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Zapped By Zappos: Lessons in How to Build a Workplace Culture that WOWS!

I recently got ZAPPED!  But in a good

I was one of about 30 enthusiastic folks who attended the Zappos Insights workshop in Las Vegas, Nevada.

And, let me tell you, if you must brave the summer heat in Nevada, attending the Zappos Insights program is a fantastic reason to do so.

You can’t help but end the day feeling inspired after being thoroughly and completely zapped by the  Zappos culture.

Two of the taglines for my own business mesh perfectly with the Zappos Insights program:  “The way work ought to be” and “Changing how the world works.”  I simply cannot imagine a workplace that better illustrates “the way work ought to be” than Zappos. And through its Insights program, which seeks to share its phenomenal success story with the world, Zappos is definitely on a mission to “change how the world works.”

Here are are ten insights companies can learn from Zappos about building inspiring workplace cultures:

1. Culture drives success.

I’ve been preaching this for years. Of course every business says it agrees with this notion, few, if anyone, delivers on the promise the way Zappos does. Its overriding core philosophy is built on the notion that if you get the culture right and if you make creating a great culture your top priority, everything else (including great customer service) will flow out of this as a byproduct.

2. Getting your culture right means getting your core values right.

Zappos got their values right by making sure the creation of its values was an inclusive process, with input on the values from all of the employees. Each year, Zappos creates a culture book that includes thoughts and stories from all the employees about what the values mean to them, which helps cement the values and helps strengthen the sense of ownership of the values by the employees.

3. Getting your culture right means living your values out loud.

Zappos actively uses its values to guide its hiring processes, its training process and how it makes decisions.  I did not talk to a single Zappos employee that day in any department who did not, at some point in the conversation, refer to one of their core values.

4. Getting the culture right means getting the right people on board.

The right people, in the case of Zappos, means first and foremost people who will fit seamlessly into its culture and embrace its core values.  It’s about recruiting and hiring for attitude and for a good “culture fit,” which is why the first interview for candidates is considered a “culture screening.”

Questions such as, “How comfortable are you hanging out with employees after hours?” and, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?”  lead to conversations that help assess whether or not a candidate will fit into the Zappos family culture.

5. Getting the right people on board takes time and commitment.

There are no shotgun weddings at Zappos. Because its priority is to make sure it recruits and hires people who are a good fit with its culture, and because Zappos understands the enormous expense involved in NOT bringing the right people on board.

6. Getting the right people on board means getting serious about your training.

Everyone at Zappos takes an intensive four-week training program that serves several purposes. It immerses people into the culture, gives them a sneak preview of their jobs and the actual work environment, and helps forge relationships among employees who may go on to work in separate departments. The training process also serves as an extension of the selection screening process, offering both candidates and Zappos employees a honeymoon period to ensure there’s still a good love match.

One of the more innovative approaches Zappos takes to filtering out potential mismatches is to offer candidates $3,000 to walk away after the first week of training. The incentive helps ensure that people are joining the Zappos family (and make no mistake, it is a family) for the right reasons.

7. When you get the culture right, you don’t need so many rules. Or policies. Or bureaucracy. zappos-culture

This, for me, was a very cool by-product of getting the culture right.  For years I’ve been telling my audiences: “When policy fails, try thinking.”

Clearly, Zappos has done some hard thinking and has come to the very simple realization that if you hire the right people, train them properly, and get the culture right based on your core values, then you don’t need to treat adults like children and you don’t need to impose a bunch of employee rules and policies.

One simple example: at Zappos there is no dress code. None. If and when someone’s appearance ever becomes an issue, then they’d deal with it through a conversation with the individual, rather than punish everyone with some ill-thought- out, reactionary policy.  This idea leads to another Zapp-ism: “Instead of rules, we have conversations.”  Beautiful.

8. Creating a fun physical environment creates energy, facilitates communication, and generates creative thinking.

I couldn’t help but think that anyone who enters the front door of Zappos (where, incidentally, all employees must enter, by design, to help encourage relationships and chance encounters) must have two immediate thoughts:

“Wow. This is different.”

“Hmm. I wonder if there are any job openings here?”

Sitting in the front lobby I was struck by the energy level in the room.  It was only 7:45 in the morning, yet there was an endless stream of high fives, hearty “Good mornings!,” laughter, and enthusiasm that you just can’t fake.

And part of that energy is reflected in the physical environment of Zappos, which can only be described as Mardi Gras on steroids.  In other words, this isn’t your grandpa’s  accounting office.

From insanely fun meeting rooms featuring thrones to stairwells adorned with employee graffiti to open desk areas (or as they call them, “anti-cubicle zones”) decorated and personalized to the hilt, the physical environment reflects people’s personalities and mirrors Zappos insanely fun, creative culture.

As one of the Zappos Insight team members stress, though, and it’s an excellent point, “The streamers around the office don’t create happiness. They reflect happiness.”

9. Communication is everything, and everything is communication…

That line is one of my mantras about communication at work, and boy does Zappos put this philosophy into practice. The way Zappos facilitates and fosters open and honest and timely communication is worthy of an article on its own.   From their “Team Zuddles” to their quarterly all-hands meetings, to their internal Wiki site to their fun employee handbook (“written by employees for employees”),  Zappos takes the notion of effective, inspiring, creative and timely communication to a whole other stratosphere.

10. Get the culture right and you really do deliver on that promise of service that WOWS!

Again, this topic is worthy of an entire book on its own.  So all I want to say here is that Zappos truly does deliver on its service value and its promise to wow its customers day in and day out by exceeding customers’ expectations and by surprising them at every opportunity.

Zappos lives and breathes customer service. Employees are truly empowered to do whatever it takes to wow the customer and build relationships with its customers.

And this service-centric focus both flows out of the phenomenal culture, AND  it also helps sustain the culture because that service-first mantra flows back inward as employees seek out ways to also wow their colleagues.

Ten inspiring lessons that serve as universal principles that truly can be applied to any workplace.

And, yes, it’s easy to think of reasons why some of these ideas will never work in your particular workplace.

But if you want to zap some energy into your business, then start somewhere. Look for what you can do and what you can influence. Start with baby steps and build momentum. Involve your team members.

Become a cheerleader for cultural change.

As I constantly remind my clients, work is a critically important part of your life.

You owe it to your customers, your employees, your colleagues, your families, and your soul to create the kind of energetic, inspiring, creative, and fun workplace culture.

In other words, you owe it to yourself to get zapped!

Copyright Michael Kerr, 2013. Michael Kerr is a Hall of Fame international business speaker and very funny motivational speaker.  He’s also the author of Inspiring Workplaces, Putting Humor to Work and The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All the Way to the Bank.  For articles, videos and information on how you can book Michael to speak at your next event or for information on Michael’s executive coaching programs, cruise on over to  Reach Michael  at


Copyright © 2018, Michael Kerr. All rights reserved.
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