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A Cultural Revolution

A Cultural Revolution by James La Barrie | Blue Skies Magazine |
James’ own Beyond Marketing core values.
Written by James La Barrie
Originally printed in issue #55 (June/July 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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They say it is easier to be accepted to Harvard University than it is to be hired at the call center. In 2012, the online shoe (and now apparel) megastore eclipsed $2 billion in sales. I’ll say that again … two billion! This year, Fortune ranked Zappos #38 of the 100 best companies to work for in the United States. What is it that makes this company tick? CULTURE.

James and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh at Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas.

James and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh at Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas.

In 2013, I visited Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas for an intensive three-day study program to learn about the ins and outs of this extraordinary business that morphed from a seemingly normal company into one of the happiest places I’ve ever visited. Roaming the halls of Zappos feels like walking through a hangar during a boogie where multiple planes are constantly turning with no shutdowns. The energy is palpable, everyone is positive and it certainly doesn’t feel like any workplace I’d ever visited.

Just becoming a call-center rep feels like a privilege. The level of vetting to suss out the right candidate is extensive. Prior work experience and an impressive resumé come in a distant second to personality. Zappos is so focused on maintaining its positive culture that it recognizes the danger of bringing in a highly skilled candidate with a poor attitude. One bad apple could truly spoil the bunch and this is why the company goes through great pains to only bring in the best apples. Urgent positions within the company may sit empty for six months until the right candidate is located who will add, and not detract, from the culture. The leadership recognizes that anyone with the right attitude can be trained.

Zappos’ HR department members are literal gatekeepers, carefully selecting who they let in the inner circle.

Here’s where it gets crazy. Once a new hire is selected, he or she attends a four-week training program. At the end of the first week, the new employee will be offered$2,000 to quit. At the end of the second week, a $3,000 offer is made. Zappos wants to weed out anyone who may doubt that the culture is a right fit for them. They certainly don’t want anyone to stay because of money. Zappos offers compensation to quit to supplement income while the individual seeks another job. Only 2 percent of the company’s new hires ever accept the buyout. To say Zappos is zealous about their culture is an understatement.

Think for a moment: What emphasis do drop zones place on the personalities of tandem instructors? Some are more discerning than others, but oftentimes if the season is about to start and a DZ is short staffed, almost any warm body will do. For many, the interview process is: “Do you have at least 500 jumps, are you Vector- or Strong-rated and have you killed anyone?” Check, check, check … “OK, you’re hired!”

Think for a moment: What emphasis do drop zones place on the personalities of tandem instructors?

Of course, we wonder why things become so caustic for many DZ staffs. It only takes one negative attitude to change the happiness quotient within the community. Rather than enjoying a season, many can’t wait for it to end.

So where does culture begin? There must be a baseline or a foundation that is at the heart of what the organization stands for. Everyone knows a skydive center offers skydiving, but what is the moral compass that everyone at a DZ can live by? This is not unlike the Constitution that serves as the foundation for legal decisions within the United States. For Zappos, it’s their core values. When Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh decided that they needed a foundation, he asked his employees to dream. Hsieh asked, “What are the important things that you’d like to have in your workplace?” The response resulted in more than 1,400 suggestions that were whittled down to the following 10 Core Values:

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

These 10 core values are found EVERYWHERE around the Zappos campus, from the stairwells to the security badges that everyone wears. It’s the living, breathing foundation for the company and is the basis for every question that comes up. Every hiring and firing decision is made based on these values. The company has an identity and these 10 core values are its DNA.

To the DZ owners and managers who may be reading this, what is important to you?

When you started the venture of becoming a DZ owner, you undoubtedly had passion in your belly to start something and make it great. Are you as enthusiastic now as you once were? Is the community behind your values and dreams or have you even expressed them? As a consultant, I challenge my clients to identify their values as well as the values of the staff.

PD New Beginning

A typical skydiving season is rigorous, even if it’s just six months. Each weekend day averages between 12 and 14 hours, the temperatures are extremely high and emotions get higher. Can a DZ afford not to carefully vet its workers (who represent you to the customer) and also hold to a set of values that everyone buys into? This industry leads to rapid burnout even if starting out with the most passionate people. So what can you do and where do you start?

Tips for Developing a Better DZ Culture

1. Establish Core Values.
I’ve had many a DZ employee look at me as if I had three heads and wonder if I realize I’m working in the skydiving industry. My response is, “Are you tired of the drama?” Furthermore, every DZ from a Cessna to a multi turbine is a serious, high-dollar operation that offers the greatest adventure life has to offer. Why do we consider ourselves to be different from an actual high-level organization? Why shouldn’t the internal culture match the service we offer?

2. Become a Gatekeeper.
Hire with extreme caution and carefully consider how a new hire will impact your culture. Create interview questions. Some questions I recommend:

  • What are some of the greatest moments in your life?
  • Who is your hero? Why?
  • If you could accomplish anything, what would it be?
  • What makes you happiest?
  • Who or what inspires you?
  • What motivates you to do more?

A lot of insight can be gained from these answers.

3. Make Hard Decisions.
Creating core values sounds easy, but times will get tough before they get better. DZ management will have to cut people who don’t align with the newly established values of the company. Instructors who just “throw drogues” or “huck meat” have lost sight of what we’re doing and won’t contribute to a positive culture without a change in attitude. We must recognize that all instructors and DZ personnel are part of something far greater—making someone’s day. A day that our guests will never forget. How many occupations get to say that? We must ensure that we do nothing to detract from someone’s experience whether it be with our appearance, language or actions.

4. Communicate and Over-Communicate
One of the largest downfalls for many drop zones is lack of communication. This holds true for most businesses in general. Because things get so busy, the emphasis for regular meetings is lost. The key to these meetings is not just for the leader to speak to the people, but also to host a safe environment where staff can voice their concerns as well. As a general rule, people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They wish to have a voice as well as tobe heard. If people feel like cogs in a busy wheel, they will burn out and feel under-appreciated.

5. Own It.
Don’t establish core values unless the ownership—the highest person in the organization—has complete buy-in. This initiative must start from the top and if it can’t, it will be a complete waste of time. All-in, or not in at all.

6. Work It.
A culture has to be nurtured. Think of the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks and the culture established by the easygoing nature of their coach, Pete Carroll. Carroll is never too high or too low. His demeanor is always positive. He praises publicly and punishes privately. It’s all for the greater good to win a championship at the end of the season. DZ management must be like a coach lifting its people up when down and pushing them when exhausted. However, what’s the end goal for each season within a DZ? Is it shared and does everyone have buy-in to reach those goals, or is it just hopes to get through a season?

A Cultural Revolution by James La Barrie | Blue Skies Magazine |

James’ own Beyond Marketing core values.

I’m a dreamer. We spend so much of our lives at work. Shouldn’t it be more fulfilling? Shouldn’t we want more? Is working at a great place with a rewarding and positive culture unattainable?

I know it’s possible. As skydivers, we’re wired differently. We’re passionate about life and about pushing beyond the limits of the status quo. I believe skydiving should lead the adventure sports community in organizational culture and be the example that our businesses are as great as the activity we offer. We just have to take the steps to begin nurturing the cultures that we have been dreaming about.

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