Monday, 7 June 2010

Zappos - Delivering happiness


   I’ve been reading Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness (like all of my book reviews, based upon a free advanced copy of the book).



For those who don’t know (and there’s still a high proportion of HR people in Europe and elsewhere who don’t), Hsieh is CEO of Las Vegas based online shoe retailer, Zappos, now owned by Amazon.


Zappos - HCM

Zappos’ mojo / organisational capability is a slightly weird, family and customer service focused culture which is supported by a desire to increase happiness in employees, customers and others who come into contact with the company (for more of a feel on Zappos’ unique culture, watch this video on Zappos’ WOW! culture).

Zappos tailors its HR processes to develop the human capital it requires to support this capability. For example, in order to ensure employees can relate to customers in a very human way, the company asks prospective recruits to describe how weird they are (Zappos is looking for high but not extreme levels of weirdness in its candidates’ responses). The company considers the need for employees to be aligned with its organisational capability to be so important that it even offers newly inducted employees $2,000 USD to leave the company if these people no longer believe that they will fit in the organisation.

And Zappos HR team is given accountability for ensuring alignment between organisational capability, people management processes and the people the company employs. So for example, recruiters are able to veto a candidate if they don’t think the individual would fit in Zappos’ culture, regardless of the hiring manager’s opinions of the person’s ability to do a particular job.

This is a video of Tony Hsieh describing Zappos culture that I recorded at the Human Capital Institute (HCI)’s summit in Phoenix, Arizona, last year.


Zappos – Social Advantage

Zappos also provides a good, if slightly less compelling, case study on the other areas I write about – social capital.

Hsieh notes that connectedness – the number and depth of your relationships - is one of four things (along with perceived control, perceived progress and vision / meaning) which leads to individual and business happiness.  He refers to Gallup’s findings that engagement is correlated with the number of good friends an employee has at work (even if social relationships aren’t considered important in all engagement surveys) and to conclusions in the Happiness Hypothesis that happiness doesn’t come from within, but from between.

So Zappos focuses on creating a positive team and family spirit:

“We are more that a team though – we are a family.  We watch out for each other, care for each other, and go above and beyond for each other because we believe in each other and we trust each other.  We work together but we also play together.  Our bonds go far beyond the typical ‘co-worker’ relationships found at most other companies.”


I like this idea for example:

“In most companies, logging in to the computer systems requires a login and password.  At Zappos, an additional step is required: a photo of a randomly selected employee is displayed, and the user is given a multiple-choice test to name that employee.  Afterward, the profile and bio of that employee are shown, so that everyone can learn more about each other.  Although there is no penalty for giving the wrong answer, we do keep a record of everyone’s score.  Internally, we refer to this as ‘The face Game’.”


This is Hsieh talking about the value of social relationships:


Zappos – social media

Zappos also makes heavy use of social media tools like blogs and Twitter in order to help build more personal connections with employees and customers (you can follow Tony Hsieh’s own tweets and I also like his article on Twitter and happiness).

Here is Hsieh talking about this.


It’s also interesting that this book is being supported by what’s probably the biggest ever blogger outreach programme for a new book (at least the biggest one I’ve been involved in).


The book

Zappos is clearly a great organisation – firstly, because of its mojo / values which describes a sort of place that many people would like to work in, and secondly, because of how well it has created a culture / organisational capability aligned to this mojo / its organisational values.

As Hsieh notes:

“It doesn’t actually matter what your company’s core values are.  What matters is that you have them and that you commit to them.  What’s important is the alignment that you get from them when they become the default way of thinking for the entire organization.”


So I’ve been looking forward to reading this book.

It serves, I think, as a good overview of Zappos’ culture and development, particularly for those who haven’t come across it previously.  The other main thing I liked about it is that it is a very compelling and readable autobiography – not normally a format that appeals to me.  And I think Tony Hsieh’s entrepreneurial mindset comes over very clearly.

Where, personally, I’d have liked to have seen a bit more focus is on the theme of this book, and Zappos brand promise – delivering happiness. 


Delivering happiness


Tony Hsieh is clearly a very happy guy, and not just for the obvious reasons.  And the company he has created is one which enables people to be happy at work.  But I wouldn’t buy this book if your own objective is to maximise your own or your organisation’s happiness – I think there are other books that provide better advice on this (and it’s a subject I’d love to return to and post on again myself).

I’m also not convinced everybody’s end goal is happiness as Tony Hsieh suggests.  So, for example, I think his highest level of happiness, having a higher purpose meaning, can be a goal in its own right, not just one that will deliver happiness.  In fact, I’d suggest that that higher purpose is likely to be served best by focusing on this for itself, rather than as a source of happiness – and that doing this may actually result in more happiness too.

I was hoping to read more on Hsieh’s views on this area but perhaps good ideas will now emerge from the movement he’s set up.


A happiness survey

It’s very difficult to identify areas where Zappos could improve the way it manages its people to deliver happiness.  However, I’ll have a try:

Hsieh mentions that Zappos run a regular employee survey including statements such as:

  • I believe that the company has a higher purpose beyond just profits
  • My role at Zappos has a real purpose – it is more than just a job
  • I fell that I am in control of my career path and that I am progressing in my personal and professional development at Zappos
  • I consider my co-workers to be like my family and friends
  • I am very happy in my job.


These are all great questions, and again, very well aligned to Zappos’ mojo.  But, with the possible exception of the last one, they’re all focused on enablers – on satisfaction with other things rather than with outcomes like engagement of the individual employee.

Actually, the important outcome of course is happiness (another potentially important element of human capital other than engagement).  And I’m not sure that Zappos tests this very well as the last question in the list above may result in responses relating more to an employee’s job than their real level of happiness in work, and in life as well.

So I think Zappos need to ask something like ‘I’m happier at this point in my life than I’ve ever been in the past’.  It’d be interesting to see how well these enablers about happiness correlate to an outcome question or questions like this.

It might even help Hsieh write more extensively about happiness in his next book.


PS Zappos have sent me two Delivering Happiness books, so if anyone wants my second copy and would like to arrange to pick it up from me in London sometime this week, let me know.


Cross posted from Social Advantage


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  1. Glad we connected via this Zappos story. I like the way you deconstructed the business with more of a psychological bent on the treatment of employees. Enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks for the great review Jon. I plan to read the book as well.

    I will be in London in a few you still have a second copy of the book avialable?

    If so, maybe we can connect. Feel free to email me.

    Much Appreciated!

  3. Thanks Judy, thanks BT. Apologies, I did mean to note that I'd given the book away on the first day.

  4. Nice thoughts on the book. I have not yet read it but believe that happiness can only be defined by the individual. So my idea of happiness, self-worth, jot, career development is not the end all be all for everyone else!

    I do believe that the focus on the culture and people as the #1 driver is a great approach. Profits keep you in business but your employees drive is what truly drives your profits.
    Please feel free to keep in touch and thanks for the good read.


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