Be Humble

My parents tried to teach me to be humble through a variety of pithy phrases, among them “don’t get too big for your britches” and “don’t be a sassy pants.”  I’m still not too sure what either of these means, but I think it has something to do with not bragging about your clothes.

Zappos Core Value #10:  Be Humble

For years, I thought that being humble wasn’t a very good thing at all.  If a person is in humble circumstances, that means that he’s poor.  And if you are well and truly humiliated, it is said that you “eat humble pie.”

As if that weren’t enough, I associated being humble with minimizing one’s own finest attributes.  Whatever happened to tooting your own horn?  You can’t expect anyone else to do that for you.  As they say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

It took a few decades of experience and a bit of maturity to come to the understanding that I had it all wrong.  Gradually, I came to several conclusions:

  • No matter how good you are at something, someone else (usually someone younger) is better. (This is a good thing.  It gives you something to strive for.)
  • When you finally think you have all the answers, they change the questions on you.
  • “After the fire, a still small voice.” 1 Kings 19:12
  • “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang, but a whimper.” S. Eliot

Ultimately, I believe that being humble is a close partner of being grateful.  If I am able to make just one person’s life better in some small way, I am grateful for that.

The world is a big place, and most of what we do in life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  No one is going to write a book about what I did at work today, nor will what I had for lunch make the local newspaper.  However, if I’m very lucky, perhaps one of my coworkers will go home and tell his wife that a manager gave him a nice compliment today.  Perhaps that will put a smile on her face and she’ll return the favor to someone else who needs it, who will do the same for more people.  As you can see, I am a big fan of “paying it forward.”  If someone is kind to me, it makes me want to do the same for others.

That’s why it is so important for managers to lead by example.  Whatever behaviors we model are likely to be copied, consciously or not, by employees.  Send the right message, do the right thing, wow a customer, spread the love and you may just have done something good for thousands of people.

To me, humility is about being satisfied with the small things, knowing that the small things are really all that matter.

Most important of all, believe.  Believe in yourself, believe in your customers, believe in what you do.

Believe that you can.

Thank you for staying with me for the past ten days as I made my way through Zappos Core Values.  It’s wonderful to find a business I can truly admire.  Could I be a future Zapponian?  One can dream!

Tomorrow on A Map of California:  14th century Japanese warlords have taken over my life!

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Be Passionate and Determined

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Doesn’t that sound ideal?  But for most of us, it’s only a dream.  We grab at anything that pays the bills, keeps our kids fed and keeps a roof over our heads.  Instead of making the most of what we are doing while we work toward doing what we really want to do, we treat employment with all the enthusiasm of zombies.  I believe that Zappos has helped to show us that there is another way.

Ninth in a series.

Zappos Core Value #9:  Be Passionate and Determined

In my experience, “passion” is about the last word that many would associate with their jobs.  Too many of my coworkers and subordinates have treated their employment with an attitude of bare tolerance.  “This is just what I do to earn a paycheck,” is their sad refrain.

I shake my head and say “Life’s too short, dude!  Go do something else.”

I have come to the conclusion that this unfortunate situation is often the product of “job mismatch.”  As much as management seeks to avoid this, it can be tough.  There are lots of people who can “fake it” for a 45-minute interview, then show their true colors once hired.  Applicants know we want to see indications of interest in the company, investment in their career, cheerfulness and, yes, passion.  I once played a part in hiring an applicant who seemed to embody all of these qualities.  She told me this was her “dream job” and that she had to pinch herself to believe that she wasn’t really dreaming.  A month later, she left to go work elsewhere.  Perhaps it was us disappointing her as much as the other way around.

Once you’re on the job, passion and determination can’t be faked.  You might get away with it at the interview, but when you have a customer screaming at you for the third time in the same day, you either have what it takes or you don’t.

I like to think of employment as something like a marriage:  You’re supposed to take it for better or worse.  You don’t run away or give up on days that fall into the “worse” category.

In an industry in which success is measured by the happiness of the customer, employees must be committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure that happiness.  It’s always nice when you get a customer who is already happy with the company, but most of the time, you have to create that happiness.  Fortunately, happiness is contagious.  However, this means that employees must have the right attitude in order to transmit that happiness to the customer.  This is what I mean by “passion.”  It’s that determination that “I am going to satisfy you if it’s the last damned thing I do.”

I will grant you that turning around an unhappy customer is often not an easy thing to accomplish.  Pulling off this feat requires having a lot of arrows in your quiver.  Apologizing as if you just broke your best friend’s heart.  Knowledge of products, availability and payment and delivery options.  Offering to refund money and resend the item as well.  Offering free next day shipment.  Coming through on all those promises.

