Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

By: Paul Walker

While recently reading an article about Holacracy, a specific comment on the article popped out to me. It was and still is one of the most memorable and impacting comments on the subject I have seen. What made it even better is that it ended on an encouraging note, but it was the commentator's initial statement that stuck like a perfectly cooked spaghetti noodle tossed against the wall of my mind. The comment, in relation to the idea of implementing Holacracy, read:

"Good idea in theory only. Here is the biggest problem this will cause, without hierarchy the loudest ideas, not best ideas, will win. In other words, bullies will rule the roost. The introverts will invariably feel alienated and powerless, they'll respond by creating secret groups and making pacts, leading to more internal squabbles. In many instances, the best option is arbitration by a figure granted authority." - R [commentor]

I have taught Holacracy full-time for a year now at Zappos, and had been operating in the system several months prior to that, but the only thing that got me interested in Holacracy in the first place was the concern voiced in the above comment. Before I was a Holacracy trainer, I did customer service e-mails, and I did it for two and a half years. When it came to that work, I was experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate, but in all my time on the team, I had hardly said a word in meetings. It was partially because I was very introverted and have never been comfortable interrupting or talking over people, but even when I tried, my voice was never heard. The loudest ideas won and the bullies ruled the roost. I felt alienated and powerless ... Okay, that is a grossly exaggerated comparison, but at least you see how my situation related to that in the aforementioned comment. Regardless, these things get better when Holacracy comes along.

I have always been a very self-managed person and had no issues reaching out to strangers in other departments when I had ideas on how to make the company better. Needless to say, when I first heard about Holacracy and self-organization, I did not think it was necessary. That thought changed when I heard one person casually say, "In Holacracy, people cannot interrupt you." That was it. That little phrase has been my driving force in making this structure work. For the first time in my life, I was confident in calmly interrupting someone to say, "This is actually my time. Please let me finish my thoughts." That someone happened to be my former manager, of all people. Had I not interrupted so promptly, the Facilitator would have for me. The rest of the meeting continued without any problems on either side. I knew I could call that out and say what I had to without fear of retaliation, because we all knew the rules and processes, and because the Facilitator was there to protect and support me. 

The "Facilitator" is a major piece of the Holacracy game. This Role is a neutral party that makes sure everyone follows the rules of Holacracy meetings and ensures that nobody has more power or say than anyone else. This Role (one of which exists on every single team across the organization) is what got me into Holacracy because I knew first-hand the struggles of not having a voice. I wanted to contribute to helping others like myself be able to speak up and make changes. While it was certainly possible and happened all the time before, Holacracy guarantees everyone's voice can be heard, even if they wouldn't normally speak up on their own. Theodore Roosevelt once said,

"Speak softly and carry a big stick."

In the original context, it was largely about foreign policy and peacefully negotiating while reminding the other side about your military power, just in case. Of course, Zappos does not have its own military (at least until our llama-mounted, t-shirt cannon-wielding infantry gets better trained), but the concept is just as powerful and game-changing in Holacracy. In this new world, the big stick is the equal authority that each person has. Everyone's responsibilities, authorities, and the rules we follow are clear for anyone to see. I know exactly what decisions I can and can't make, and so does everyone else. I know how the meetings work, and so does everyone else.

Thanks to our culture at Zappos, treating one another with respect is the norm, but sadly, this is not the case everywhere. With Holacracy at your side, nobody can speak over you or shut down your ideas. Nobody is any more important than anyone else, titles and tenure do not have the impact they once did, and pushing ideas through is not easier if you are the physically most imposing person in the room (Trust me that Holacracy helps a lot with this one. Curse my lithe dancer's physique!)

To sum up - The rules of this system protect everyone equally. If you have an idea, you can not only share it, but you can make it happen, and anyone in your organization is capable of this as well, no matter who they are or where they fall in the standard organization ladder.

Culture is

Happiness

Great culture leads to employee happiness. The same way a toxic culture leads to unhappiness. Happy employees means higher engagement, profitability, and low turnover.

Culture is

People

Our culture would not be what is it today without the people, past and present. We are all protectors and cultivators of the Zappos Culture; it's what makes it unique and something that changes every day.

Culture is

Being Yourself

I love that I get to be me all day. The culture encourages you to be the same person you are at work as you are at home. I don't have to pretend to be something I'm not, which makes Zappos a comfortable place to be.

Culture is

Unique

Every company has a unique culture that's all their own. Just like every person has their own personality, every company has their own culture. Building a culture is a special process that can't be taken lightly. It's the responsibility of every employee to represent and foster culture.

Culture is

Fun

Work can be fun! We have 2 annual parties at Zappos. Our Vendor Party where we invite all of our brands to thank them and celebrate our partnership. And, our employee holiday party. Past epic party themes have ranged from Mardi Gras and old-school hip-hop to a Hawaiian luau at a waterpark. Each has had its own twists and tricks to surprise and delight partygoers. This year, we invited our vendors to run away with us to the “Untamed Circus."

Culture is

Perpetual

Your culture doesn't stay the same, it will continue to evolve. Having a defined set of values will serve as your guide to continue your culture's growth and evolution in a positive direction.

Culture is

Not Always Measured

A strong culture means lower employee burnout and therefore, lower turnover. It leads to higher employee engagement and higher profitability. But really, companies should focus on their culture because it matters. Because it's just the right thing to do. To quote Tony Hsieh, "Just because you can’t measure the ROI of something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. What’s the ROI on hugging your mom?"

Culture is

Work-Life Integration

Companies and employees worry about work-life separation or work-life balance. But why? Wouldn't you rather be a company where your employees easily combine their full self into everything they do? Wouldn't you rather work for a company whose focus on culture allows your job to integrate with your life? It shouldn't be a struggle to find a balance between life and work where you are truly fulfilled and happy.

Culture is

Partnerships

Your vendors have the same objective as you: to sell their product, be successful in their work, and maybe have some fun while doing it. Something unique that Zappos does is allow brand representatives access to all the same sales and inventory information on their products that Zappos has. By working as a team, by partnering, you are setting the stage for success!

Culture is

Real

Your company has a culture. You may not have "planned" it. You may not like it. Or maybe you love it. But it's there. It is real. You can choose to be thoughtful about your company culture. You can set values and identify the behaviors that you want to be the core of your culture. That part is fairly easy. The hard part, is committing to the values once they are set. Living them.

Culture is

Core Values

Values are more than just words, they're a way of life. They are the foundation of your company culture. We know that companies with a strong culture and a higher purpose perform better in the long run. As we continue to grow, we strive to ensure that our culture remains alive and well.

Culture is

Your Brand

A company’s culture and a company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand is just a lagging indicator of the culture.