Developing a Strong Culture in a Tech-Centered Business

Zappos is world renowned for its strong—and some times quirky—culture. As an e-tailer, it can be hard, however, to get employees tethered to their computers to interact face to face. As the leadership development program manager at Zappos IP, Rich Hazeltine is tasked with passing on the company's strong culture and values to leaders.

We sat down with Rich before the 15th annual Corporate Learning Week to chat about how the company's recent growth and its promotion-from-within strategy affect leadership and training at Zappos. 

Q. Can you explain what you'll be speaking about at Corporate Learning Week?

A. Our company is pretty famous for having a very deeply ingrained culture, straight from the interview process—even if you want to come work in our customer service area to answer telephones and deal with customers, everybody that comes on here from entry-level hourly employees all the way up to executives has to go to through a culture interview.

You could be the most technically skilled person in your job, the best one out there on the market, but if you don't fit from a cultural standpoint, then HR has the right to veto any candidate at that point. Culture is very near and dear to us and it's important as we grow and continue to be a big company getting bigger.

With that said, as far as that relates to technology, we also consider ourselves pretty technologically savvy. We build a lot of our own tools and our website that we maintain ourselves.

We want to be able to leverage as much technology as we can, but I often find ourselves falling down and saying: "This is a great shiny tool, but what are you really solving here? What is the problem you're trying to solve? Do we have to build this, develop this, offshore this or whatever it might be?"

So what I'll intend to speak about is how to maintain or build up a culture within the company while using the technology you can, but also knowing when to say when. I think when we're talking about culture and learning and performance management, it comes down to communication. Technology helps us with communication in a lot of ways and some ways it gets in the way. Sometimes we need to get the face-to-face interaction.

Q. Speaking of technology: Can you explain what kinds of technology you use at Zappos? And then, how do you evaluate whether these technologies are actually useful in the learning and development process?

A. For us, we're really concentrating more, and I work with a bunch of technology people—software engineers, developers and managers—but a lot of what we're concentrating on is face-to-face interaction. We're going through some big changes in our company now as we get ready for our next step. We're moving our office of 1400 people in two weeks across town into downtown Las Vegas, which is exciting.

We're going through quite a bit of changes at this point, and to be honest, that's probably one of the smaller changes we have going on from an organizational standpoint. Right now, it's critical that our managers are keeping their fingers on the pulse of the company and of their people.

We're really concentrating on making sure our people have good communication skills and a lot of that includes face to face and trying to understand the motivations of people, not just asking questions because they're on a list to ask questions. It can be tough to get out of the e-mail realm and get folks to actually interact face to face.

There are some really smart talented people here and by rounding out some of those edges and making sure they can act on their actions in addition to getting the technical work done is one of our big road map items.

We've been really fortunate to have two or three years successively or really strong growth, and that's really good from a revenue and shareholder perspective. Because of our interview process that includes quite a bit of culture, we've promoted a lot of people from within into management roles.

Some of these folks never really saw themselves as managers or were not looking for that kind of role. So we found ourselves having to go back and make sure that we were making the courses available in basic management 101 stuff: communication, performance management, coaching your people.

Q. One thing we keep talking about with readers is how to show return on investment to executive-level leaders. Are there specific metrics you look at from your perspective and how do you have those conversations with the executives?

A. We're talking about behavioral change and that's a lot of what I deal with. As far as what makes a good leader, it's kind of hard to do a check list where you really draw the line between a good leader and a not so good leader.

What I found works for us is doing a really strong needs analysis and gap analysis. What's the current state of our company? Where do we want to be? What are we going to have to do to get there? By mapping that out carefully and getting a lot of buy in at that point, before we design or deliver any curriculum whatsoever, we make sure that what we perceive as the problem is really understood by leaders as the problem.

Q. What's on the horizon, specifically at Zappos in terms of leadership development, and in the leadership development space in general?

A. I see more and more interest in emotional intelligence. In the tech industry, we're inundated with change. If you're going to grow, you have to be open to that, you have to be ready to drop things and move on and change.

So it's really working for us to help people find their own motivation because a manager can't use the same recipe for everyone on your team—at least not very often. So by learning a little more about emotional intelligence, which starts with managers having to examine themselves first before they can really think about how people are behaving.