As a customer service rep¸ I would know that I’d succeeded when my customer was rendered speechless.  Or when she would ask me why I was trying so hard.  Or when he would say it’s hard to stay mad when I’m so, well, nice.

Working in customer service can be an emotional roller coaster.  However, it doesn’t matter how good an actor/actress you are.  If you’re not a true believer, the customer will see right through you, at which point you are toast.

But if you’re truly aghast that something happened to prevent the customer from being delighted the first time around, and if you are determined to move heaven and earth to make it right, you might have the passion required to work in a place like Zappos.

I hope I get to find out personally one of these days.

Tomorrow:  We finish up Zappos Week with Core Value #10 – Be Humble.

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Do More With Less

In Hamlet, Shakespeare opined that brevity is the soul of wit.  Perhaps this makes the bard among the first to express the idea that less is more.  While I’ve always believed that only more is more (something to which anyone unfortunate enough to have been subject to my writing can attest), I am fully on board with the business practice of maximizing profits by squeezing every drop out of existing resources.  As my parents used to tell me: “You’d better make it last.  That’s all there is.”

Eighth in a series.

Zappos Core Value #8:  Do More with Less

When we were kids, we used to tell a riddle that went something like this:

Q: Which room is always growing?

A: Mush-room!

The real answer, of course, is “room for improvement.”  No matter how well something is going, it can always be done better. And as the world revolves and technology evolves, room for improvement keeps growing.

These days, the improvement that businesses feel most compelled to make involves efficiency.  In good times, doing the job with fewer resources increases profits; in not-so-good times, it can be the difference between survival and insolvency.

One of the worst experiences I’ve ever had as a manager was the time that half my staff was laid off due to financial difficulties.  After the shock wore off came sadness, then guilt by the remaining staff that they got to stay while their coworkers were out of a job, followed by anger that we had to continue to do the same amount of work with half the people to do it.  As hard as this was, it caused us to dig deep down into our reserves of resourcefulness, to find short cuts that did not compromise customer service and to do more work than we thought we were capable of doing.  We had to work harder and work smarter.

There are a number of different popular sayings that seem apt.  “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  However you say it, you may be surprised what you’re capable of doing when you have to.

The most successful businesses learn to do more with less before they’re placed in a position in which they have no choice.  In fact, efforts to find ways of doing things better, faster and more economically have become almost routine, integrated into the corporate culture.  And why not?  Employees who are treated right tend to be committed to the success of their employers and make it their business to find ways to save time and money.

It’s always nice when we hit that “eureka” moment when a light bulb turns on and a whole new way of looking at things suddenly becomes obvious.  More often, however, it is the little things that make the big differences.  Shaving off a minute or a dollar here and there adds up quickly.

Learning to do more with less starts with making the most of current resources rather than always trying to obtain more.  This is especially true of human resources.  Why utilize an employee to perform just one narrow job when he or she has many talents that can be harnessed toward the company’s success?  Maybe you’re a customer service representative, but you might have a degree in accounting and artistic talent.  Why should I have you sit on the phones when what I really need right now is to have a new logo designed or to figure out a way to reduce our tax liabilities?  To be really crude for a minute, I’m going to squeeze you like a lemon. This is perfectly in keeping with the Golden Rule, as it is exactly how I would like to be treated!  As they say in the Army, I want to be all that I can be, and I hope you do, too.

So, hey there, Lemon.  I don’t want you to sit on the counter and look pretty until you rot.  On the contrary, I want to get every drop of juice out of you.  You have so much to offer and I plan to take full advantage of that!

There is nothing wrong with wanting more and pursuing it.  However, I also count my blessings and appreciate a company that does the same, that makes the most of what it already has before it goes looking for more.

You and me, Zappos, we’re on the same page.

Tomorrow:  Core Value #9 – Be Passionate and Determined

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Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, I find myself thinking about family a lot.  Admittedly, this involves worrying about such things as how we can help my two nephews who are out of work and what we will do about my octogenarian parents when they are unable to live alone any longer.  Even so, I get that warm and fuzzy feeling as I look forward to sharing Thanksgiving dinner with family and then celebrating Dad’s birthday a few days later.  We’ve started buying Christmas presents and imagining the looks on the faces of our grandnephews and grandnieces on Christmas morning.  I keep catching myself singing Christmas songs in the shower.  But then I go to work.  Wouldn’t it be great if I could carry that family feeling with me?

