n the past few weeks, I was in the United States visiting companies that operate with an innovative organizational model. One of the companies I visited was a co-op called REI, Recreational Equipment Inc. Founded in 1938 by 23 mountain climbers, REI specializes in selling clothing and equipment for nature sports. The chain has 123 stores in 30 US states; in 2011 it had sales of 1.8 billion dollars, 11 thousand employees and was the 8th company on the list of Fortune magazine’s “Best Companies to Work for” in 2012.
The interesting thing is that it manages to do all this being a cooperative of members. In other words, anyone who is interested (customers, employees, suppliers) can become an “owner” of REI for 20 dollars. Each March, the active members receive dividends (typically 10% of their purchases at the chain). Obviously, I became a member, and received a pamphlet explaining my rights and duties. Right at the beginning of the pamphlet, there is a headline that says “the Co-op difference” and introduces the following text: “being a co-op means that we can run our business differently. We answer to you, not to shareholders or a quarterly bottom line. So we can take the long view and focus on bringing people to outdoor sports and helping to preserve nature.” The energy that I felt in the store, from employees and customers, was that of a great community, with everyone focused on the same objective.
I also visited Zappos in Las Vegas, an internet shoe selling company, which was purchased by Amazon in November 2009 for 1.2 billion dollars. They have more than 6,000 people and are the 11th largest company in Fortune magazine’s “Best Companies to Work for” in 2012. In spite of the acquisition, the businesses are kept separate, since Amazon knows that the unique culture of Zappos is what makes the difference.
At the company’s site, we found the following phrase: “We’ve been asked by a lot of people how we’ve grown so quickly, and the answer is actually really simple. We’ve aligned the entire organization around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible. Internally, we call this our WOW philosophy.” They define their values as “Key values of the Zappos Family,” and it includes some like “Deliver WOW through service,” “Create fun and a little weirdness” and “Be adventurous, creative and open-minded.”
It is interesting to note how in both cases, in spite of them being companies with very different business models, an engaging purpose, a community environment and a close relationship with the customer are critical and lead to cooperative, constructive and trusting work environments. And a positive and trusting environment reduces anxiety and thus the number of political games at the organization (meaning time and value thieves).
Some companies manage to create a virtuous cycle: a better climate and greater collaboration among the “employees,” which results in fewer political games and brings a greater connection to the customer, reinforcing the pride of belonging of the collaborators, and so on. How can this same effect be achieved at your organization? Maybe the examples of REI and Zappos can bring some inspiration. The organizations that are able to do this will, without a doubt, prosper in a world in which people are becoming more and more influential, and want to have a voice and find meaning...