Advice on company culture from leaders of Zappos, easyJet, Washington Post

By Xavier van Leeuwe

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Culture eats strategy for breakfast. 

This is one of those sentences I hear a lot. But how do you change the “culture?” I had no clue. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say it’s really obvious. 

In the past, I had always been focused on my sales and marketing tasks, rather than concentrating on people. The irony is, I had to first set a task for myself of becoming more customer-centric to realise it is all about people in customer centricity. Focus on the people, become conscious of your behaviour toward them, and then you can adapt behaviour.

Rethinking company culture can help shift employees’ focus.
Rethinking company culture can help shift employees’ focus.

With this new mindset, changing the culture is as achievable as changing anything else. Here is why I think media professionals should aim for a culture change, not just a technological change.

Why culture is the answer

I visited Facebook headquarters at Menlo Park back in 2014. Washing my hands in the men’s room, I saw a note on the wall: Code of the week. There was HTML all over the page. I stood in awe. Legacy media will never win this, I thought.

But now I’ve changed my mind. The first proof is in the research by François Nel and Coral Milburn-Curtis. When measured in 2009, media companies that prioritised investment in new technologies were very likely to report significant increases in revenue.

But that changed. By 2015, this trend was no longer statistically significant. Everybody has prioritised investment in new technologies like paid-for digital content, mobile, and tablet.

And you know what? Facebook is not doing it better.

In July, the company shut down Paper, a bold re-imagining of how new generations could read the news. Paper was fantastic in guiding you through the app. Tap on a link, and it would unfold like a letter. Pull down on the story, and it would fold back up. The app was praised by design enthusiasts, but failed to attract a large audience.

So don’t be afraid of the giants of Silicon Valley and find wisdom in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. A larger force that is not handled well can lose to a smaller force that is full of energy and discipline. The soft will overcome the hard, if the general is wise.

So if neither size nor investment in technology brings the competitive edge, what will it be? The answer for me: the right culture.

Technology is worthless if it is in the wrong hands. Fire can be used to warm your family or, if you are the Roman Emperor Nero, to set Rome ablaze. It is how you use the technology that ultimately counts. It’s the values and behaviours, shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, written and unwritten rules that determine how technology will be used.

This is also what the statistical research by Nel and Milburn-Curtis points toward. Whatever else media executives might do, the focus on developing their staff and fostering an organisational culture of innovation should be a priority. Companies that prioritised investment in people were significantly more likely to be reporting profits than those that did not.

I experienced this myself. We are building a customer-centric culture by listening to customers at their kitchen table, educating and empowering co-workers, and attracting people who love to look at data. It is this culture shift that is bringing the real improvements.

This way you need no innovation programme. No checking and controlling. Your co-workers will innovate themselves because they are intrinsically motivated.

Believe me, that is really efficient.

How to build the right culture

There is no ultimate roadmap to cultural change. It is good to know that it can be done if you allow yourself time and focus enough on human beings. Here are five culture builders that have inspired me on my journey.

Carolyn McCall

Carolyn is the CEO of the airline easyJet. She has eight points to really change the culture in your company in the direction of customer centricity. What I would like you to do is read this like a checklist.

In the past six months have you done this?

  1. Made direct contact with customers regularly (not a royal visit to the contact centre occasionally).

  2. Learned from the best in customer centricity. 

  3. Facilitated true empowerment.

  4. Crossed boundaries to generate enterprise-wide results.

  5. Broke down silos or sponsored “networking” initiatives.

  6. Measured success by focusing on incremental progress and “quick wins” with the “big picture” in mind.

  7. Lived by customer-centric values; found time for conversations with staff about customers.

  8. Made and sponsored unprofitable decisions that are right for the customer.

Tony Hsieh

What Tony, the former CEO of Zappos, has taught me is that you cannot start early enough when building the right culture. When hiring new employees at, the company passes on smart and talented people that do not fit into the culture, even if their track record proves they are great at adding value.

Every Zappos employee follows the entire customer service training and talks to actual clients for a week. There is even a bonus of US$3,000 dollars if you quit and leave the company in the first weeks of training. Why? To avoid building teams with people who are just there for the pay check. Three percent of people actually take the offer. The rest deliberately choose to be part of the Zappos culture.

Jim Collins

Jim found out that great companies first decide who is going to take them further and then let them decide on what to do. He calls this “first who … then what.” Keep these three steps in mind.

  1. When in doubt, do not hire. Keep searching for the right candidate no matter how much time it takes.

  2. Act when you know a people change needs to occur. Don’t wait to move people into a different position where they will make better use of their talent.

  3. Put your best people on your biggest opportunities. Many companies make the mistake of placing their best talent on their biggest problems. 

Jeff Bezos

Jeff is relevant to media executives because he acquired The Washington Post. I met the news media company’s CTO Shailesh Prakash personally last September. About Bezos he says: “I personally think that the biggest thing Jeff has done is to set the right tone for our culture — which is one of experimentation, which is one of encouragement, which is one of finding the positive surprises and doubling down.”

Again it is about hiring the right people, not the tasks.

Here is what Jeff is looking for: “I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”

Jack Daly

Don’t be put off by Jack’s over-the-top vocabulary like “hypersales.” Jack can hand you the keys to building an incredible culture.

His answer is simple: fun. Work less and play more. With fun, people will work longer for your company and deliver much better experiences to your customers.

Jack names four basic concepts:

  1. Make people feel valued from the very first day they start work. Make their first day a day to remember. Win their hearts.

  2. Communicate better. Have teams and departments check in daily, monthly, quarterly, and annually. Learn to listen. We have two ears and only one mouth. For a reason. So shut down your inner voice and start being an active listener. I followed a special listening course with my team based on the work of Thomas Gordon.

  3. Let your team develop personally. People want to know why (besides a paycheck) they should come to work. Give opportunities for growth and development, because great employees want to become smarter and more productive in their careers. Discover the visions each of your employees has, and work to blaze a path for them.

  4. Boost confidence by giving tools and authority. Make people feel comfortable making decisions, as if they were the owner. Every time you give over authority, your employees grow stronger. Give people power to succeed and fail on their own so they learn and grow.

So now you know. The corporate culture is a competitive advantage that is completely in your control.

About Xavier van Leeuwe

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