Seventh in a series.

Zappos Core Value #7:  Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

One of my favorite memories from the early 1980s is Sisters Sledge singing “We Are Family.”  It’s just such a goofy, upbeat song that I can’t help bobbing my head and singing along.

It’s interesting that we tend to think of work and family as diametrically opposed concepts.  After all, work is what takes us away from our families, right?  And yet, most of us who have worked in a particular location for any period of time seem to develop “work friendships” that may or may not spill over into our personal lives outside of the office.  More romances than anyone can count have blossomed among coworkers.  (My wife and I, now married for nearly 17 years, serve as a prime example.)  And I keep hearing about close platonic relationships at work among “work husbands” and “work wives.”  Whether it’s a girls’ night out or just a chat over the cubicle divider, we try to bring “that family feeling” into the workplace.

And why shouldn’t we?  Developing positive relationships makes our days at work a lot more pleasant than they would be if we had to toil in solitary silence.  Plus, it’s nice to have people with whom we can “talk shop” and who understand exactly what’s going on without having to explain everything from scratch.  They know how it is and they can commiserate with us.

When I don’t understand something at work, it’s nice not to have to run to the boss when I can go to a friendly coworker for help and know he won’t roll his eyes.  There are coworkers who allow me to brainstorm with them and who will warn me if my bright idea is really rather lame.  And, of course, it’s a mighty good feeling to celebrate successes as a team.

I like the phrase “family spirit” that Zappos uses.  Family implies pooling resources for mutual benefit.  It also implies mutual regard and teamwork.  These are “feel good” attributes that don’t have to be limited to our home lives.  It’s a shame that too many, both employers and employees, seem to prefer to make work a misery for everyone involved, including the customers.

When employees share responsibilities and share details of their personal lives, we can avoid that unnatural line of demarcation between home life and work life that some believe is inevitable.  Ultimately, it’s our own decision whether we are going to make the most of our time at work or just dread every minute that we have to be there.

It is encouraging that some companies value their employees enough to be cheerleaders, fully invested in their success.  Often, this starts with injecting fun into the work environment, allowing employees to be themselves.  I value the feeling of togetherness among coworkers.  This is where I start singing the Sisters Sledge song.

Some will tell you that this is artificial and forced, that we are just at work to do a job, get paid and go home.  I, for one, refuse to live my life that way.  Life is way too short for such foolishness.  And it is well known that happy employees lead to happy customers and a successful business.  “Teamwork makes the dream work” is not a meaningless phrase.

Unless, of course, we want it to be.

Tomorrow:  Core Value # 8 – Do More with Less

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Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

This is the week that I sing a love song to Zappos!  Join me in my journey through the ten core values.

Zappos Core Value #6:  Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

Sixth in a series.

Here’s an oldie but goodie:  You start working at a new company and your manager tells you that she has an “open door policy.”  You have to be there a little while before you can determine whether your manager’s door is open just a crack or all the way (and whether that crack is wide enough for you to jam your foot in).

Unfortunately, this reminds me of a particular parenting style I’ve witnessed in which a mother or father tells the kid “you can always talk to me about anything.”  Then, when the time comes, it turns out that this is code for “don’t bother me, kid.”

I find it difficult to understand why a manager wouldn’t want to maintain good communication with her team and why company higher-ups wouldn’t want to keep the lines of communication open with the rank and file.  Sadly, some managers prefer to live in a world of their own making.  “Don’t confuse me with the facts” seems to be the predominant philosophy of these ostriches.  I enjoy playing “let’s pretend” with my three year old grandniece, but this tactic doesn’t work so well in the business world.

It’s no joke that the truth can hurt.  Nevertheless, brutal honesty is just as much the key to a successful relationship between managers and employees as it is between businesses and their customers.  Sometimes I need to be hit right between the eyes by having an employee or customer tell me that I’m being an ass.  I may be stunned at first, but I always end up thanking them for giving me an attitude adjustment upside the head.  If no one tells you, how are you going to know?

I’ll never forget the time when, as a supervisor, one of my team members took offense that I called her out for being a chatterbox.  He was insulted that I would dare make such an accusation.  However, the guy was a gossip, plain and simple.  Being friendly and talkative is surely an asset, but not at the expense of serving our customers.  And not when telling tales about your coworkers seems to be your raison d’être.  I was amazed when, about a year later, he sheepishly admitted to me that I had been right.  He had been so upset by my comments that he thought about them for a good long time and eventually made the necessary changes.

