Shared Leadership – What Does It Look Like?

Lessons from Zappos.com

I was on a hunt for a wallet. I searched high and low for months. After many searches, I finally found “It”. It was a black leather wallet and was available at Zappos.com. Knowing that a friend was coming back from the U.S, I quickly asked her if she could bring it back and she said yes. However, it was cutting close. The day the wallet would reach her place was the day before she left. That prompted me to write to Zappos to ask if they could make sure it reached her earlier. To my surprise, through the online customer service chat, they upgraded me to the “business class” package with such a positive attitude.

One day, happy with my black leather wallet in hand, I browsed Popular bookstore and this book caught my eye: “Delivering Happiness—the path to profits, passion and purpose” by Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos.com, Inc.

After the positive Zappos customer service experience, I was curious to get to know the story behind it. I got the book. It was both a #1 New York Times and #1 Wallstreet Journal bestseller. In it, Tony Hsieh told of his journey of shared leadership.

CEO of Zappos.com - Tony Hsieh

One of the examples he quoted is Zappos’s Communication Policy: “The best leaders are those that lead by example and are both team followers as well as team leaders. We believe that in general, the best ideas and decisions are made from the bottom up, meaning by those on the front lines that are closest to the issue and/or the customers. Ask yourself: How do you encourage more people to take the initiative? How do you encourage more people to take ownership? Do you instill a sense of team and family not just within your department, but across the entire company?”

“We believe that in general, the best ideas and decisions are made from the bottom up.” – Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos.com

Another example is a memo that Hsieh sent out: “We’ve been working on a “Zappos Core Values” document, and the first draft of it is below. Please take the time to read it over and email me… In particular, think about any employees that you think represent the Zappos culture well… Conversely, think about any employees that you think do not represent Zappos well… This is a very important document, as we will give the final version to all employees… your input is very important.”

Through these examples and many others, it is clear that Hsieh actively shared his leadership. He included them in the process. He empowered them. In the book, Hsieh made it a point to share policies, practices, and include personal stories and perspectives from employees. For those who may be sceptical about this corporate fairy tale, you will be surprised by the stories that back the “theory” up.

Quoting Carmine Gallo from his article “Delivering Happiness the Zappos Way” on Bloomberg Businessweek*, “One night, he (Hsieh) and some vendors returned to a hotel room late. Someone in the group was craving pizza and was told room service had ended. As a joke, Hsieh suggested calling Zappos. You can probably guess the end of the story — even though Zappos doesn’t sell pizza, the customer service rep found a list of local pizza places that would deliver to the hotel”.

Today, the Zappos.com culture is famous. Hsieh worked hard to build a great team by focusing on company culture. They would actually pay new employees in their orientation time US$2,000 to quit if they did not fit in. In 2009, Zappos was acquired by Amazon in a deal valued at over US$1.2 billion. In 2011, they published “The Zappos Family Culture Book”** where they documented each employee’s idea about their culture and their core values. They welcome visitors to tour Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas to experience their culture first-hand. ***

“Today, the Zappos.com culture is famous. Hsieh worked hard to build a great team by focusing on company culture. They would actually pay new employees in their orientation time US$2,000 to quit if they did not fit in.”

It almost seems too good to be true (as with all fairy tales). But with Hsieh’s expression of shared leadership, Zappos has built up great company culture and is known for their excellent customer service. Is it a one-hit wonder? Maybe it is. But it should not stop us from aspiring.


Article by Jael Chng
*http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/may2009/sb20090512_831040.htm
**http://www.zapposinsights.com/culture-book
***http://www.zapposinsights.com/tours

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