company culture, customer service, Hult Labs, Tony Hsieh, Zappos

For Some CEOs, Company Culture Isn’t Just a Thing—It’s Everything

Posted Jul 17, 2013 by Hult Labs

Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay), the CEO of Zappos, has been ubiquitously quoted as saying that “if employees are bad for our culture, we’ll fire them for that reason alone.” Sound harsh or even confusing? Just wait; there’s more. Hsieh has said that employees who are bad for company culture aren’t necessarily bad at their jobs. So even if employees are high-performing “superstars,” yet don’t culturally connect, they are still asked to leave. Why would Zappos give up great employees (or not hire them in the first place; more on that below) just because they may not be the best cultural fit with the company? It’s pretty simple, according to Hsieh: “At Zappos, culture is the number one priority for the company.” Full stop. Culture over profits?  Culture over stock price?  Does this man need a management consultant to straighten him out?

In a word: no. A lot of leaders talk about the importance of culture in the workplace, and how it makes all the difference in motivating and inspiring people to consistently perform at the top of their game. And if Zappos’ very own company performance is any indication of what happens when the top management stresses culture above all else, then the results speak for themselves: Zappos has been pulling in annual sales of over $1 billion dollars. Here’s another Hsieh quote that links a great culture with great performance: “Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.” How does he know this?

After Hsieh's experiences in the corporate world, and at a startup he co-founded, where rapid growth led to the hiring of people who weren’t a fit with the original culture, he found it challenging to get up in the morning and go to work. So at Zappos, job candidates are rigorously screened—both for skill and cultural fit. The main company goal is to provide the best customer service possible, and there are several examples that show the proof is in the pudding. Zach Bulygo, a blogger for KISSmetrics, lists a few: “There are dozens of stories about their outstanding customer service, including delivering flowers to a customer whose mom passed away and talking to a customer for over 8 hours (a record that now has been broken).” It’s no wonder that Zappos customers are very loyal, and subsequently, are repeat buyers (Bulygo cites a rate of 75%).

In his article “The Real Meaning of Corporate Culture,” Josh Patrick writes: “Culture always starts with the owner. In companies where culture is well defined, it is reflected in every hiring decision. But it can be complicated. I see problems when companies do not pay attention to the traits that make people successful in their companies.” So how do you begin to define a company’s culture—or establish one in the first place? Patrick recommends that company leaders write down the main traits all employees should possess. In the interview process, when leaders are looking for their top traits in potential employees, the trick is to ask the right questions and listen very carefully to what interviewees have to say. “There is an art in searching for fit,” writes Patrick. “During the interview process, it’s important to give potential employees the opportunity to tell you how they live the traits you’re looking for…you might ask candidates to talk about a problem they have solved. Precisely how they solved the problem isn’t as important as their attitude about the problem.”

But as a company begins to grow, how does it preserve the culture its original leaders endeavored to establish in the first place? Bulygo culls an insight from Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness: it’s critical that the CEO (and other first generation leaders) directly participate in hiring new employees to make sure that the “right” people are being brought on board. As the business grows, top leaders don’t have to be involved in the hiring process—and this is obviously impossible as a company scales—because they would have already carefully vetted and hired (and trained) a new generation of employees who have bought into top management’s priority to hire for cultural fit. In essence, the seeds of the corporate culture have been planted.

But it’s not just enough for a leader to talk about how and why company culture is integral to a business; it’s also important to formalize it through clearly stated values. Zappos, for example, has 10 core values that all employees know. But there is no set of “one size fits all” values—they have to be unique to each company. Bulygo quotes Hsieh’s thoughts on this: “one of the really interesting things I found from the research is that it actually doesn’t matter what your values are, what matters is that you have them and that you align the organization around them. And the power actually comes from the alignment, not from the actual values.”

If you are in the process of interviewing for a new job, keep in mind that if you want to be in an environment where you are set up for success, the culture of the company—whether it’s a large, established corporation, or a little seedling of a startup—is pivotal. Of course skills matter, and you can be sure that a company will vet you for those first. But as you wind your way through the interview process, it’s also important for you to interview your interviewers to get as strong a sense as possible if the company is truly right for you. Do you want work/life balance? Do you want to dedicate most of your waking life to a company that provides a service or product you believe in? Do you work better alone, or do you thrive on teams? The culture of a company has the answers, and it should matter to you—because it matters the most to leaders who emphasize culture above all else.

Picture courtesy of Silicon Prairie News.

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