Granted, such a positive outcome doesn’t always occur.  I have a bit of a reputation as a meanie because I like to tell it like it is.  This is not a one-way thing, however.  If I dish it out, I expect to take it, too.  My staff seems to enjoy taking advantage of this opportunity on a regular basis.  Although it’s not always pleasant at the time, I appreciate when my employees “keep it real.”  If I’m starting to micromanage a bit, by all means, tell me to back off.  I have to learn by making mistakes and making corrections, because there is no other way to learn.

One of my pet peeves is upper management that treats employees like mushrooms — keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit.  How can you feel a part of things, know where you fit into the big picture, if information is treated as a closely guarded secret?

Arriving at a company that practices open and honest communication can be a little like stepping out of a stifling hot room into the cool, fresh night air.  You just breathe deeply and soak it in.  My staff has the right to expect me to lead them, but it is difficult to do so effectively when I find myself flopping about like a fish.  I enjoy being a leader, but it’s a tough road when you’re heading into the fog.

At companies like Zappos, the open exchange of information makes it possible to lead and actually know where you’re going rather than just guessing.  The holacratic model minimizes the importance of job titles, is committed to the free flow of information throughout the organization and disdains rigid roles in favor of establishing relationships that flex and grow over time.  Sounds like my kind of place!

Can you blame me for wishing I were a Zapponian?

Tomorrow:  Core Value #7 – Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

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Pursue Growth and Learning

I remember a cartoon posted on the wall of one of my high school classrooms many moons ago.  In it, a boy sits at a man’s feet, apparently the victim of a father-son talk.  “That’s it,” says Dad.  “That’s all I know.”  The sad part is that some are indeed contented with what they know, preferring not to have to learn anything new.  Of course, that cartoon predated the internet by a couple of decades.  With every type of learning opportunity, from webinars to podcasts to MOOCs now available at our fingertips, there is no longer any excuse to be satisfied with what we think we know.  After all, a minute from now what you think you know will no longer be correct.  The only solution is to be a lifelong learner.  How fortunate that employers like Zappos encourage expanding our horizons, resulting in personal growth and increased ability to contribute to both personal and professional success.

Zappos Core Value #5:  Pursue Growth and Learning

My wife’s friend is quite clever.  Although she herself doesn’t enjoy reading, she understands the importance of encouraging her children to read and to maintain a sense of curiosity. Accordingly, when her kids were small, she would walk around with a book as often as possible and sit holding a book even if she weren’t actually reading it.  Her children got the message, and now it is rare for either of them to be seen without a book.  In our age of smart phones and tablets, I find this most amazing.

Indeed, it is true that instilling a passion for knowledge is among the greatest gifts we can give our children.  Growing up, I spent as much time as possible inside a public library.  I consider myself a lifelong learner, which is a distinct advantage in an age in which facts become outdated almost as soon as one learns them.

At work, I encourage my employees to jump on every possible training opportunity, including those not directly related to their current employment.  Whether this means attending a two hour seminar or signing up for a course at the state university, I support it.  If I have to change an employee’s schedule to make this possible, consider it done.  It doesn’t matter what “holes” this creates; we’ll figure out a way to make it work.  Not only is broadening and deepening of knowledge an investment, but it improves an employee’s ability to contribute to our success and increases life satisfaction in general.

I encourage my staff to do outside reading, to look things up online, to figure out how what we do relates to the rest of the world.  In my department, we’re just a little puzzle piece and it helps to have a grip on where we fit in with the big picture.

Back when I first started working in the court system, I discovered that my predecessor had no use for training.  Staff members never went to refresher training and were discouraged from making the three hour round trip from our remote location to the nearest training venue.  I am proud to say that I changed that.  Whenever possible, I would have the subject matter experts come to us.

My people would laugh when I would crook a finger and say “Don’t tell me you already took that training class.  That was ten years ago.  The world is not the same place that it was then.”  It was a novel concept to some of them that checking off a class on the training list didn’t mean that their obligation was forever resolved.

These days, I work in a place where training is decidedly rather hit or miss.  You never know when or if the training class you want will be given, whether you’ll be able to get in due to limited class sizes and whether your manager will allow you the time off to go.  Many of us don’t get a lot of formal training, so I encourage everyone to take the initiative to train themselves.  Thanks to the public library, the internet and the community college, there’s really no excuse to do otherwise.  Yes, I know you have a busy life.  So do I.  It’s all a matter of priorities.

The kind of place where I want to work has a well-stocked library, training that can be accessed online at my convenience, and a management attitude that no learning is ever wasted.  Let me improve myself so that I can improve my contribution to the company.

