Steve Smith, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Steve Smith, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Steve leads content development, thought leadership and public relations activities as a partner at Starr Tincup. Steve received his B.A. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Since 2001, Steve has specialized exclusively in human resources and human capital-focused communications consulting after nearly a decade as a newspaper journalist. He has earned numerous awards for his business writing and his blogging and believes that most of life is just showing up and not being a jerk. Full Bio…

You want to be Zappos? Here’s Why You Can’t.

By Steven Wade Smith

Creating a great company culture seems to be the buzz these days. The reason for this surge of cultural awareness is mainly fear. Lots of companies really sucked to work for back in 2008 and 2009. Now businesses fear rampant turnover as the job market improves, so they bring in a ping-pong table and Casual Fridays and hope memories of benefit cuts and layoffs won’t linger.

Of course, other companies are more aspirational. These businesses want to create a great company culture because they perceive that it will create a competitive advantage. “We want to be just like Zappos,” they say.

And of course, they can’t be. Sure, they may give it a go, like the guy in this Businessweek article who, after attending a Zappos seminar, fired 12 employees who were “just not being nice.” But most companies fail at being like Zappos for three reasons:

Failure Point No. 1: Culture Starts at the Top
Zappos is a great company. I love the way they do business, and they do a lot of things right. Their CEO, Tony Hsieh, seems like a smart guy who is sincerely, legitimately nice. And that is why I don’t think the Zappos cultural model is ultimately scalable. It depends on the “nice” factor.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’ve met a lot of CEOs. A lot of them are nice. However – although Bob Sutton is doing his part – there is a higher percentage of assholes in the CEO ranks than in the general workforce, probably because guys who attend Zappos seminars fire most of the rank-and-file variety. I contend that you cannot build a great company culture if your CEO is an asshole. To prove this point, I invoke Zappos Core Value No. 10: Be Humble. (Check out Zappos’ Core Values here).

If you are an asshole, you are not humble. And if you are not humble, the whole model falls apart.

• A rebuttal: But I’m not an asshole, I’m just passionate and determined. See Zappos Core Value No. 9.

• A corollary: You can be passionate and determined in a way that leaves your employees ready to run through walls for you. If that’s not how you leave your people feeling, you are probably just an asshole.

Failure Point No. 2: Your Culture Is What Your Culture Is
Before there was Zappos, there was Southwest Airlines. Look at Southwest Airlines co-founder Herb Kelleher, who was Tony Hsieh before Tony Hsieh was. And Zappos took a lot out of their playbook. Southwest was (and is) a service-oriented company with a fun, wacky side. Both companies are team oriented and strive to create a family atmosphere.

Does this sound like your company? If not, you’ve got a long way to go and the odds are against you. Most likely, you are in for a death march of forced “fun.” Like that time SpongeBob SquarePants threw a party.

Culture happens organically. You can’t be something you are not. Wackiness is strictly optional. If you think your company culture sucks, figure it out first. It might be more than Hawaiian shirts can fix.

Failure Point No. 3: Not Everyone Is a Genius
Remember back to freshman lit . You probably read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. You might even remember it. Basically, Ben tells you how he came from nothing to be an entrepreneur, inventor and Founding Father. Hey, I can do it, and you can, too!

Except you can’t. The problem is that not everyone can discover electricity like Ben Franklin and create a billion-dollar company like Tony Hsieh. Not everyone is a genius. And if your model depends on genius alone, that’s not exactly scalable. An inspiration, yes. But your mileage may vary.

So What’s the Point?
You can learn a lot from Zappos. But if you think you are going to pay people to quit and let your employees dress like Elvis or wear bunny ears and completely revolutionize your culture, that’s just not going to happen.

Does that mean you shouldn’t try? No. Zappos does a lot of things right, and there are a lot things to emulate. However, I think if ABC Widget Company tries to be Zappos 2.0, that’s not a winning formula. There are lots of great companies out there that aren’t Zappos, and most of them have their own model for success. What works for one company won’t necessarily work for another.

The best approach: Just be yourself and he honest about what your company can and can’t do. Try to improve the culture you already have by caring about your people and caring about your work. That’s the only true scalable model for success.

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