Benchmark Business Group

Leading with Culture

January 14, 2014

Great Leadership Series

Perhaps the part of leadership that makes it so tricky to master is that there is no one way to be a great leader.  What works well for one leader is a miserable experience for others.  Leadership is a patchwork of traits that you have to learn to adapt and blend in with your own unique personality.  Our Great Leadership Series focuses on three leaders and the qualities that they have displayed that drives the results.   We challenge you this month to pay attention to your own leadership traits and be prepared to ask yourself some tough questions on how your leadership skills need to change/develop based on the results you want to create.


One leader that has always captured my interest is Tony Hsieh of Zappos. This isn’t just because his particular leadership style has a way of capturing headlines with story subjects such as: pays employees $2,000 to quit, sold to Amazon for over one billion, longest customer service call breaks 8 hours, and of course the ongoing mention of creating happiness. No, it’s because it is the only company I can think of that when I have to call their customer service line I actually look forward to the experience.


According to their website, Zappos’ core value is, “to provide the best customer service possible”. In an age where the words “customer service” are often just lip service, how does a business that started out selling shoes online become known as the best of the best? And how have they retained an outstanding customer service record after becoming part of Amazon?


The answer is the man behind the company, Tony Hsieh. While his delivery may be over the top, as it often is in the tech industry, Hsieh consistently sculpts the culture of the company. Every company has a culture. Most businesses do not intentionally sculpt that culture. As a result, core values such as “the best customer service possible” become nothing more than words on a paper or worse, a promise that is not kept.  


How does one, like Hsieh, become the sculptor of a company culture?  

  • Know your Core Values and Provide Training - As a leader, you must not only know the core values, but you must be willing to provide the training your team needs to hold true to those core values.   At Zappos, Hsieh makes sure that every employee knows the value of their customer service, by having EVERY position spend time taking customer service calls when they first start. It’s an investment for the company, but provides an experience that ensures every employee has had a chance to experience their first core value firsthand.
  • Be Willing to Take a Stand - Hsieh has been known to both hire and fire his employees when it comes to the core values. If you are not willing to make a dramatic stand when it comes to your core values, then they are not worth the paper that they are written on.   However, taking a stand goes beyond hiring, firing, and the drastic decisions. It’s also about considering every small decision that is made in your business. If something, no matter how small or big, is outside of your core values then you must change it, that’s taking a stand.
  • Have the Right Performance Indicators - Unwritten rules often kill core values.   In a call center like Zappos it is standard to measure performance by “how fast” a call is over. It’s often used for performance reviews to measure efficiency and productivity.   At Zappos, they encourage their team to take longer on a call and measure the efficiency and productivity of their team in terms that are more fitting with the idea of promoting customer service NOT speed.   It’s far too easy to fall into this trap and thus EVERY indicator needs to be assessed in accordance to its impact on the core value.

This week we challenge you to think about the culture of your business. Are you really sculpting the culture or is it happening by chance?


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