By the way, I’ve just described Zappos.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to work there, but at least I can hold them up as a model of a business that has proven that training and learning are assets we can’t be without rather than liabilities that we can’t afford.  And I am particular impressed with the Z’Apprentice program, in which employees get to try out working in other areas of the company to see whether a good fit exists.  More of that kind of learning, please!

Tomorrow:  Core Value #6 – Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication

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Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

Fog on the 5

Fog shrouds downtown Sacramento during the morning commute on the 5 freeway.

I would disappoint myself if I were to live life walking around in a fog, operating robotically with nary a chance of coming up with my own bright ideas and striking out on new adventures.  Sadly, too many jobs fit that bill.  Fortunately, there are enlightened businesses like Zappos to show us a better way.

Fourth of a series.

Zappos Core Value #4:  Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

I would venture to say that, at some point in our working lives, most of us have had a boss who had no interest in hearing his or her employee’s ideas.  “No comments from the peanut gallery” is this manager’s mantra.  Or, as I have heard it put even more crudely, “If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!”

This is the type of working environment in which all creativity and adventurousness is shut down before it starts.  Employees understand that they are not to ask any questions, just shut up and do what the boss says.  Needless to stay, this creates a stifling workplace that breeds inordinate amounts of stress and employee turnover.

As painful as it was at the time, I am glad to have experienced this early in my career.  For me, it has served as an object lesson, a prime example of what not to do.

In a turn of irony, over the years I have learned that, to be an effective leader, one must be a servant.  I do my best not to pontificate.  I try not to be a know-it-all, if only because I am acutely aware that I do not know it all.  While I am busy attending meetings and completing administrative tasks, my team is getting the work done.  I’m not the one who is in a position to come up with new ideas; they are.  After all, they’re the ones who receive feedback from customers day after day and who know what works and what doesn’t.

If one of my team members muses “I wonder what would happen if we (fill in the blank),” likely as not I will say “Why don’t we try it out and see?”  The last thing I ever want coming out of my mouth is “Oh, it’ll never work.”  Talk about taking a pin to your balloon!  Among my favorite sayings is “They forgot to tell him it couldn’t be done, so he did it.”  (A poor paraphrase of an Edgar Guest poem.)

Even if I don’t think your idea will work, I may very well allow you to give it a try anyway.  I may be pleasantly surprised.  As I said, my employees are the subject matter experts.  It is important for me to remind myself that they know more than I do.

Also, I believe a sense of adventure is an asset.  Even if an idea doesn’t work out, perhaps we’ll learn some other lesson from the experience?  Often, efforts to solve one problem can yield a solution to quite another problem that wasn’t even on our radar.  And even if we don’t take away anything we can use from the experiment, there are lessons to be learned from the very experience of trying.  For example, asking an additional question of customers may not, in the end, yield useful information, but the reaction we receive to asking the question may in itself be instructive.  Plus, it broadens the experience of employees and makes them feel like a part of the process.  Being willing to try out my team members’ ideas shows that I value their input, recognize their expertise and trust their instincts.

We all have unique talents, experiences and backgrounds that allow us to bring a veritable cornucopia to the table.  (I couldn’t resist getting in that Thanksgiving reference.)  Plus, we all have different thought patterns.  You and I don’t make connections in the same manner.  In other words, we need each other.  Hence, the value (and the joy) of diversity.

The business gurus urge us to “think outside of the box.”  The only real way to do this is to adopt the attitude that no idea is too crazy.  Often, the only way to make progress is to leap off that cliff and see where you land.

I’d much rather work in an environment marked by a spirit of adventure than one that pays homage to past successes by sticking to the tried and true.  Only by being willing to take risks can we move forward into the realm of the possible.

While this doesn’t fit in with the culture of every business, I’d rather lend my efforts to a forward-thinking operation like Zappos.

Tomorrow:  Core Value #5 – Pursue Growth and Learning

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Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

I must admit:  Zappos knows how to have fun.  For Halloween, they held a bingo and donuts party for employees and held a scary film festival.  My hat is off to those lucky Zapponians who get to spend the holiday season working hard and playing hard.

Part 3 of a series.

Zappos Core Value #3:  Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

Yesterday, I discussed driving and embracing change.  Thinking about all the changes I’ve been a part of at my various places of employment, I would have to list changes in management, changes in technology, changes in procedure, even the time I had to lay off half my staff.  Surprisingly, however, one of the most difficult of all the changes I had to implement involved fun.

