Archive for February, 2011
I haven’t even finished this book yet but I had to write about it already. Parts of it are the usual “here’s what makes our company great” type stuff about Zappos. In fact, it reminds me of all the books that used to get written about Southwest Airline’s culture ten or twenty years ago. But what makes it a great read, in my opinion, is the autobiographical stuff leading up to the founding of Zappos.
Hsieh didn’t use a ghost writer and that was a good move. His own voice is down-to-earth, quirky and humorous, and I laughed out loud as I read about him starting his first business at the age of 9, skating through college with “as little effort as possible,” and learning about the science of human happiness from attending rave parties. The first part of the book doesn’t pretend to be a complete autobiography, but it describes all of Tony’s learning experiences that led him to first fund and then become part of Zappos. He makes a few million dollars at the age of 24 and learns that money can’t buy happiness, or even engagement in one’s work. He buys a party loft to throw parties for his friends and learns that a sense of interconnectedness is part of what makes people happy in their work. He focuses on defining organizational culture and learns that culture is the gateway to equating your brand with superior customer service.
The book is full of zaniness, like the sidebar rhapsodizing about Tony’s relationship with Red Bull, or the story about him naming his venture capital firm Venture Frogs just because a friend dared him to do it. Or his buying up all the space in a new multi-use development because it was always his dream to live in a place with a movie theater downstairs (he adds office space, a restaurant and a party loft, gets all his friends to move in, and says, “there, now we never have to leave the building.”)
It’s a life to admire and learn from, and he’s only in his mid-thirties. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book when I finish it. In the meantime, go get a copy! As the book jacket points out, it makes excellent kindling for your fireplace after you finish reading it.
I was facilitating a leadership class for mid-level managers and supervisors recently, and two people were being very vocal about their frustrations with lack of information flow between them and their senior leadership. Whenever one of the two people spoke, I looked around the room and saw what I perceived to be general agreement—people nodding, crossing their arms, and leaning back in their chairs. I was concerned and began to think about how best to get the concerns out on the table in a more constructive manner.
It’s funny how you can see things so wrong sometimes as you climb your ladder of inference. And I wonder what colors your perception when it happens. Was I willing to believe that everyone was on the same page because I was so often frustrated with lack of information from senior leadership back in the days when I was a manager, perhaps?
Anyway, the good news is that one of the more senior folks in the room took me aside and got the blinders off my eyes. She told me that the two people who kept speaking up were known throughout the organization for dominating conversations in a negative way, and their colleagues were frustrated with them because they were in the class to develop their leadership skills and not to hear the same old complaining they’d heard many times before. “It’s not to say that we couldn’t improve communication between levels of management,” she said. “But I think in time you’ll see that neither of those two people are thinking constructively on the topic. They just like to vent and they like to have an audience.”
I had a moment of thinking that she was just trying to sweep real issues under the carpet. Then I went back to the conference room and within an hour I saw that she was right. People were leaning back and crossing their arms and nodding as if to say, “There he goes again.” It wasn’t agreement, it was a polite resignation with an underlying frustration. I began to shift the conversation in other, more positive directions and watched as literally the entire room jumped into the discussion to help me. And when, at one point, one of the naysayers began to complain about something that wouldn’t work for the seventeenth time, people applauded when my response was, “Well, do we want to talk about what we can do, or about what we can’t do?”
It amazes me when I think about how wrong my initial perceptions were, and how unproductive that class would have been if someone hadn’t steered me back in a better direction. It reminded me that all of us, no matter how good we think we are at reading a crowd, need to constantly question our perceptions and assumptions. What are we noticing and how are we interpreting it? What are we not noticing? What are we filtering out, because it doesn’t fit with the story we’ve already made up? Without asking these questions we risk taking the wrong road every time.
I used to scoff at people who repeated this tired old phrase. Not only is it overused, but how can it possibly be true? How could anyone think that some of the random, senseless violence that goes on in this world happens for a “reason”?
But something happened this week that made me pull out the tired old phrase myself. I showed up on a military base for a class I was supposed to be teaching, and after a long frantic interlude of not being able to reach my contact to escort me onsite, I was finally told that I had the wrong dates for the class. I had showed up a day early.
I have never, ever made that kind of mistake before, and I was terribly embarrassed at first. But after I went back to my hotel to change my flight, I realized that it was a fortuitous mistake. If I’d had the correct dates, I’d have tried to fly in on Wednesday this week, when both the airport I flew out of and the one I needed to change planes at were completely shut down by blizzards. It would have been impossible for me to get here, and thus another thing would have happened that has never, ever happened to me before: I would have been a no-show, and the class would have had to be canceled and rescheduled.
So OK, maybe in just this one small case, something happened for a reason. But let’s not go overboard about it…