The Leadership Challenge: Culture

The Point: You know how when you think about a business and you get that “vibe” that resonates with your sole (and it’s a good vibe)? That’s a company’s culture, and it’s what we want when people think of Tip of the Spear! So in this post we’ll take a look at company cultures and how they can make (or break) customer experiences (both internal customers – employees – and external – customers)… Enjoy!

Are You Leading at the Tip of the Spear?

Zappos Culture is a Fantasy!

One of the clients I’m working with on a large-scale change management/customer experience initiative is attempting to get their arms around company culture. Know this much: This is a HUGE redwood tree to attempt get your arms around. But how do you go about eating an elephant? That’s right, one bight at a time!

So if company culture is what you’re after, where would you head to benchmark what is truly best in class? We compiled a short-list and Zappos was at the top. Now you might have red about Tony Hseih and his book on Zappos (“Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose”). I know that I read the book several years back and recall what one of my clients said about it: “Zappos Culture is a Fantasy!” In other words, they believed that there is no way that employees could manage themselves in relatively “flat” organization structures. They also believed that a company would go broke if they pulled all the shenanigans that Zappos purportedly pulled in the workplace (Free snacks, frequent all company meetings, etc.)

What are Your Cultural Core Values?

So it was with this framing that I went to Zappos, a pilgrimage of sorts to a clandestine cultural Mecca where dreams could come true, and fantasies were reality in business. What exactly was the leadership challenge I was in search of solving? After all… This was Las Vegas! Anyway, I registered for a tour, showed up at the given time (There is great communication prior to the tour regarding directions on where to go, how to get there, etc.), and checked-in in preparation for cultural lift-off (Yes, in case you’re wondering I was overdressed. I had come from a meeting wearing a suit/tie… But something about a 100+* day in Las Vegas had me lose my tie. Good thing… They cut them off at the door!)

The tour began and closed with something that I’ll never forget (No, not the ukulele playing tour guide… Come to think of it, I won’t forget him either!) What was unforgettable was the “vibe” this office place had. With what can only be described as minimal “management” present, everyone seemed to lead their own way throughout the tour. Furthermore, there was the sharing of 10 Cultural Core Values and even an annual yearbook authored by Zappos associates regarding what this culture means to them. With nearly every state and continent represented by the Zappos associates, this meant that there was a somewhat diverse culture present (if only in as much they were operating in Las Vegas, when it could have been a trendy LA neighborhood).

The bottom line of the visit was that not only was the Zappos culture a reality, but it was about to have an impact on 100+ people from my daily tour alone. Multiply that quantity by about 10 tours a week and you get some pretty exponential numbers regarding other companies/people looking to identify how they can make their place of work more like Zappos.

The Zappos Cultural Core Values… Easy to Replicate | Hard to Implement

In case you’re wondering, here are the 10 Core Values that every Zappos associate must abide by (They’ll actually pay you to depart from the onboarding training if you identify that you can’t uphold them!):

  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

They’re listed proudly on the company website under the “About Zappos Culture” page. So if everyone interested can see these, pickup Tony’s book for under $20, and take a tour (tour cost was only $10) why then is it so difficult for others to replicate this culture?

Here’s why it’s difficult to replicate the Zappos Culture – It’s hard work and it takes leadership. In leadership development programs and ensuing executive coaching sessions I hear time and again how leaders want the right culture, the right people, creating the right customer experience. However, this takes effort and energy as a leader. Perhaps not always leading from the front (sometimes supporting while not leading the charge), there is a gap between how to implement/execute such a culture. Most leaders get frustrated, throw their hands in the air after adopting a few of the cultural gems from Zappos, and simply give up.


In this post we looked at the Zappos Culture and how while few can imitate, even fewer can replicate it. What is your organization’s culture like? Is it like Zappos? Is it far from it? What do you want it to be as a leader/stakeholder?


Sam Palazzolo

The Leadership Challenge- Culture

About Sam Palazzolo, Managing Director

Sam Palazzolo is Managing Director at Tip of the Spear Ventures, an agile Venture Capital and Business Advisory Services firm specializing in Mergers & Acquisition, Sales / Business Development & Turnaround Management.