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Taavo Godtfredsen


Executive Producer

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Culture change at Zappos and the power of a mantra


Although the spotlight shone on American retailer Zappos when it announced that it was demolishing its traditional leadership structure in favour of a holacracy (flat, without bosses), it wasn’t the first to make this change. Some have been doing it since day one.

More than half a century ago, Bill Gore decided that he’d had enough of bureaucracy and arranged his business in a lattice structure. W.L. Gore has now grown to more than 10,000 employees (approximately 90% of whom are ‘associates’, 10% ‘leaders’) and has created a string of innovations, the most famous of which is Gore-Tex, a waterproof/breathable fabric membrane.

At W.L. Gore, you only become a leader if you can attract followers. As Terri Kelly, the firm’s CEO, shared with me, “If you look behind you and there isn’t anyone willing to follow you, then you’re probably not a leader”. This has fostered an entrepreneurial culture where the natural leadership rises to the top and ‘associates’ are empowered to create and work on projects which play to their strengths.

Culture change

You’d be right to think ‘this is just the same as Zappos, then’, but there is one crucial difference: W.L. Gore had this structure in place when it left the runway, hiring people who could thrive in that structure, while the Zappos crew will be attempting to change the engine mid-flight. The big question is: how will Zappos’ existing culture translate to this one? Can the employees adapt? 

But CEO Tony Hsieh isn’t your average retail figurehead: he encourages employees to ring cow bells in warehouses and recently had a spat with opinionated rapper Kanye West. He is an extremely visible leader, both within and outside his organisation, and is not afraid to go against the grain.

Deciding to do things your own way and making a success of changes can be the key to survival, both in business terms and in the wider world. To make the case for this new structure to his employees, Tony Hsieh cited the famous Charles Darwin quote: “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”.

So that’s the tipping point: when an organisation changes its structure, the system will only work if its employees change their behaviour and adapt a new mindset. So what’s the best way to encourage them to embrace a new system?

  1. Help employees understand the ‘why’ behind the change. Eliminate confusion and make sure any myths are debunked.
  2. Get them excited about the impact of the change. How it will be better for customers? How can it support their professional growth? Maybe this is a trail blazing system that will benefit many other organisations?
  3. Empower Role Models: people at the head of the organisation must be going through the change themselves. Zappos can achieve this by setting up a mentoring system – 10% of the workforce has already worked in a holacracy on a trial basis, meaning the organisation has a ready-made batch of mentors. 

Of course, nobody at Zappos signed up to work within this kind of structure, and it clearly won’t be right for everyone. It is only natural that some will choose to leave – process-driven people, for example, might not feel happy working in this ‘open market’. Entrepreneurial types, on the other hand, will start rubbing their hands.

Leverage the power of a mantra

Putting a mantra in place would be a useful device for Zappos to use in its structural change. Hsieh could get great leverage from something that communicates a strong message in a powerful, succinct way. So where could he look for inspiration?

Having worked directly with many CEOs, it is uncanny how many leverage a mantra or a motto to facilitate change. For example, the former CEO of JD Group, Grattan Kirk, revealed to me how he urged employees to ‘be the best me I can be, then we can be the best JD that we can be’. A simple and sticky message that challenged employees to grow themselves so they can grow the business. 

Zappos would do well to inject this type of slogan-led approach with something a little more on-message. So, my advice to Mr. Hsieh to help him realise the change he seeks, go with the following mantra: Decide and Act. This gets to the heart of holacracy, creating a legion of decision-makers and doers. A mantra’s literal translation is an “instrument of thought”, it is a word or phrase when repeated, can truly change behaviour. My personal mantra is “body first, mind second”. This simple phrase keeps me on track to exercise regularly and eat healthy.  

What is your personal mantra? What is a mantra you can create for your team? Your organisation? It will focus your behaviour and thinking on what matters most.

7 Responses

  1. Photo

    Great photo – jealous!

    You should check out Seth Lakeman if you haven't – I like him a lot, more mainstreamy folk but VERY catchy songs, like what we've been discussing.

  2. Surface and Deep structure

    Indeed, your expectations may indeed determine your experience.  Most experiences are entirely subjective and that makes the whole area of leadership, music and many other things highly unpredictable.  

    p.s. My friend was at the Folk Awards last night – pity I wasn't although folk is not generally my bag either.  But it would have been nice to meet Suzanne Vega, Mark Radcliffe and Bob Harris … 


  3. Response

    Thanks Peter – I've submitted the editing problem to our tech team for them to look into.

    Interesting, the relationship with business.

    Although your comment about the music having less obvious hooks got me thinking about a talk I saw recently from Matthew Syed, journalist with The Times and ex-British table tennis champion, who said that experts see complexity in systems that amateurs do not. So when people listen to a piece of music and think 'wow that was mind blowing' the writers simply sees a complex, compelling structure that they've purposefully put together, using tricks and knowledge of what stirs emotion. The same thing for writers e.g. a writer knows that putting powerful words at the end of a sentence tends to convey more clout.

    I was watching the folk awards last night with my girlfriend and on a couple of songs we just said 'this is doing nothing for us,' and looking back now I think it's because I had no knowledge of structure and thus I had no expectations. I really like the folk singer Steve Knightley and part of the reason is because he signposts the chorus so well and I can get excited about looking forward to it.

    Let me know when your blog post is up, I'd be interested in reading it.

  4. Typos

    Apologies for typos btw – should read "A successful pop song" and "Prog Rock".

    I don't seem to be able to edit comments.


  5. Hooked?

    I think it's a little more complex than that.  On the yes side of the argument, pop music particularly relies on riffs and lyrical hooks.  Play the first bars of Sex on Fire, I Gotta Feeling, Stairway to Heaven, The Cheeky Girls, Purple Rain, Bohemian Rhapsody, Beethoven's 5th, Smoke on the Water and so on and everyone knows the song.

    But other genres have less obvious hooks – prog, rock, classical, jazz etc.  Instrumental music is an interesting exception as it does not have such obvious hooks.

    In the same way, some businesses need obvious 'in your face' hooks and others would reject them.  Having worked for the Open University, I'm pretty sure they would have rioted if the boss invented "Simply The Best" as a catchphrase.

    It all depends in both cases, whether you want to be "popular" or "interesting".

    Excellent question / challenge Jamie.  You set me thinking about a blog post.



  6. All music?

    Hi Peter

    Couldn't you say that all music relies on a hook line? The more and more music I listen to, the more I think that in order for music to spread it needs to be memorable and simple. The content, and the message, and the genre comes second. People need to remember that one line, that one riff etc. If they can't hear it once and have a 'sound bite' in their head to identify the song, it's much less likely to spread.

  7. Mantras, Maxims and Cliche

    The real problem with mantras is "when does a mantra become a cliche?"  Of course, there's no sensible answer to this.  It's highly dependent on who said it, the timing, the mood of recipients and so on.

    That said, we can lots from the world of music about mantras.  I successful pop song relies on a great hook line that we cannot get out of our heads.  For more on this, see 

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Taavo Godtfredsen

Executive Producer

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