business world, culture matters. Yet depending on whom you ask, culture can imply different things. “In the workplace, many people think culture means how they do things,” Wolske said. “It’s actually one step back from that: culture defines who you are, not what you do.”

For Wolske and his colleagues, culture is a set of attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors that characterize all aspects of the Zappos operation, from the customers it serves and employees it hires to the way the company conducts business. “Our CEO says our brand and our culture are two sides of the same coin,” Wolske shared. “If our culture isn’t reflected in everything we do, people are going to find out.”

At Zappos, they call this the “360-degree” approach to culture because it infiltrates all aspects of the company’s operations. In addition to providing customer service experience that is above and beyond expected, if employees go to IT for help for instance, then they can expect to be “WOW’d” as well by the service.

Figure Out Why

Building a workplace culture starts with figuring out why you do what you do. “Culture has to be about solving customer pain points, not just about making money,” Wolske said. “People get so ingrained in the business that they forget about the why. It might seem a little West Coast, but think about your purpose.”

At Zappos, the why came easily: It was 1998, and Nick Swinmurn, the company’s founder, wanted to buy a pair of Airwalks at his local mall. He looked in every store but couldn’t find the particular style he wanted. So the idea of an online shoe store hit him.

Fast forward to 2015, and the company still functions with the samemission: to provide a needed service to customers (in this case, to deliver the shoes they want, when they want them). This reasoning explains why Zappos chose to foot the bill for next-business-day shipping — meaning you can order a pair of shoes on Monday and wear them on Tuesday. And it explains why it stocks more than 9 million pairs of shoes in its Kentucky-based warehouse.

Identify Your Values

For Zappos, figuring out the company values required a real look inward, not just by leadership but by the entire team. Swinmurn sat down one day and attempted to define Zappos’ values himself, but then he decided to include his employees and emailed them: “Who are we at Zappos?”Responses varied but could be grouped in similar themes. From these themes, 10 core values arose. They range from “delivering WOW through service” and “embracing and driving change” to “pursuing growth and learning” and “being humble.”

Whatever you do as a company, Wolske warned, don’t try to clone another company’s values or culture. Do the legwork to figure out who you are and what you stand for, and then make those values part of everything you do.

Understand that Culture Affects Hiring 

When it comes to hiring and recruiting, a good salary and prestige used to be enough to attract top talent, but for many jobseekers, workplace culture is just as important. This is especially true for the highly educated millennials graduating college and entering the workforce. “The talented crop of young people care about more than just a paycheck,” Wolske said. They’re looking for meaningful work and a culture that inspires them and gives them flexibility to be who they are as individuals.

It’s not enough, though, to install foosball tables or to write about your “fun culture” on your website. Employees, just like consumers, can pick up on a phony setup — and increasingly want culture to drive the business. “People care who you are. Any successful brand needs authenticity, and needs to reflect who you are,” Wolske added.

Do Your Homework

If you’re questioning the return on investment that comes with building a culture from the inside out, then take a look at the research. “There are tons of studies on the topic — Gallop studies, research from the Harvard Business Review — all indicating that a strong culture leads to less burnout, lower turnover, more productivity, and higher profitability,” Wolske said. For starters, take a look at one referenced during the talk: Adam Zukerman’s “Strong Corporate Cultures and Firm Performance: Are There Tradeoffs?

Another place to look is the growing body of research on cognitive overload, and what constitutes a solid day’s work in today’s information-saturated, hyper-connected environment. “Average office workers work less than three hours a day, but so many are chained to their desks for eight hours, with a manager looking over their shoulder,” Wolske shared. “At Zappos, when you’re tired of looking at the TPS reports, you should get away from them.” Why? According to Wolske, people don’t stop working when they take a break to get coffee or walk around the block. Their brains actually process what happened, leaving them refreshed and ready to focus again on the work at hand.

Want to learn other strategies to make your workplace strong and prime your business for success? Register for our upcoming PSA Partnership event, “The Creator’s Code,” where author and Stanford University lecturer Amy Wilkinson will discuss six essential skills of extraordinary entrepreneurs.

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