Are Zappos CEO’s Good Intentions Enough?

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, is someone I have come to admire, particularly after I read that he was offering new employees a bonus to quit, if after training they felt that Zappos was not the right company for them. He is truly an “out of the box” thinker, which is sorely needed in today’s business environment.

It’s been a little more than a year since he announced that he is moving to a “holacracy.” No one in the general public seems to know exactly what that is, and Hsieh says he doesn’t care as long as his employees do. The problem is that it’s becoming apparent that his employees don’t either, based on his recent remarks: “Get behind our ‘no bosses’ approach, or leave with severance.”

While I don’t believe in a “do it or else” approach, I will leave that point aside for now and focus on holacracy. The idea behind holacracy is no bosses. What employee would not like having no boss? It has been my belief for some time now that the words “boss” and “manager” will disappear in the next decade or so and be replaced by “coach” or some acceptable replacement. It just won’t work to turn over the operation to individuals alone. Someone with experience needs to guide employees in avoiding disastrous decisions and help them think through any unintended consequences of their actions on the behavior of the customer and employees in other departments. In other words, organizations need a coach.

The model I have of this future business coach is similar to a golf coach. A golfers hire a golf coach to improve their game. This coach has one job: help the golfer perform better. If the coach fails to help the golfer improve, another coach is found. The coach obviously needs to know the game, just as a business coach (i.e., supervisor or manager) needs to know the business. The business coach, of course, needs to know how to shape the behavior of the individual/team to increase organizational value. Former leaders become coaches to the coaches. Their job mission is to help the coaches be successful. The job measures are easy: number of coaches or teams that are successful.

While this may seem simple, not all current supervisors and managers will be able to fill these new roles. The primary characteristic should be to find people who find delight in the success of others. They should know how to gradually shape behavior of individuals and groups. They will need to know how to foster and increase creativity and innovation. They will need patience in that efforts to change may initially fail.

This needs to be done while attending to the needs of the organization and to customers. Zappos will need many of these types of coaches. I am sure Hsieh has plenty of candidates in his current pool of employees, but they must be skilled in understanding the science of human behavior.

Hsieh is innovative, there is no doubt, and I like the things he is doing, but he would be better advised to know the laws of behavior so as to be more confident that his new and bold initiatives will accomplish what he intended. Because he is paving the way rather than traveling the road most traveled, he has few or no models to guide him. The science of behavior, specifically behavior analysis, will provide a proven way to test the details before the commitments are made. The fact that he had to ask people to leave tells me that it is not working as he had hoped.

Employees should be happy about the elimination of bosses. Coach employees to fix it instead.  That way they will own it and make it work.

You may also be interested in reading, “5 Tips for Improving Your Effectiveness as a Coach.”