When I was a supervisor in a large call center, management decided to adopt the FISH Philosophy.  Based on the way the fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market (it’s worth it to click that link just to see the photo of the customer kissing a huge fish) achieve happiness, the philosophy includes four basic tenets:  Be There, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude and Play.

I remember reading over the material I was given and being astonished.  The first three principles I could certainly understand.  But play?  Play?  At work?  It didn’t make any sense to me.  Play seemed like the exact opposite of work.  Children don’t have to work; they get to play instead.  Back in my education courses, the professors liked to spout the platitude “Play is the work of children.”

But we’re all adults here!  And we have a job to do!  Wouldn’t play take away from our mission of serving our customers?  Even after I viewed the video of the fishmongers throwing fish and making jokes with the customers, it all seemed just a bit over the top.  And how on earth would we translate this to a busy call center?  What exactly should we be throwing across the aisles and cubicles?  Surely not stinky fish!

Management gave the trainers little rubber fish to play with, and some of these found their way into the hands of the supervisors.  I actually had my team throwing these back and forth for a while, until the day that I myself accidentally hit an operator in the head with one while she was on a call.  Fortunately, she was a good sport about it.

There had to be another way to “play at work.”  When the supervisors and trainers put our heads together, we eventually came up with things like holding little parades to acknowledge accomplishments, hosting cubicle decorating and trivia contests and choosing a silly word of the day.  Pizza, Krispy Kremes, candy.  Just little things to lighten the mood.  If you’ve ever worked in a call center, you know how desperately this is needed.

When you work in law and government, as I have done for the past decade, play seems to factor out of the process.  The conservative nature of these fields makes me wonder if the denizens thereof were deprived of a play gene in utero.  Were they ever kids?

I am encouraged by the stories I regularly read about the way play has been incorporated into the workplace within the tech industry.  My nephew, who is an engineer in Silicon Valley, confirms that there are ping pong, foosball and air hockey tables, hallways turned into putting greens, impromptu hackey sack games, employees sliding down a firehouse pole instead of using the stairs, and employees’ dogs who are there so regularly that everyone knows them by name.  It pains me to think that I am missing out on this stuff.

In the words of Dick Van Dyke, “I am a child in search of his inner adult.”

Business journals like to write about how the youngest generation of employees, the millennials, expect these kind of distractions and diversions.  I say why not?  And even though I am a COG (Certified Old Guy), I too would like to participate in such good times at work.  For one thing, it would be a huge stress reliever.  For another, why should the younger crowd have all the fun?  Hey, wait for me!  Geezers just wanna have fun! (If you’re reading this, Cindy Lauper, forgive me.)

My knees may not allow me to skateboard down the corridor anymore, but I promise I will whip your butt at ping pong (or run out of breath trying).

And don’t roll your eyes if I break out into song right at my desk.  If I try to imitate George Strait and it comes out sounding more like a croaking frog, please feel free to lob wadded up paper at me.  It won’t stop me, though.  Oh, and if you can’t hear my caterwauling, just look for the workstation decorated all in orange, a color that never fails to lift my spirits.

Are you listening, Zappos?

Tomorrow:  Core Value #4 – Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

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Embrace and Drive Change

Zappos successfully navigated some big changes recently, when the company adopted a holacratic operational model.  No titles, no top-down organizational chart.  Everyone gets a chance to do what they’re good at and love!  This may not be for everyone, and some even left the company.  I think the defectors are missing out.  I pray that someday I get a chance to “fill the shoes” of one of those former Zapponians!

Part 2 of a series.

Zappos Core Value #2:  Embrace and Drive Change

When I think of the word “change,” I think of diapers, nickels and dimes, and employees griping at me because I’m asking them to do something different.

Change is tough for most of us.  We tend to cocoon inside our comfort zones and allow inertia to rule the roost.  But what fun is that?  It may be familiar, but it’s really rather boring.  And it prevents us from moving forward and being all those things that we know deep inside we have the capability of being.

The truth of the matter, however, is that change is inevitable.  Since we can’t avoid it, we may as well embrace it.

There are at least three broad categories of change:  Those changes that we deliberately adopt, those changes that creep up as a product of the passage of time, and those changes that thrust themselves upon us suddenly.

Choosing to make a change can be a bit scary, but at least we chose it and therefore exercise some measure of control.  For example, we might decide to change careers, move to another city or state, or try a new hobby.  While we may be afraid of making the wrong decision, I believe in the old adage “he who hesitates is lost.”  Sometimes you just have to jump in to discover that the water really is fine.  Carpe diem, as they say in Latin.  Seize the day!

