Tony Hsieh’s reflections (Delivering happiness: a pathway to profits, passion, and purpose, 2010) on the story of zappos.com as an international e-business phenomenon are both realistic and inspirational. The most refreshing part of his recollections is that he owns missteps, failures, and success – a mix that is sometimes missing in contemporary business success stories. The missing reflection is the impact of Tony’s educational opportunity. He portrays himself as a less than motivated student who was more interested in starting entrepreneurial businesses than getting good grades. The clincher is that he just happened to have attended Harvard University and relied on the friendships and networks he made from his undergraduate days to create the core of the businesses he started as a 20-something. Neglecting to acknowledge the importance of being a Harvard graduate ignores how powerful privilege (whether economic, political, intellectual, or other) can be in shaping one’s life.
The best lessons from Hsieh’s reflections include the importance of fostering a positive organizational culture, the necessity of taking risks, and focusing on service that brings happiness to both those who purchase your service as well as to those working to make it happen.
Zappos.com didn’t establish its company values but instead eventually recognized and documented them after it became obvious that their values were having a profound impact on Zappos.com’s success. The core values that they discovered employees embraced included:
1. Deliver WOW through service
2. Embrace and drive change
3. Create fun and a little weirdness
4. Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded
5. Pursue growth and learning
6. Build open and honest relationships with communication
7. Build a positive team and family spirit
8. Do more with less
9. Be passionate and determined
10. Be humble
These values allowed Zappos.com to survive economic ups and downs, lay-offs, and eminent bankruptcy. Most importantly, the company values helped the leadership stay focused when there were temptations to compromise on quality and they encouraged passionately risky behavior that took Zappos.com to higher and higher success in business and fulfillment.
Advocating that “your culture is your brand,” Hsieh makes a compelling point that positive organization cultures are the result of seeing the organization’s work as something beyond just the immediate task of product delivery (no matter what that product is). Zappos.com even measures the degree to which its employees see themselves as involved in something bigger than e-business sales of shoes and accessories by periodically asking them if they “believe that the company has a higher purpose beyond just profits,” and asking if “Zappos has a real purpose – is it more than just a job.” Simple questions but how sad it is that many people would not assess their company/organization as having either higher purpose or believe their work environment is more than a job.
Hsieh’s conceptual model of happiness is largely derived from the research of Seligman and Czikszentmihalyi on positive psychology and “flow.” Tying the points of work environment and happiness together, he commented, “I would learn that research from the field of the science of happiness would confirm that the combination of physical synchrony with other humans and being part of something bigger than oneself leads to a greater sense of happiness…” (2010, p. 80)
Zappos.com’s lessons are definitely coming from a for-profit perspective. However, reading this story consistently made me think that education, and other not-for-profit initiatives, would do well to adopt these very same perspectives. Organization culture, risk taking and happiness are central to success in any endeavor.