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Is a Presentation From Tony Hsieh of Zappos Enough? (#HRFL11)

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh keynoted HR Florida this morning.  Before I go off on a rant, let me say this – I’m a fan of HR Florida, Zappos and Tony Hsieh.

Tony Hsieh has done it – he’s built a great company and a culture at Zappos that can actually generate business and opportunity unrelated to the core business of his company – by talking to people about culture. Zappos   He’s a great speaker and the thoughts he shares on culture, building a company and chasing a bigger purpose are compelling.  I’m a buyer when he speaks.

HR Florida is a great conference.  I put it in my top two in the HR space:  HR Florida and the HR Technology Conference, which will be in Vegas in October.  Both shows do a great job with content, logistics and the thousand details that go into putting on a production of this size (HR Florida has 1,500+ attendees this year and in addition to Tony, also has Daniel Pink coming in on Wednesday).

The problem, as it so often is, is what people do once Tony pumps them up to change the world.  You want to be like Zappos.  I want to be like Zappos.  Let’s start with a couple of simple tweets I put out this morning while listening to Tony to see if you’re ready to do what it takes:

“Test for building your version of the Zappos culture: Are you willing to list every employee you have that’s active on Twitter on your company website?  #hrfl11”

“Be real and you have nothing to fear – Tag for transparency at Zappos.  #hrfl11”

What about it Sparky?  Are you willing to put up the 500 most active employees you have on twitter on a rolling widget on your corporate website and control none of the message?

No? Then you’ve got some work to do before you can be like Zappos.  Apparently people are real in your company – so real that you can’t tolerate the transparency of the exercise described.

If you won’t show off your team members in that way, it’s usually because you think some of them are not ready for prime time.  And that’s the point.  The naysayers to me claiming that a keynote from Tony isn’t enough will say, “Kris, Tony doesn’t advocate being like Zappos.  He thinks you should build it in the way you want.”

The naysayers are right.  But I suspect Tony would be a huge advocate of doing whatever it takes to reset your culture and have actual values you are willing to hire and fire by.  That doesn’t mean you have to copy what Zappos has done.  It does mean that you should take down the plaque that espouses Integrity, Communication and Teamwork and see if they really drive your culture.  Of if they’re just hollow values written on paper that no one can recite, and certainly no one lives by.

The real issue with having a supernova like Tony deliver a keynote at a great show like HR Florida is the lost opportunity.  Other keynotes are simply aspirational.  They're present to pump you up, often with stories that have nothing to do with HR.  Not Tony.  Culture is in the wheelhouse of what HR is supposed to own.  But no one really knows how to get started.  How do you reset a culture that's driven by your founder being around for the last 20 years and doing it the way he (and his wife) wanted?  Scary stuff for most HR pros to think about taking on.

I’d love to see a conference track after a Zappos keynote that really challenges and develops those who are interested in taking the pain that’s necessary to reset their corporate culture.  I’d love to see that track arm HR pros with tools that can help them make the case.  First conference that really tries to dig in and make HR pros who volunteer uncomfortable after a big meaty keynote wins.  Big.

Tony Hsieh: +1.  HR Florida: +1.  What HR pros do next after hearing Tony speak:  Not registering a score at this time.

(check out all the tweets from HR Florida by searching the hashtag #hrfl11)


Derek Irvine, Globoforce

Great post, Kris, and you've hit on the #1 challenge of managing company culture - your values. You're right that too often they're nothing more than a plaque on the wall. There's no better way to make those values real in the everyday work of employees than to specifically recognize them every time they demonstrate those values. Structured appropriately, you can easily track and measure where such recognition is happening and make adjustments for proactive culture management.

You've also hit on elements off managing company culture and how they differ at different stages. Using Tony's speech at SHRM, I wrote about how to build the company culture you need to succeed at three stages of company development:
1) Start with the culture you want.
2) In a decades-old organization, change to the culture you need.
3) Keep your winning culture in leadership transition.

In my post, I dive more deeply into how you can proactively use your values to achieve each of these.


Ditto. Big fan of Zappos and Tony. But most companies don't get the hard part - that you need to live it. And living it requires real personnel changes so that you can shine a light on EVERY employee and know that they're in lock-step with your core values. If I have one gripe with Tony, it's that he doesn't spend enough time talking about the hard stuff, like firing people who are either talented or nice people just because they didn't live the values. That's the difference. People walk away all jazzed up about the positive parts, the celebration, the fun. Tony doesn't talk enough about the "mechanisms with teeth."

My last company actually published a culture book just like Zappos'. It is gorgeous and hip. Full of great stuff about how great the culture is. All of it bullsh!t. All of it. Saying it and living it requires honesty and tough, tough choices that most leaders aren't ready for.

Great post. I've been following for a little bit and like your style and content. You can check my thoughts on similar topics at

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