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  • Writer's pictureMandy Diamond

United versus Zappos - How Organizational Culture Drives Results

As I took a tour around this fascinating organization, my 'tour guide' pointed out that the woman walking towards us was one of five "Fun-gineer's" in the company. Her role and sole purpose in the organization was to create fun for the employees. In the same breath, my tour guide or culture maestro as he was known, Ryo Zsun, starts to tell us about the time she organized camels to hang out for the day - purely so employees could get photo's with them. We walk into the HR department's work space and their holiday decorations resemble a kids wonderland with ball pits and life size jungle animals. I look to my right and I notice a cash register and behind it are balloons, cards and other paraphernalia. When I asked Ryo what that was, he said that it was their very own celebration store called, "Balloons & Sh#$." They sell cards, candy bouquets, balloons, confetti cannons – everything you would need to celebrate a special occasion at work. And sometimes your delivery person is their very own CEO, Tony Hsieh. I have to remind myself that this is a corporate office of one of the most successful online retailers. Zappos truly is an incredible workplace. They have worked very hard and continue to work on creating an organizational culture which makes employees want to come to work and customers want to buy more from them. They have achieved what most companies strive for but miss the mark completely and as a result they are happy to share the secrets to their success by giving tours of the corporate office to the public (For more information on this click here). Most people on our tour were awe struck and plotting a way to get a foot in the door, because after all, who wouldn't want to be welcomed into this family. I use the word family intentionally, because Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, has intentionally created a work culture where your colleagues feel like your family. A culture where employees want to hang out with each other after the work day is done. (And let's be honest, who would ever want to leave work when your company offer an on site bar/pub with heavily discounted gourmet meal and drink items. And a mini golf course. And an on site gym with personal trainers. And a life coach. And allow you to bring your pets to work..... the list goes on).

All of these incredible perks aside, it got me thinking about the perfect organizational culture because when it comes down to it, this type of workplace may not actually be the right fit for every industry and every person. There also has to be more to the culture than just some pretty awesome perks in order for a company to be successful in the long term. Clearly, Tony Hseih has done something right because not only does he have a very engaged and dedicated workforce, but he is also achieving sales well over $2 billion a year in a very competitive market. Based on my experience working with teams, my research and observations, I have realized that a high performing culture requires the following 3 elements to be aligned:


- clear sense of purpose

- vision for the future

- a common set of values that drive behavior and decision making


- Hiring the right people

- Hiring values before skills (yet ensuring you set people up for success by teaching them the skills if required)

- Empowering leadership with Responsibility, Accountability and Authority


- Having in place systems and processes which support the values and goals of the organization

- Reporting protocols which can give you a clear overview

- Flexibility to adapt policies to reflect changing needs and environment

Zappos is a great example of a company that has achieved a synergistic culture. They have a very clear set of values. These values are not simply a list posted up on the walls and in the elevators. These 10 values are the foundation for everything that they do. They live these values everyday - it drives how they interact with each other, customers, suppliers; how they manage conflict and change; how they prioritize tasks and most importantly how they hire people to work there. The recruitment process is extremely lengthy. In fact Zappos have a reputation that it is easier to get into Harvard than to get a job at Zappos. This is because they spend a lot of time and money ensuring they have the right people. People that 'fit' their culture and will be driven by the same sense of purpose. Not simply people who look good on paper and in a half hour face to face interview. At Zappos, skills come second to temperament. If you are top of your field and have the best skills for the job but do not display the behaviors needed to compliment their values and policies and procedures, you will not be hired at Zappos.

A clear example of an organizational culture that is out of sync is United Airlines. I make this bold statement purely on personal experience and the recent incident that received global coverage and outrage. Before we address the incident I think it is essential to highlight United's vision and mission, described on their website as their 'Shared Purpose':

"Every day, we help unite the world by connecting people to the moments that matter most. This shared purpose drives us to be the best airline for our employees, customers and everyone we serve."

The incident last week, where a 69 year old man was pulled from his seat on a United flight (for which he had PAID) and after they had allowed him to board, is in stark contrast to their 'Shared Purpose' described above. He was randomly picked to give up his seat after no volunteers came forward to give up their seats for additional crew members that needed to get to their next port of call. Was he being belligerent? No. Was he putting any other passengers at risk? No. Was he within his rights to decline the random selection? Yes. In the video footage he can be heard saying that he needs to return home for his patients as he was a doctor and was required to return for work. United's policy, procedures and leadership behaviors were completely out of sync with their 'Shared Purpose' when it came to this incident. Rather than living out their 'Shared Purpose' of connecting this customer with his patients they violently removed him from the plane, injured and humiliated and in the process created a public relations nightmare for themselves. If United was committed to their 'Shared Purpose', they would never enforce a policy which puts crew (and profits) ahead of their customers. If United's policies and procedures were written with this purpose in mind and if their management were trained (and hired) with the behaviors to support this, perhaps this incident could have been avoided.

In stark contrast to this and to illustrate how policies and procedures need to be in synergy with the vision and values of the business let's go back to Zappos. Their first value is "Deliver WOW through service". Most call centers have very strict policies about call handling times and the quicker the call handling the better. The call handling policy at Zappos: Stay on the phone as long as the customer needs you to - Bring a little happiness to their day. This allows employees to really build relationships with their customers. There is even a bit of healthy competition going on internally to beat the current record for the longest call which is held by Steven Weinstein at a whopping 10 hours!! Find out more about it here.

So you can see pretty clearly, a great organizational culture isn't measured by how much free food you hand out or how comfortable the bean bags are in the 'chill out room'. You don't need to hire fungineers or camels to instill a great organizational culture - even though that is pretty awesome. It goes deeper than that and it doesn't matter what industry you are in - the principle is the same. Ensure the vision and values of the organization are more than just words on paper - they need to be embodied and lived out through the behaviors of the employees and supported by the policies and procedures. If all 3 of these elements are in sync and support each other, authentically and undeniably, the culture and driving force of the organization can only be one which is high performing and very hard to beat.

(To find out more about where your company may sit and how to achieve a synergistic culture contact

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