Tony Hsieh, a leader grounded in ethics and collaboration

We in America are living in a nation where – I believe – there is generally a vacuum of leadership at companies, organizations and governments … of all levels, shapes and sizes.

I wrote about Sir Richard Branson the other day, an authentic leader in the world who has made profound differences. Today, I write about Tony Hsieh.

tony-hsiehHsieh earned money while at Harvard by selling pizzas. Then he got an idea for an online advertising company, and he eventually sold the company to Microsoft for millions. In 1999, he revolutionized how shoes are sold, using the Internet. The company is called Zappos, a derivation of the word zapatos, which is Spanish for shoes.

Part of the reason for Zappos’ meteoric success is that it got the economics and operations right. The company offers customers a huge selection of inventory — four million pairs of shoes and many other items. More than that, Zappos delivers an unheard-of high level of customer satisfaction and has brought Hsieh phenomenally positive visibility as a CEO who keeps his promises to customers and his employees.

I interviewed Tony for my book, Making News in the Digital Era, and here are some of the things he told me …

I asked him to name the three most important elements of business in the digital age, he responded, “I would boil it down to just one thing: Embrace transparency.”

“With the digital revolution,” Hsieh said, “all companies are becoming more transparent, whether they like it or not. The ones that choose to embrace transparency will be the ones that gain more trust with their employees and customers, and those are the ones that are much more likely to be successful in the long term.”

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Aside from his being a smart visionary with a keen sense for the online environment, I asked what made him see the importance of connecting with audiences through social media.

“At Zappos, our number one priority is our company culture,” says Hsieh. “Our belief is that if we get the culture right, most of the other stuff, like delivery, great customer service and building a long-term enduring brand, will happen naturally, on its own.”

“I don’t think the Zappos culture can be or should be cloned, but I do think the idea of being transparent and running a business based on core values and a meaningful vision that’s not just about money and profits can work for any organization. It doesn’t really matter what the core values are, as long as the entire organization commits to those core values. The most important thing in any large organization is alignment [around values and vision].”

His company’s 10 core values are short, direct and posted online, naturally, for everyone to see. The core values deliver power through simplicity and clarity:

  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.

Then the CEO of the world’s largest online shoe store turned the reality of the entire concept of public relations upside down. He clearly is not a proponent of how most PR is practiced:

“PR used to be about who you say you are. I think today it’s much more important to focus on who you are rather than who you say you are, and that really just comes down to whether every employee is committing to and living the core values of the organization.”

When you think about it in the reality of today’s online digital environment, Hsieh’s insight is almost like holding a mirror up to the traditional public relations business as it’s been known for decades, and seeing nothing but a vanishing ghost of things past.

Times have changed. The world has changed. Styles have changed. The Internet came along and matured as the world’s most powerful of communications. Then, social media enhanced the Internet’s power. As the Internet’s influence has grown, so too has a need for enhanced clarity, openness, credibility and collaboration.

The whole manner by which we communicate, share and exchange news, ideas and information has been altered. We build trust when we connect in terms that are timely and relevant. But we must earn trust too. We must listen, join conversations and be mindful of protocols.