Workplace Culture

Culture, Zappos and Drinking Games

By Kris Dunn

Jun. 4, 2014

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh helped change the company's culture.

There's a new joke rolling around HR conferences near you. It goes something like this, “Anytime you hear someone say ‘Zappos,’ you have to drink.”

It’s HR nerd humor at its best. And all HR leaders (including me) who have been in the game for a decade or more have a little HR nerd in them.

The point of the HR drinking game is simple. Like any industry, HR tends to latch onto cool, trendy ideas and drive them into the ground. Las Vegas-based online retailer Zappos.com has done a great job in building and sustaining its workplace culture — so much so that it has become a target for cynics who enjoy a shot of Jägermeister.

The drinking game doesn’t diminish what exists at Zappos. It simply underscores how hard it is to replicate.

Creating a culture that is truly unique and real is incredibly hard. There’s no doubt that companies on lists like “Great Places to Work” have unique cultures that have been defined, sustained and drive ongoing business results.

The real question is whether the rest of the world can realistically expect to build a culture that produces similar results. If you start breaking down the list of features in companies that are reported to have great cultures, you’ll see two feature sets: benefits others don’t have and transformational people practices.

The good news is that you can buy the first feature. Simply write a check and you’ll find yourself with a slate of benefits that don’t exist in most companies. You’ll see upticks in both recruiting and retention success, even if your employees don’t actually use the slate of goodies you’ve provided. The fact the benefits are on the brochure is enough.

But how realistic is writing a check for benefits that represent a 20 percent lift in benefit spending? I’ve seen one company this year out of the hundreds I come in contact with that actually increased its benefit spending.

The second feature is even more problematic. Name the transformational people practice that’s top of mind for you — coaching models, a focus on innovation, agile employee development to name a few — and as soon as you start digging in, you’ll get a sinking feeling in your stomach.

That gut feeling is telling you that your company doesn’t have what it takes to scale transformational people practices at the organizational level. Whether it’s executive buy-in or the discipline necessary to sustain upstream people practices once launched, most companies don’t have the DNA to create and sustain a great culture at a macro-level.

Which means that most culture statements you see are vapor. They’re aspirational statements a company creates but doesn’t come close to living up to.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about the culture at your company. You simply need to shift your focus from “macro” to “micro.”

Micro-cultures exist everywhere in your company. Look out on the floor of your company and focus on a manager and his or her team who claim a chunk of your real estate. That’s a micro-culture.

Managers who lead a team at your company have a micro-culture based on their style and effectiveness in how they manage people. 

It’s a fact that people will join your company based on your macro-brand, but they’ll leave you in a heartbeat if the micro-culture around their manager is toxic — or at times, even average. That reality is as true at Zappos as it is at your company.

But the flip side is also true. In toxic companies with turnover percentages approaching triple digits, great managers who develop trust with their teams through authentic leadership and transparency will not only retain talent, but also get much higher performance than can be found in the rest of the organization.

As it turns out, culture isn’t defined for most of us by what we see on the website. It’s defined by the managers who are leading small teams.
That means the best play in defining culture for most of us is to focus on getting the right people leading small teams than having a plan to enable them and make them better at what they do.

Micro-cultures are developed when your managers add their own style to the tools and training you give them. That’s where the authenticity comes from.

Want to know which managers already own your culture? On your next employee survey, ask the following question: “Other than your own manager, what manager would you want to work for at our company and why?”

You’ll learn a lot. Employees talk. They already know where the micro-cultures exist and which managers drive those incredibly positive micro-cultures.

All culture is local. And everyone drink up the next time you hear the words “Zappos and culture” together.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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