Visons & Values: they’re not just for companies

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Recently, I had a few conversations with different, unrelated friends, and each said some variation of: “You have clearly defined values.” I thought it was interesting to hear this same comment from different sources.

Serendipitously, I saw a talk by Tony Hseih (pronounced ‘Shay’), the CEO of Zappos, and he had some really interesting things to say about company culture.

This got me thinking about visions, values and our careers. 

Defining visions and values

We often see Visions and Values sections on company websites.

Ideally, the Vision is a statement that clearly defines the direction for the company’s future, taking into consideration market trends, competition and innovation. When the vision is clearly articulated, each leader’s and employee’s objectives tie in to make the vision a reality within the defined timeline. Therefore, an employee should be able to look at the vision statement then look at their own objectives and see the link with respect to the contribution they make to the company.

Similarly, the Values statement is developed by rigorously surveying employees at all levels and in all verticals to draw a portrait of who the company is as a collective. Values touch on every aspect of daily life on the job. When an employee is faced with a decision to make, they should be able to look at the Values and know the right action to take. To push it one step further, the employee would have been hired because their values are in alignment with that of the company’s so their natural action would coincide with the company values.

I don’t need to tell you that, unfortunately, many companies have a beautifully designed website with impressive statements, but the articulated vision and values have little correlation with day-to-day company life.

Tony Hsieh’s insights

Much of what I learned from this talk was outlined in his 2010 business memoir Delivering Happiness: A path to profits, passion and purpose, which was a New York Times bestseller.

One of the first companies Hsieh founded was called LinkExchange, which he later sold. He recounts the story about when the company reached around 100 employees: he realized he didn’t enjoy going to work. Although he hired employees with all the right skills, he paid no attention to company culture. He wondered: if he dreaded waking up and going into the office and he had co-founded it it, how did the other employees feel? This confirmed his decision to sell LinkExchange.

He invested in Zappos then eventually joined the company full-time and began building it up. His experience with LinkExchange proved to be a critical learning experience.

Zappos initially sold only shoes. Customers would say how happy they were to receive the box of shoes, so “delivering happiness” became a critical part of the company vision. Hsieh asked himself what else would “deliver happiness” and he found the key that would eventually make Zappos a phenomenal success: to have the best customer service.

Many companies say they strive for the best customer service, but they don’t make it a vision and a priority like Zappos did. Zappos walked the talk.

They invested in staffing their call centre 24/7 instead of spending the money on advertising, and put its phone number front and centre on the website. They offered free shipping both ways in the US so customers could buy all the shoes they wanted, try them on, and return the ones they didn’t like at no extra cost, plus they offered a 365-day return policy. This was radically different from what any other online retailer was doing at the time. Thanks to this approach, Zappos grew to having about 75% of their sales as repeat business and acquired new customers through word of mouth. They didn’t need to pedal faster and faster to acquire new customers like their competitors did. As anyone in sales will tell you: repeat customers not only buy more often, but their transactions are typically of higher value and they generally refer customers who are ready to buy.

Hsieh also stressed that the customers’ interactions with the call centre employees was their strongest branding tool; another area that differentiated them from the competition. This is where the rubber meets the road and concepts about company culture and values have an actual, bottom-line dollar value instead of being “fluffy” nice-to-haves.

Zappos built the company culture, “create fun and a little weirdness”, into the hiring practices and hired specifically for this fit. They also made the gutsy decision to commit to firing for fit as well. Hsieh said that skills can be taught, but values are extremely difficult to cultivate or eliminate. Most companies hem and haw over letting an employee go, which he says has a negative impact on the manager, the employee, the teammates and on productivity.

The training program at Zappos was also quite revolutionary in two specific ways. First all employees, regardless of position, went through the same training program and spent the final two weeks taking calls to get a real, hands-on appreciation for the call centre and the customers. Secondly, the end of the first week, the call centre employees were offered $2000 to leave the company, then gave them the weekend to think about it. Generally speaking, call centre employees have a high turnover rate. Hsieh figured that since many employees would leave in a 3- to 6-months window anyway, he might as well make an offer to encourage the more ambivalent employees to leave sooner. The effect this had was that it made employees seriously consider if Zappos was where they wanted to work. This had a tremendous effect on employee engagement, which in turn reinforced the culture, because everyone who was there had chosen to be there.

Since Delivering Happiness: A path to profits, passion and purpose was released, Hseih continued to grow Zappos in unconventional ways, such as implementing a self-management system which did away with the traditional organizational structure of leader and subordinate and personally invested over $350 million of his own money in the Downtown Project, a movement to revitalize the Las Vegas’ downtown area, where Zappos is located.

My two cents

All this got me to thinking about our own personal vision and values. What if we each had our own clearly defined, well-articulated visions and values? I think this would have an incredible impact on our work and on the choices we make.

When I was a recruiter, I would commonly hear from candidates of all ages, in all industries and from all walks of life that they want to help people. What if you could define what “helping people” meant for you and truly live that value? For one person, it might mean that they wouldn’t work for a tobacco company. For another, it might mean opening a private practice and focus on making a difference for their individual clients instead of staying at a big firm and creating value for shareholders they’ll never meet.

The same would hold true for a personal vision. If the personal vision is advancing one’s career, then maybe taking a job in another city for a few years would make sense, even if it means getting out of one’s comfort zone. If the vision revolves around building the family unit, then maybe it would mean sacrificing a big house in the suburbs for a smaller house in the city, which would reduce time spent commuting and offer access to more diverse schools.

What I learned from the Zappos example is that just because you do things differently from the rest of the pack doesn’t mean that you can’t stay competitive or that shifting the focus to your vision and your values means that you’ve stopped caring about pursuing your goals. If you’re supported by a solid combination of vision and values and you commit to them, it forces you to think outside the box to get to the same destination. I would argue that because you forged your own path in alignment with your vision and values, you might even get to the destination faster, more fulfilled and less stressed. I would dare to venture out a bit further and suggest that you could probably even surpass the destination, just as Zappos did.