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Heretical Thoughts About Zappos, Delivering Happiness and Work Life
on June 9, 2010
Delivering Happiness is a bold promise to make in any book, let alone a business book. But Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh makes it. The autobiographical story of Tony's childhood and career at times seems self indulgent and veers into frat boy territory, Harvard style. Hsieh is open about the fact that the writing is all his and that it's not literary genius. However, he's clearly an innovative man with a ton of brain power. It is a fun and entertaining read, especially for the genre. The book's stand-out quote:
"Without conscious and deliberate effort, inertia always wins"
I am not sure the book delivers happiness. But here's what it does do, and does very well. It provides an insight into the success of one of America's trendiest and high performing companies as well as the brain of the man behind it. From my work life lens, it also shows an interesting approach to corporate culture that so far is working well for Zappos.
I put my hand up to review the book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose because I'd read so much about Zappos' unique corporate environment. Innovative organizational psyches are right up my alley. Hsieh has a light and enticing story-teller's voice as he shares his youthful business adventures, Harvard stories (mostly about how little work he did and how well he performed doing that), mistakes and spiritual experiences in the rave/party years and climbing Kilimanjaro. Ultimately though, it's a book about relationships, and about how to create an environment where your best friends show up to work with you. You work hard and you play hard and you do it all together.
For all it's talk of a bold new paradigm of institutional culture, much of it revolves around getting drunk together, partying and playing golf. It is the way business has always been done. It might be really fun to work at Zappos. And clearly there must be more to it than that or it would not consistently generate the buzz about being such a great place to work that it does.
I'd love to know more about how career breaks, care-giving needs and flexible work options to handle work life issues are really handled. There is one beautiful story shared of a woman losing her husband and being given time off and much loving support from her team members. But the story stuck out as unusual compared to other employee experiences. For example, there were no insights into how parenting or elder care needs are handled either informally or through policy.
Rather, there were stories of walking away from your entire life with two hours notice and not getting home again for three months. It was, as always, the absolute dedication to the company kind of stories that came through loudest. There was a great deal of discussion about creating a family, creating a group of people who you want to be with every day. This is a wonderful thing in a work environment up to a point, but homogeneity, even the weird and wacky kind, can be stifling over the longer term.
As I read stories of bar room and golf course decisions, I did wonder if that self-selects the real Zappos stars as being single and childless, or with a partner at home full time who raises the children or at least has a much less demanding career? Certainly the book makes it evident that a non-drinker like myself would not be progressing very far! Zappos - can you help me understand more?
Things that most impressed me about Hsieh's story and the Zappos culture. The Pipeline - how most recruiting is done at entry level with incredible on-going training and continual internal promotion opportunities. He is very clear about the kind of person he wants to work with every day, knows how to find them and wants to make sure they have a trajectory. I also thoroughly enjoyed his cheekiness and regular rule breaking, his loving poke at Asian parental pressure stereotypes and his deep hunger for a community. Hsieh and his team have certainly created something unusual in corporate America. I take my hat off to what this daring 36 year old has built so far and will watch with interest as to what comes next.
My heretical closing thought. As his people get tired of partying and look for their higher purpose outside of the Zappos family, I do wonder how sustainable the culture will be over the longer term. I too have created a family of people I want to be with every day and it's called my husband and children. He talks a lot about work being a calling, not a job. I'm not sure free pizza and shaving your head days are gonna cut it in 20 years time. Then again, they might not need to.