Women in Business 2014 keynote speaker: Hollie Delaney, Zappos

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As “director of people experiences ,” Hollie Delaney said her role at e-commerce giant Zappos includes some key differences from most human resources professionals.

For one, Ms. Delaney is a driving force behind a corporate culture that has long drawn the intrigue of other firms. Zappos’ 1,500 employees regularly report high levels of job satisfaction, with retention rates of more than 85 percent over the past three-to-four years, she said.

[caption id="attachment_94202" align="alignleft" width="270"] Hollie Delaney[/caption]

Yet while Ms. Delaney has a direct role in promoting that culture within the Las Vegas-based company, her work is increasingly facing outward as business leaders around the world are looking to Zappos for help in fostering a similar approach.

“You take care of your employee, and they take care of your customer,” she said.

Ms. Delaney will discuss her role in maintaining and marketing the Zappos approach as keynote for the North Bay Business Journal’s annual Women in Business Awards on June 25.

Most recently, Ms. Delaney and Zappos have pursued a data-driven approach to analyzing its culture known as the “Z Project,” she said.

The effort is in its early phases, but has begun to show some correlations that support the idea that deep connections between employees support a positive work environment.

“We’re digging through the data to see what is valid, but the findings have been interesting,” she said.

Those findings are expected to enhance not only the approaches within the company, but also the formal four-day “boot camp” program available to other firms, “Zappos Insights,” she said. Participants in the Zappos Insights program have included HR professionals, CEOs, public and private sector employees from around the world.

Yet when asked to note some elements of the culture, which stems from a set of core values that have guided the company since its launch in 1999, Ms. Delaney said some are quite simple.

“Every job I ever came from, you knew exactly where the CEO is,” said Ms. Delaney. Yet at Zappos, she noted that CEO Tony Hsieh works alongside the rest of the company workforce. “With Tony, you can walk right up and talk to him.”

Some measures are a little more unusual – employees are offered $2,000 to quit in their first year, and larger amounts in subsequent years. The offer, now adopted for some employees at parent company Amazon, is based on the premise that those who lack desire to remain at the company do more harm than good.

Zappos is currently compressing its hierarchy of employees in a manner that assigns superiority based on individual projects. An employee with overall control on one project may not have that on another, for example.

“If you’re used to being higher up, you need to learn to release your authority and trust people,” Ms. Delaney said. “If you’re used to being told what to do, you need to learn to trust yourself.”

The approach reflects the kind of focus on the work environment that Ms. Delaney said has maintained the renewed career excitement she experienced when joining Zappos eight years ago. For up-and-coming professionals, she had some advice:

“What I’ve learned most in my career is – don’t be afraid to be yourself and take risks. You build your own glass ceilings,” she said. “You never know what’s going to catch on, one little idea that might change the world.”

Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009, and does not report the company’s sales separately in its public filings. Zappos, a web-based soft goods retailer with a reputation for customer service, had annual revenue of more than $635 million in 2008.


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