Culture eats strategy for lunch

A speaker at the 2010 BRITE Conference at the Columbia Business School said something profound: culture eats strategy for lunch.

The same theme echoed at this year’s BRITE Conference. Speakers from ad agencies, globally known brands and academics talked about the importance of culture in their talks. Several speakers cited Zappos’s culture when giving an example of a great corporate culture. Attendees of the conference asked several speakers about how they were able to convince upper management to implement new programs. Their questions delved into how to get the buy in of senior executives on new ideasand not have themget lost in the organization’s pipeline. This is a major obstacle at organizations especially at most multinationals where bureaucracy is omnipresent and nothing could be more detrimental to organizations when itsculture kills the creativity and productivity of its internal customers.

Tony HsiehWhen the conference speakers exalted Zappos for its excellent corporate culture, it made me think back to the time when Zappos’s CEO Tony Hsieh came to speak at the American Marketing Association’s event at Fordham Universityin October 2010. Tony was traveling around the country promoting his book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose on the Happiness Bus and he made a quick stop in New York.

That October morning Tony talked about the Zappos Culture in terms of 10 core values which ranges from (1) Deliver WOW Through Service, (2) Embrace and Drive Change to (9) Be Passionate and Determined and (10) Be Humble. The culture is what defines the Zappos brand. What’s interesting to note is that they base their hiring decisions on how fit the person would be to the Zappos culture and pay employees $2,000 after the training program to quit. These are some of the guidelines that they follow to protect the brand and culture for the long term.  I do not know of any other company that has built itself around its culture and protects it so dearly. I became a fan of Zappos that day even though I had never ordered anything from their website (until I ordered their 2010 Culture Book).

In the book, Tony talks about a blog he wrote a few years ago titled Your Culture Is Your Brand. He states that “the best way to build a brand is through culture and that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are two sides of the same coin.” At first thought it seems that Zappos is following the conventional wisdom that you should take care of your customers so they come back for your business. Yet, as Tony mentions in his October talkand the book, this has become more of a saying than a guiding principle at many companies.  Zappos’s core value #2 is Embrace and Drive Change which is set to motivate and encourage employees to be creative, open-minded and communicate their experiences to upper management. When you have such a guiding principle as part of your culture, it will be rare to see ideas go down the drain. It is probably not an understatement to say that employees who interact with customers each and every day can significantly help drive the change needed for the organization to be successful tomorrow.

When you have built a strong culture where the core values are clearly communicated, both employees and management are aligned to achieve the objectives of the company.  As Tony mentions in his book, it doesn’t actually matter whatyour company’s core values are, what matters is that you have them and that you commit to them. Zappos proudly has a Culture Book which initially started out for only employees to talk about what Zappos culture meant to them. But, the book has evolved and now involves customers, vendors and partners.

Impressed by how they have cultivated and how proud they are of their culture, I went online and ordered the 2010 Culture Book from Zappos’s website. Zappos is not the first company focused on building a strong culture but they have made culture the core component of who they are and along the way became known for having a great company culture.

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