About 6 months ago I was at a conference and the presenter brought up Zappos as the shining example of a company that has a strong culture that translates into sales. The person next to me leaned over and said, "Man, can't anyone come up with more examples?" "Sadly," I replied, "The reason Zappos and Southwest Airlines and Trader Joes and Cliff Bar and the small handful of companies are mentioned time and time again is because there aren't any other ones to take their place."

Yes, there are small, up and coming companies who have put their faith in the idea that building a strong company culture will lead to happy employees and happy customers and big profits and I look forward to the day that these companies take the place of Zappos in these presentations and I'm pretty sure it won't take them very long. But people watching these presentations are hungry for results. Big, impressive results. And saying that Modcloth has $20 million in revenues or Etsy makes $314 million when the audience isn't even hip to their brands is a tough sell.

But the question I really want to know the answer for is why is it so hard for established brands to implement a strong culture? And I have found a couple of answers to that question:

  1. Culture comes from leadership and the leadership isn't committed to it. The leaders behind the companies whose cultures aren't strong aren't believers. They were taught at the school of hard economics and something like culture just sounds willy nilly to them. Sure, they hire brand consultants to come in and create a statement and put up posters, but they don't think it's all that serious.
  2. Employees in a weak culture have become cynical, at best, droned at worst. I bet that you can go back to the early few months of 99% of any employees record and show enthusiasm, initiative, eagerness and a desire to learn and grow. I know very few people who pursue a job because they just want to sit at a desk and watch a clock. But weak culture companies have a way of sucking the life out of their employees. And most likely they've fired the employees the company can't break. You know these ones. The trouble makers. The ones that question. The ones that fight for change. Too many of those stubborn ones hanging around may actually give the drones hope to care again. Get rid of them.
  3. The connection between strong culture and results is still a bit fuzzy. There have been lots of studies and books written on the subject that show that strong corporate cultures out perform weak ones, but the correlation isn't strong enough to say, "Without a shadow of a doubt, the reason here is culture." It's because lots of the evidence is qualitative rather than quantitative. "Employees who are happy make your customers happy." And even when numbers are put to that statement, it's a hard one to prove direct correlation with. This sucks. Because in our guts, we know this is true. We just need to get better at proving it.
  4. There is still too much lip service and lazy implementations that don't work. Too many companies do the exercises and print the wallet cards, but very few of them really understand how deep cultural values have to be implanted in an organization. Years ago while interviewing Tony Hsieh for my book (I was one of the first people to talk about them btw ;)), I asked him about some of the family values and he said something like, "The one that trips people up is 'Be Humble'. We don't hire self-proclaimed rockstars or gurus at Zappos." When I asked him if I'd get the job, he replied, "Probably n0t." That demonstrated a deep commitment to those values. It's part of hiring, training, customer interactions, business development and partnerships, merchandising, the way they market, communicate...everything.

It's sad, really, but it looks like we are going to have to be patient for the up-and-comers to create some good solid data on the correlation to make this a MBA endorsed business practice. And someone will create a sort of 'standards' and processes that will fly in the face of what it really means to have a strong culture (ie. intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivators). Until then, I think it's a-ok to shine our light on Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Trader Joes, Etsy, Modcloth and anyone else that puts culture at the core of their organization and wins because of it. Because, well, they are well worth celebrating.