I was browsing the Zappos website today. Yes, it’s that time of year, but I wasn’t shopping. My mind was on culture. Culture is a critical component of digital transformation, and issues in this area frequently surface during my consulting engagements. Research from McKinsey found that culture was the most significant self-reported barrier to digital effectiveness. Since the transition to remote work, interpersonal, trust, and communications stressors have become an acute concern in some associations. So, I wanted to see what I could learn from the behemoth of organizational health and employee well-being. 

Even if you were living in a yurt in Mongolia and had never heard of Zappos (actually Vans are probably a thing on the Steppes), a quick skim of this blog provides an immediate sense of what the company is about. The collage of stories includes:

  • A faint-inducing team bonding adventure that involved a 40-mile expedition up three mountains in 18 ½ hours.
  • An adult coloring book and a reading list built around Zappos’ 10 core values.
  • A post about the impact of employee appreciation on retention and another about onboarding the Zappos way (“Onboarding doesn’t have to be on-boring.” I applaud this idea. Many employee orientations could double as cures for insomnia.).

I urge you to visit the site. If you’ve ever wondered how to begin building a culture of learning, innovation, kindness, and service throughout your organization, you will find at least 30 good ideas here. What impresses me most is the priority that is placed on behavior and the expectation that every employee will live these values, not because it’s a requirement, but because it is a personal commitment. Skills and experience can’t be underestimated, but I think the Zappos idea is that expertise increases as a result of attitude.

Create Meaning

That shared sense of purpose drives a successful organizational transformation and positions associations to navigate a business environment dominated by technology. In working with clients on transformation projects, our goal is to leave them with a culture that embraces digital fluency and acknowledges the need for continuous growth. That can’t happen unless your team is already on board with a unified vision and is accustomed to working together toward collaborative goals. The CEO is the architect of that process.

Although the leader draws the plans, the entire team builds a house from that vision. At Zappos, culture shapes business down to the smallest detail. That critical mass results in a brand identity powerful enough to move hearts, minds, and money.

The leader draws the plans, and the entire team builds the house.

When Kevin Ordonez, my business partner, and I were writing our book, Positioning for Success, An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation. My colleague Sandy Marsico, Founder and CEO of Sandstorm Design, told us a story that illustrates this point perfectly:

“Ten years ago,” Marsico recalled, “I woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t want to go to work.” As Marsico struggled to understand why she wasn’t happy at her own company, she realized that she needed to look in the mirror. “I kept asking what was wrong with my staff, and I realized that they were not the problem, it was my fault. I thought I could lead by example, and I understood that was not enough.

“I called a staff meeting. The agenda was The Best Company You’ve Ever Worked For. We had note cards and a big whiteboard. We posted and recorded everyone’s ideas. I promised the group that I would make our vision reality. But I also told them that the unproductive behavior had to stop. It was a successful bargain. Our values grew out of that meeting. They are each important, but the warrior spirit is our defining characteristic. Being a warrior means that we are all in this together. No one is left behind.”

I’ve posted Sandy’s anecdote before. But it bears repeating. Along with vision, leaders must create meaning. People won’t follow just because they want to please, they like you, or they think you have a good idea. You must convince them that the culture you want to create is tied to their happiness. Don’t let your team parrot your voice to avoid negative consequences. That is a poor imitation of the kind of real motivation that springs from ambition or self-interest.

Assess Priorities

Turning your current culture toward a digital orientation will expand and change existing behaviors and belief systems. You will need to begin seeing value differently. Digital culture rearranges priorities to boost technology’s impact on efficiency and results. These are some areas where emphasis needs to shift.

Value Decision Over Deliberation

There’s nothing wrong with caution, except when inaction becomes lethal. Don’t be so steeped in deliberation that it soaks the energy out of your initiatives. The digital marketplace will not wait for a board meeting that is six months down the road. If a bureaucratic governance structure makes it impossible to respond to opportunity or challenge in real-time, find ways to become more decisive.

The ability to react quickly also means learning to take calculated risks and to experiment. Expecting perfection on the first try doesn’t inspire bold thinking. Associations need to permit themselves to use missteps as the path to wow.

Value Learning Over Ability

Discover the coders or Luddites hiding in plain sight.

If your group already places a high priority on life-long learning and professional development, focus that attention on the digital realm. Not everyone needs to know the ins and outs of HTML or SEO,  but you might be surprised by where talent lies or is lacking on your team. Discover the coders or Luddites who are hiding in plain sight. Provide a range of training that builds on interest, skill-level, and job responsibilities. Above all, emphasize the importance of digital literacy as a means of communication throughout your organization.

Value Collaboration Over Specialization

There is no room for territory or turf wars in a digital organization. You are striving for connectivity in software and hardware systems. Business units need to reflect that same degree of integration. Collaboration fosters innovation and the CEO is the convenor who encourages the flow of brain-storming and problem-solving throughout departments. This democracy of ideas requires a flatter organization. No employee’s voice should be discounted. Everyone is a potential innovator.

Value the Individual Over the Group

We’re accustomed to putting our members at the center of operations. But digital cultures turn the focus away from the forest and toward the trees. Although members share many common traits, treating them like clones is not the way to their hearts. Digital cultures use technology to understand members as individuals and cater to their specific needs.

In that quest, data is your most powerful tool. But no matter how much you crunch the numbers, the results should be tempered with the understanding that they are only a sliver of the story. One of the things I find most interesting about Zappos is the way that culture and service intersect.

Zappos employees pride themselves on establishing a “personal emotional connection” with each customer. No one is exempt from experiencing this first-hand understanding. During the holiday season, the whole company answers phones, including the CEO. The Zappos style of empathy provides the edge needed to see the humans behind the data.   

Share the Love

Exceptional customer experience is the bottom line of the effort involved in digital transformation. Employees who are burned-out, over-stressed, or disgruntled aren’t going to suddenly shed negative energy when they interact with members. Companies like Zappos understand; that’s why culture is king. No matter how much IT power you have at your disposal, a wow customer experience can’t begin without a wow culture.