Jon Wolske

Build a Strong Corporate Culture: Lessons from Zappos

‘Culture defines who you are, not what you do.’

May 29, 2014

Jon Wolske

Zappos, says Jon Wolske, isn’t an online shoe company. It’s a service company that happens to sell shoes and other items.

The distinction is important because it gets to the core of the company’s culture, and “culture is the driver for our success,” says Wolske, culture evangelist for Zappos Insights, a “community of professionals dedicated to growth, creating strong cultures, and providing customer service.”

He addressed the 2014 CUNA CFO Council Conference in Las Vegas.

“Culture defines who you are, not what you do,” Wolske says. “It’s all about the attitudes, values, and behaviors that characterize your company. You need to define the behavior that makes your culture. We want core values we can coach, and that we’re willing to hire and fire on.”

He says having a strong corporate culture creates positive financial results and leads to less employee burnout, less turnover, and more productivity. “Happy employees are advocates.”

As companies grow, it becomes more important to explicitly identify and define the core values that determine culture, brand, and business strategies, Wolske says. “We want to make sure everyone is on the same page and acting consistently with what we want our companies to be all about.”

That realization led to Zappos’ 10 core values:

1. Deliver “WOW” through service. This means exceeding customers’ expectations, Wolske says.

Such efforts can be simple and inexpensive. Wolske cited a recent “WOW” experience during a recent visit to his financial institution, where he struck up a conversation with a teller.

“She asked about my dog, which is a boxer/pit bull mix,” he explains. ”It was only about a three-minute conversation, but it created an experience for me.”

2. Embrace and drive change when there’s a clear reason why Change is constant in a growing company.

3. Create fun—and a little weirdness. Zappos encourages staff to be fun and unconventional.

“This can be a hard sell to some executives,” Wolske concedes. “But weirdness just shows that we’re different people. We know you’ll work hard—but not too hard.”

One way Zappos creates fun is by hosting staff parades every so often to commemorate certain events—such as the anniversary of Woodstock, where staff marched through the Zappos headquarters blasting ‘60s-era music.

4. Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded. “We encourage staff to take risks,” Wolske says.

5. Pursue growth and learning. Zappos brings in speakers on a variety of topics—including motivational speaker Tony Robbins—to raise employees’ horizons.

“This is huge for us,” he says. “We bring in folks just to hear about different ideas—including a guy who did origami. I was skeptical at first, but I learned so much about teamwork from him.”

6. Build open and honest relationships with communication. Be both a good listener and a good communicator.

And when addressing performance problems, focus on changing behavior rather than assigning blame.

“It’s too easy to focus on the negative,” Wolske says. “You should manage your money and coach your people.”

7. Build a positive team and family spirit. “I check in with my team whenever I’m on the road—I Skype with them throughout,” he says. “I work in the same area with my wife—and we still get along.”

8. Do more with less, and realize there’s always room for improvement.

9. Be passionate and determined. Place an emphasis on passion, determination, perseverance, and a sense of urgency.

10. Be humble. “Our CEO has the same size desk that I do,” Wolske says. “He’s another team member at Zappos who happens to make big decisions.”

When building a strong culture, “aim for 1% improvement,” he advises. “Don’t be afraid to start small. A small change in attitude can set the tone for improvement.”