Can a company really expect to deliver happiness?

I’ve followed Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, on Twitter for some time now by one of those fortuitous accidents. I was lucky enough to get sent a couple of review copies of Tony’s book, ‘Delivering Happiness’ and read it right through in a sitting.

The book is subtitled ‘A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose’ and is in 3 sections, one for each of these Ps. The first, Profits, tells Tony’s personal story and demonstrates how he has entrepreneurship coded into his DNA. He recounts his childhood enterprises from worm farms (an early failure) to badge selling (a big success) and then his creation of his first company, Link Exchange, as a result of being bored one weekend and experimenting with some computer coding. He went on to sell the company to Microsoft a couple of years later for $265 million. Fascinating as this story is (and Tony tells it with humour and pace), the real meat of the book comes in the two following sections as he tells the story of Zappos, the online shoe and apparel retailer, from conception to its recent sale to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

The trials and tribulations of getting the company going, keeping it afloat when cash was short and dealing with several setbacks that could have sounded the death knell to the nascent business, make fascinating reading. However it’s the insights offered into the unique culture that is Zappos, that makes this book unmissable for anyone interested in corporate culture, employee engagement or the creation of a great place to work.

Whilst the Zappos culture is unique and not readily replicable, particularly in a large long-established organisation, it provides some fabulous stimulus to help you come up with your own ideas for creating a culture that is unique and special for your own business. Here are some examples:

The Ten Core Values

I thought ten was overdoing it a bit (I try to get companies to stick to no more than about 5 or 6) but there’s ample evidence in ‘Delivering Happiness’ that these are values that are lived and breathed and not just words on a mouse mat or printed in the front of the annual report. In fact they were whittled down from an original list of 37. Tony includes a write up on each value by a different member of the company to explain with a story how these are brought to life. Story-telling seems to be a strong part of the keeping this culture vibrant and alive.

The Library

This started with the boss lending out the odd book but evolved into 100 titles available in the lobby to be lent out to employees and visitors. In fact some of the books are required reading for employee development and have even developed into courses. I have a feeling one of them is Good to Great as there was a lot of evidence in Tony’s philosophy of the thinking that went into that book regarding leadership, vision, “getting people on the bus” etc

The Culture Book

Every year, each employee is asked to write a personal statement on what the Zappos culture means to them. These paragraphs are compiled into a hardback book which is distributed to all employees, new hires plus any customers, suppliers, or others who happen to want one. I put this to the test by emailing the company to ask for one. It was delivered to me here in the UK a couple of days later by UPS. This is really putting money where mouth is – as there is no censorship – everything submitted goes in the book. It’s lavishly produced and illustrated so must cost them a tidy sum but “It’s a short term expense, long term investment.”

New employee induction

Given the strength of the culture, it’s obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea – and like other culturally driven organisations, Zappos recognises the importance of not only getting the right people ‘on the bus’, but also getting the wrong ones off it. At the end of the induction process new employees are offered $2000 to quit, thereby ensuring a high level of commitment among those who last the course. Although as the recruitment process is very values-driven, they don’t get taken up on the offer that often.

The Pipeline

Rather than using that old chestnut favoured by company reports: “Our people are our greatest asset, Hsieh’s philosophy is to value the pipeline of people rather than the individuals. The long term intent is to hire only at entry level and promote and develop their own talent pipeline, hence the emphasis on learning and development. The company offers a wide range of courses and boot camps both specific to the internal culture and covering other topics from Tribal Leadership to Grammar and Writing!

So if you’re one of those people who loves the experiential approach to business, this is an autobiography that has a great and inspiring story to tell, from Hsieh climbing Kilimanjaro while the company was running out of cash, uprooting the entire company and moving to Las Vegas, and the trials and tribulations of managing stock availability ¬†(yes he even makes that interesting!) I recently read another successful entrepreneur’s biography and despite me knowing the other CEO personally and admiring much of what he’s achieved, it wasn’t a patch on this book.

If you’re a student of business culture, responsible for ¬†customer service, a struggling entrepreneur or someone fascinated by leadership, then this is a gold-mine of a source-book. And if you doubt that making people (customers and employees) happy is a profitable business strategy, then prepare to be convinced!

>> More information on the book

>> Buy the book on Amazon


2 responses to “Can a company really expect to deliver happiness?

  1. Hi Clare, I’ve just found your blog! Thanks for some thought-provoking pieces. I want to comment on this one ‘cos I too got lots from the Zappo’s book. You know that my shorthand for this leadership stuff is that you’ve got to be ‘up to something’ ie have an aspiration or grand goal that matters to you and you’re going for. Well, Mr Hsieh is definitely up to something!
    My question is why do so many leaders of organisations not see that fully engaging their people – even to a semi-Hsieh level – is a very powerful and mostly free way of improving performance as well as bringing lots more benefits? Why oh why?
    best wishes, Steve

  2. Thanks Steve – and yes you are so right! Some organisations see this kind of thing as too “soft” – big missed opportunity. I’m convinced there’s a huge correlation between financial results and engaged employees.

    By the way people – Steve has written an excellent book himself – Future Engage Deliver – everything you need to become a more effective leader.

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