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How Tony Hsieh Built a Great Company (Cult)ure

How Tony Hsieh Built a Great Company (Cult)ure

By: Michal Lev-Ram

One night, while having drinks at a bar near the office, Tony Hsieh and about 10 Zappos colleagues discussed how they could keep hiring people who fit in well at the company.

Hsieh asked each person to say a sentence or two about what they thought of the Zappos company culture, and someone suggested typing up the comments and passing them around to all the company’s employees.

Hsieh went one step further -- in August 2004 he sent an e-mail to employees with the subject line “Zappos Culture Book.” In his e-mail, Hsieh asked each employee to write 100 to 500 words on what he liked about the company’s culture and what made it different from other workplaces.

Since then, the Zappos Culture Book has been given to prospective employees, customers, and vendors. A new edition of the book is produced each year, including new feedback to show how the culture has evolved.

Discovering Company Values
After the debut of the Zappos Culture Book, someone in the company’s legal staff suggested that Hsieh and his management team come up with a list of core company values, to be used as a guide for managers to make hiring decisions. Hsieh started jotting down a list, and then decided it would be best to get everyone’s input -- just as they’d done with the Culture Book.

Over the course of a year, he sent multiple e-mails to the entire employee base, canvassing for opinions. The list started with 37 core values and was eventually whittled down to 10:
  1. Deliver wow through service.
  2. Embrace and drive change.
  3. Create fun and a little weirdness.
  4. Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded.
  5. Pursue growth and learning.
  6. Build open and honest relationships with communication.
  7. Build a positive team and family spirit.
  8. Do more with less.
  9. Be passionate and determined.
10. Be humble.
Hsieh sent another e-mail to his employee base, this time outlining the final 10 core values, and describing each in detail (“delivering wow through service,” for example, means doing something “unconventional and innovative” that “has an emotional impact on the receiver”).

Hsieh also asked his recruiting department to come up with interview questions for each of the core values. Since then, the list of values has served as a guide for Zappos recruiters and hiring managers.

Job applicants often face wacky questions about their favorite theme songs or what two people they’d most like to invite for dinner.

“It’s about making sure that when we interview or hire people, we’re able to be specific about what we’re looking for,” says Hsieh, who adds that he regrets not establishing the company’s set of core values earlier. “We waited several years at Zappos, but if I had to do it all over again, I would do it on day one,” he says.

An Emphasis on Employee Training
In addition to its Ten Commandments, Zappos has established an employee training program in which the company’s philosophy and emphasis on culture, among other things, is taught over the course of several weeks.

All new hires must answer customer calls for two weeks, regardless of what position they’re going to fill. During the training period, recruits are offered $2,000 to quit -- the company’s way of making sure employees are there for more than just a paycheck.

As Hsieh wrote in a company blog post (“Your Culture Is Your Brand”) in 2009: “We’ve actually said no to a lot of very talented people that we know can make an immediate impact on our top or bottom line. But because we felt they weren’t cultural fits, we were willing to sacrifice the short-term benefits in order to protect our culture (and therefore our brand) for the long term.”


Excerpted with permission from Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career by Daniel Roberts and Fortune Contributors, Time Home Entertainment, 2013.

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