Changes that are a product of time aren’t always as noticeable as deliberate changes.  Because they occur slowly, we often don’t notice them until something reminds us of how things were different at one time.  When did traffic get so bad in this city?  How did I become so addicted to my phone?  In some respects, these changes are less troublesome than most, as we don’t have to fret over them.  We may not realize that anything is different until the change has already occurred.

The most disturbing changes of all are those that are thrust upon us.  Rather than tentatively sticking a nose out of the comfort zone, we are summarily flung out headfirst.  The violence implied in this type of change is what we dread.  We associate this with the most troublesome parts of our lives.  In the blink of an eye, we find ourselves in a car wreck, we get laid off from work without warning, a storm tears apart our neighborhood.

Considering the above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of us resist change.  In the workplace, change tends to be a constant.  Policies change, technology advances, coworkers come and go.  We must make adjustments, and often a lot of training is involved.  However, even when we take the training classes, read the notices and understand the reasons that change is required, a lot of us long for the “good old days.”  There have been times when I have caught employees using outdated procedures that were changed three or four years ago.  When I ask them why, I tend to be met with resistance and hostility.  “I’ve done it this way for twenty years and it works just fine!”  Uh, well, apparently it doesn’t work just fine, or the procedure would not have been changed.  No, we managers don’t stay up nights thinking of unnecessary changes that we can impose on our employees just to piss ‘em off.  The change may have been related to advances in technology that allow us to be more efficient, or it may be the product of a new federal or state law or regulation.  However, not everyone enjoys “keeping up with the times.”

In fact, as a manager, I often find that initiating change is a very difficult endeavor that is met by all manner of whining, moaning and even sabotage.  I expect everything from common grade bellyaching to threats to negative attitudes that, if allowed to continue long enough, can positively poison the workplace.

Among my goals at work is to encourage my people to embrace change.  What new, exciting thing are we going to do?  Change is what keeps us from growing stale.  Better yet, I love it when my staff members drive change, suggest improvements and push me to overhaul hidebound systems.  That’s right:  Sometimes it is the employees who get me to make changes.  After all, they’re the ones with the bright ideas for doing things better.  And we can always do things better.

So why can’t we just enjoy change as a product of the passage of time?  If variety is the spice of life, I’ll take more of that hot and spicy stuff, please.

From everything that I’ve read about Zappos, employees work in an environment of continuous improvement.  Change is expected and, indeed, loved.  You can see why I’d like to work there.  It’s my kind of place!

Tomorrow: Zappos Core Value #3 – Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

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The 10 Days of Zappos

Bacon

Whilst in town today, I ran into… bacon.  I hadn’t the nerve to tell the bloke that I’m a vegan.

Friends

Some of my friends at work enjoying Halloween

Growing up in New York, I associated autumn with September, because that’s when the school year started, and with October, because that’s when we drove up to the cider press in New Paltz to look at the pumpkins and lug home bushels of apples for pies and applesauce.

In California, however, you have to reach November before it feels as if summer is really over.  Here and there, a few trees blush into fall color, as if embarrassed by being in such a minority.  There are plenty of pumpkin patches and corn mazes around, but somehow it all seems fake.  Once you’ve experienced autumn in New England or New York, autumn anywhere else seems pale by comparison.

Fortunately, November is the start of the holiday season, and this I can count on to bring me inexpressible joy.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are nearly upon us, lights and decorations are everywhere and I turn on the holiday music to make my spirits soar.  I’ve already been singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the shower for a month.  (The verse about “bring us some figgy pudding” never ceases to crack me up — I’m weird like that.)  Some gripe about the holiday season starting too soon, but I am one of those saps who wishes “peace on earth, good will toward men” would prevail every day of the year.

As we embark upon the holidays, my thoughts turn to all the retail and call center staff working holiday jobs for a little extra cash.  These are the women and men who are the heart of our holiday shopping expeditions, the very ones who make it possible for us to have all those brightly wrapped gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.  I know this kind of work can be brutal, and that harried shoppers who are running out of patience, time and money seldom take a moment to say “thank you.”  So here it is from Uncle Guacamole:  Thank you to all the stockers and cashiers and floor managers and warehouse workers on fork lifts and call center reps on the phones.  Love to every one of you.

And a particular shout out to the customer loyalty team at Zappos, burning up the phone lines in the old city hall in downtown Las Vegas.  These folks are dear to my heart because they know how to both feel and inspire joy all year long.  I am nearly 600 miles away in northern California, but I am with you in spirit.

Last June, I posted a love song for Zappos, in which I admitted that working for the company is my secret desire.  As with unrequited love everywhere, this starry-eyed swooner has learned to be an admirer from afar.

