Current Events

Whatever Works: 3 Strange Yet Successful Company Cultures

Written by Lenny DeFranco

The development of company culture has never been a more important topic than it is right now. At a time when employee engagement is the chief issue on managers’ minds, the way an organization does its work is among its most important qualities. Some companies hew conservative; trendier ones encourage youthful abandon. Then there are companies who go off the rails. Here are three of them.

Zappos.com: The Word is Flat

The online shoe retailer made headlines in March when CEO Tony Hsieh sent a company-wide email announcing that the people’s revolution had made a pit stop in the company’s Las Vegas headquarters.

“Adopt holacracy or leave” was how Fast Company put the content of the message. Basically, the company that made it sexy for employees to quit decided that its shift to a radically flat self-management structure was not happening fast enough. So Hseih said that ‘go time’ was now and anyone who didn’t like it should leave.

“Each employee will be offered at least 3 months severance… if he/she feels that self-management, self-organization, and our Best Customers Strategy… are not the right fit.”

Zappos has attempted to move toward self-management for a while, but progress was too slow for Hseih. In the email, the CEO touted the philosophy behind holacracy. But he did so by copying and pasting two substantial articles into the email body. Strange move for a man attempting to hasten a world in which he can no longer compel subordinates to read multi-thousand word emails. One article, by writer Frederic Laloux, argued that self-management was nature’s order:

“[In an ecosystem] a fern or a mushroom can express its full selfhood without ever reaching out as far into the sky as the tree next to which it grows. Through a complex collaboration involving exchanges of nutrients, moisture, and shade, the mushroom, fern, and tree don’t compete but cooperate to grow into the biggest and healthiest version of themselves.”

An ecosystem is a strange choice of metaphor. What we see as wholesome verdure in a prairie or rain forest is actually a ruthless, lethal competition between organisms. The ecosystem thrives only at the whims of arbitrary and unforeseeable enemies: disasters, predators, the efforts of organized humans. The Amazon can’t defend itself, even if Zappos thinks that Amazon.com, it’s parent company, can. We’ll see how this goes.

Southwest Airlines: Feel the LUV

Ever since its inaugural flight left Love Field in Dallas in June 1971, the nation’s fourth-largest airline has embraced “LUV” as their unifying theme. Tickets are issued through “love machines” and flight attendants serve snacks called “love bites” on board. The company began trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 1977 under the symbol “LUV”. In 1991 it introduced its heart with wings logo to leverage the concept.

That love-fest continues today. The firm’s publicly articulated vision is: “To become the World’s Most Loved, Most Flown, and Most Profitable Airline.” Southwest employees are asked to embrace the airline’s four core values and live the Southwest life: Have a “Warrior Spirit,” a “Servant’s Heart,” a “Fun-LUVing Attitude,” and “Work the Southwest Way.”

The ethic of “love” would be corny if it weren’t reflected so well in the experience of actually flying Southwest. There’s a reason it is consistently ranked among the most beloved airlines in America. Their non-assigned seating policy dares to treat customers with respect, and their generous in-flight accoutrements feel like a veritable act of brotherly love compared to the galley-ship vibe of some other discount competitors. In addition to offering great service, Southwest paved the way for a new generation of friendly domestic airlines like JetBlue and Frontier Airlines. I feel the love.

Evernote: Stay Forever

The company responsible for “reinventing the way we remember” is just as dedicated to retaining people. All of the unique perks that the company offers its employees are designed to make it as hard as possible to leave. “We thought that we needed to get spouses and significant others on our side, CEO Phil Libin told the New York Times. “I want the pressure from them to be, ‘You better not be thinking about leaving Evernote.’” He does want you to go on vacation, though. Evernote gives $1000 in cash to employees to encourage them to take vacations over a week long.

The core of Evernote’s culture is an ethic of using digital technology to empower analog, human processes. If Libin’s out of the office, he putters around virtually with the assistance of an Anybot. He’s installed 70-inch screens in two distant offices that display live video of the other site, to make employees in both locations feel more organically connected. At HQ, the company encourages real-world interaction over “unnecessary technology.” According to Libin, that category includes phones and email. “If you want to talk to somebody and you’re a couple floors apart, I kind of want you to get up and go talk to them.” And then turn to your Evernote, presumably, and record the conversation so that you have it in writing.

The most unusual quirk at Evernote is the flat structure they promote. They still use managers, unlike Zappos, but there are no signs of status in the office. That only creates “artificial barriers,” according to the CEO. The goal above all at Evernote is to attract “people who are primarily motivated by how much they achieve.” And by $1000 incentives to take long vacations.

All cultures are quirky in a way. Some are further out there than others, but ultimately, culture is a business’s fingerprint, each one unique.

Culture itself is paradox. It lives in the furthest interior of a business yet determines what the world sees. It never transpires, but it defines eras. It’s a public institution that lives intimately in the individuals who work there. Culture is the unity of a business’s history and future, and every business is different. When worker and company fit, it’s a beautiful thing.

Photo credit: “Black Sheep” by Jesus Solana is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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