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Culture and Values

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I’ve just finished reading Tony Hsieh’s new book, Delivering Happiness.  It is the best book on culture that I’ve ever read.  Hsieh is the CEO at Zappos.com, and besides being witty and really funny, Hsieh is incredibly insightful about the importance of culture.  He shares EVERYTHING about how they built culture at Zappos.com and gives everyone who reads the book a blueprint for how to do it at other organizations as well.  He argues, very compellingly, that without a strong culture that has some teeth behind it, there is no way Zappos would have achieved more than $1 billion in gross sales annually in just 10 years.  Key here is the “teeth” behind the culture.  Zappos is willing to make hiring and firing decisions based on their cultural values.  In other words, if someone won’t fit into the culture, no matter how skilled or competent she is, she won’t be hired.  And, on the other hand, regardless of how talented and capable an employee is, if he behaves in a way that is counter to the corporate values, he’ll be fired.  There’s just no negotiation when it comes to culture and the values that shape them.  The result is a culture with authenticity and consistency.

Building culture starts with identifying an “end game”.  What is your company’s purpose?  What do you want to build and achieve together?  This isn’t just a “touchy-feely” question . . . it’s a strategic and critically important one.  Being part of something bigger than you are is inspiring and can yield great results.  The purpose can be really simple.  At Zappos, their higher purpose is to deliver happiness – to make people happy.  And, it’s turned out to be an incredible business plan.  The important thing for any organization is to have a clear purpose.  What is yours?  And, more important, if everyone in your organization was asked about the purpose, would they know what it is?

Next, building culture continues with identifying core values.  What guides your behaviors and decisions?  Values can help you make sure that your higher purpose is achievable and real.  At Zappos, there are 10 core values.  There is no magic number – you can have 3 or 5 or 12.  How ever many you have, you need to make sure you can live with them and commit to them and have some teeth behind them.  If you have too many, it’s easy to lose focus and ultimately, lose the meaning of the values.  If they are values you can commit to, and make hiring and firing decisions around them, then they are a solid set of values.  The values are the key expression of culture.  When you ask employees and customers to describe culture, it’s the values that they’ll speak to because your values are your culture in action.

Finally, building culture means building the expectation into the organization, through things like job descriptions and performance evaluations, that living up to the core values is everyone’s responsibility.  By living your values, you’ll build and sustain your culture.

I  love doing culture work with clients because it is inspiring and reminds me that there are fantastic possibilities to be explored if we only open our hearts to them.  What possibilities are there out there for you, I wonder?

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Posted In: Leadership, Organizational Culture, Performance Management, Uncategorized, Values