Among the reasons that Zappos continues to command my respect is the Zappos Family Core Values.  Accordingly, as we get started with NaBloPoMo, I will spend the next ten days celebrating these values, one at a time, in this space.  If this bores you into a coma, please return on Veterans Day, when the usual schedule of lunacy that is A Map of California will resume in all its twisted glory.

Zappos Core Value #1:  Deliver WOW Through Service

The word “wow” implies surprise, which in turn refers to the unusual — in this case, unexpected delight.  One may be tempted to say that getting to “wow” should not be too difficult in the realm of customer service, since most of our expectations are set so low.  Of course, you know what the problem is with low expectations:  They are a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It goes something like this . . .

Customer:  Retail employees are either rude or they just don’t care, so I’m going to be realistic and won’t expect much.  Just get me through this transaction and out the door as quickly as possible.

Retail Employee:  Customers are either rude or they’re just clueless, so I’m just going to do the zombie thing and get through my day on auto-pilot.  They don’t pay me enough for this!

See what I mean?  This is depressing.  Fortunately, when you hit bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.  Even as small a gesture as a smile tends to surprise customers these days.

Now, to take it a step further (e-commerce edition):

Customer:  It’s the holiday season, so they always jack up the prices and I’m going to have to pay a lot more than I really should.  With holiday backups, who knows whether my order will arrive in time for Christmas.  When it gets here, the box will probably be smashed or torn open and my merchandise will either be damaged or will be the wrong item, color or size.

Call Center Employee:  Lady, I’m just doing my job.  I have no control over that stuff.  Gimme a break, will ya?

Sadly, I can’t blame the customer for having expectations that all too often ring true.  There is no excuse for the call center employee, however.  This is a classic case of not taking ownership of the situation, otherwise known as “passing the buck.”  It’s a terminal case of I-don’t-care.

My question to you is:  Why should a customer plunking down her hard-earned money patronize businesses offering this type of customer service?  Some may think that it’s just a fact of life, that there isn’t any alternative.  Happily, Zappos and likeminded companies have proven that there is another way.

To me, the “wow” factor starts with keeping your promises.  Everything advertised should be immediately available, and in the desired style, color and size.  It continues with a positive attitude:  Customer service representatives should have a smile in their voices, deep product knowledge, a willingness to go out of the way to be helpful, a positive attitude and unwavering courtesy.  Find a way to say “yes.”  Respect the customer and the customer may surprise you by respecting you.  Next, the business must come through by delivering the correct item at the correct price on time, or early if possible.  Little treats like a discount coupon for next time are helpful to further encourage repeat business.  Finally, when things go wrong, as they inevitably will at times, sincere apologies must be backed up with immediately making the situation right, whatever that may entail.  The company must take a personal interest in the customer’s satisfaction, whether that involves re-sending the item ordered and refunding the customer’s money, delivering the item in person or, as shown in the recent movie The Intern, providing the customer with the company owner’s personal cell phone number.  If you can make the customer say “Wow!,” not only will you have a customer for life, but your customer will tell everyone he or she knows about the wonderful service experienced.

I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to be a part of a work environment that treats the “wow” factor as status quo.  It has to be empowering to work in a place where, instead of being an exception, providing amazing service is all in a day’s work.  There is nothing unusual about it.

It is well known that happiness is contagious.  Why settle for grumpy employees and customers when it is just as easy to have cheerful employees and delighted customers?  When you enjoy what you’re doing and you have a desire to please, the love shines through and brightens the day of the customers you serve.  And coming to work becomes nothing short of pure joy.

Customer “service” is not just a convenient term for salespeople.  It really does mean that we are servants, whose goal must be to please the customer, not to blindly follow scripts or policy or just get through the day.  The most successful businesses, those who inspire true loyalty, are those who understand that we are here to do the will of the customer, not the other way around.

Of course, taking care of the employees is an important part of the formula.  You have to “wow” them, too, which means lots of fun and frivolity!  At Zappos, this includes things like free food, the ability to bring your dog to work, and a steady parade of ruckus and circus that makes coming to work fun. I guess I’m not alone.  Everyone probably wants to work there.

To reiterate, Uncle Guacamole’s four steps to delivering “wow” through service are:

  • Keep your promises
  • Maintain a positive attitude at all times
  • Find a way to say “yes”
  • Move heaven and earth to make it right, no gesture too grand

Happy holidays!

Tomorrow: Zappos Core Value # 2 – Embrace and Drive Change

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