The Culture Blueprint

with Rob Richman from (Formerly) Zappos

About the host

  • Jacob Shriar
  • Growth Manager
  • Officevibe
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Passionate about company culture. On a mission to make work better.

About the interviewee

Video Summary

We talk with Rob Richman, author of The Culture Blueprint about what the true secret of employee engagement is.

Related resources

Video Transcript

Jacob Shriar: Hello everyone. I am Jacob Shriar, growth manager at Officevibe and today I am with Robert Richman, culture architect and author of “The Culture Blueprint.”

Robert, thanks so much for being here with me.

Robert Richman: Thanks for having me.

Jacob Shriar: Awesome. Really, so much to talk about, so much to learn about you. I think, correct me if I’m wrong, but you are probably most famous for having been really instrumental in the creation of Zappos Insights, which is obviously, very very famous company. Sort of division that split off, I guess, of Zappos. If you can, maybe before we start diving deep into the book and employee engagement and company culture, can you give us a bit of background on you and that whole story of how Zappos Insights came to be.

Robert Richman: Sure, sure. As everyone knew, created an amazing place to work, where people love to be there and outstanding customer service, and what I was doing was, I was working with the authors of a book called “Tribal Leadership.” It’s all about culture and how to upgrade culture and how to identify cultures and sub cultures, and I got the book to Tony. I sent it to him, I said, I think he would like this, and he loved it. He thought that it really codified what was going on at Zappos, and myself and the author went and talked all about “Tribal Leadership,” and went to some of their events, and Tony had a plan for Zappos Insights which was to take all that interest that was coming in from the culture, all those questions, tours, people who wanted to meet with them, it turned into a business Itself, because it was really overwhelming the company, but there was a lot of interest from businesses who wanted to learn.

So, when I got the idea, I was just absolutely in love with it because I love creating businesses around, information, learning, experiences. I just sent him all my best ideas for free, just that, here is how you got to do it, here is how you got to launch it, and I just really wanted to see them successful and Tony just responded with, “What’s your consulting rate?” because they, you know, it wasn’t their core competency to do this.

They were really focused on consumer goods. So, I came in as an consultant first to launch the Zappos Insights as a business, and at first, it was going to be a video site, a subscription video site. When we needed to get content for it, we threw an event with about 10 people, immersed them in Zappos culture, videotaped the whole thing, and then the plan was to just turn that video into a webpage that people would pay to see the videos of.

We asked them for feedback about how it was and they said, “The content was good, not amazing, but good” and I freaked out. I couldn’t believe it was only just good, not amazing, and they say, “Woah, woah, woah, Hold on. The experience of being here blew our minds” and they said that they knew lot of the information, but they really didn’t believe it was possible until they saw for themselves, got to experience the part of the culture.

Right then, I switched the whole business model into an experience based business model, where people came from anything, from a free tour to an upgraded tour to meetings with manager of Zappos, all the way up to our camp that we created, to spend essentially two days in immersed in the culture and we created a whole experience-driven set of business offerings for people to learn culture.

The Culture Blueprint

Jacob Shriar: Wow, what an incredible story. It’s so interesting, I find, how it got pivoted in a way from being a video site to becoming much more than that and now so much more, so successful, very cool. And you wrote a book, I am assuming it’s called “The Culture Blueprint” where you really showed, this is the blue print, this is what you need to do to have a good company, culture, let’s say.

Can you talk to us about a little about the book and why people should check it out?

Robert Richman: Yeah. The blueprint really came out of this idea of meeting with thousands of different groups and individuals and companies, seeing what their culture challenges were, understanding what the best companies did and how and why, and putting together a plan, starting from everything from vision and values, all the way through recruiting to training to delivering service, training leaders etc.

I just put the kitchen sink together into one book of how to do that. That’s said, it’s interesting because people I have seen have read it and they kind of get overwhelmed by there is so much to do and I said, “Look. Don’t try to do the whole thing. Just pick any one part.” And that’s why I really started focusing on how to hack culture because, it takes a lot of time and dedication to implement the whole blueprint. Even though people are excited about it, it takes a lot of time and effort, and what I realized through it was that, the best thing that anybody could do with culture is to shift [inaudible 00:04:43] gets a lot of energy because to carry out the blueprint, it requires a lot of energy at the team.

So, I started focusing on telling people, whether it’s to be a part of the blueprint or anything else, just do something to get a lot of energy going in the culture, and then with that, then you can start implementing more and more changes. It was kind of mix bag at first, because at first, people were just really overwhelmed by the book and how much there is in there, and then I realized, okay, It doesn’t have to be the whole blueprint. You can really start anywhere because culture is all about energy, culture is all about feeling and if you increase the energy in the culture, then that can be applied anywhere.

What Companies Get Wrong

Jacob Shriar: That’s so interesting. So many questions that I want to ask, I’m trying to think of which one to do first. You work with a lot of clients obviously and you have worked with a lot of clients through Zappos Insights and through your own thing, and you mentioned it here in your last answer, what companies get right, what companies get wrong.

I’d love if you could talk about some of those trends, some of those common themes, like what do you think are some of the core things that some of the best companies do, and what are the core things that some of the worst companies do, and some big mistakes to sort of watch out for.

Robert Richman: Great question. I think core is great word to use because it really does come down to simple concepts. The first being that, it all comes down to energy, in my opinion, it’s all feeling. Imagine, you are working with a team that is totally energized and pumped up, and if they’ve got that, they can take on the world, and you are going to have the best team, most qualified, best resumes etc., and if they are dead and completely burned out, what are you really going to do with them?

So, the first that I’d like to focus on is, what is that energy? That’s the first thing I look at when I walk into a culture is [inaudible 00:06:26], and by the way, one of the best energies I found is actually frustration. Frustration is excellent energy to work with, because frustration just means people really want things to be better and they are passionate about it and they really want to make it happen but they feel that they can’t do it. So, I actually love walking into teams that are angry, upset, frustrated, because there is just a ton of energy there that can be converted into something positive that works.

The first concept is really understanding what is the feeling? What is the energy? Where is it at? Let’s really be real about it. Let’s not try to gloss it over, let’s just understand where that’s at, and to understand also that culture at its core is co-created. Such a simple concept but you won’t believe how long it takes people to really get it, because with the clients I have, I have to constantly remind them of it, because what happens is, we are so used to try and do everything on our own, that companies try to do something like create that Chief Culture Officer or have the C.E.O. take care of everything but the culture, but the truth is, it’s something everybody is responsible for.

Anytime I see anybody working on something around the culture, by themselves or with a small group that is trying to control everything, I know it’s not going to work because if you are not involving everybody for at least the opt in to, they don’t have to, but they opt in to get involved, then even if you are doing something really well for them, they might not accept it because they weren’t part of it, and the analogy I use for that is to imagine a party.

I could throw the best party in the world and if you come to it, you might enjoy it but even if you enjoy it, you don’t feel like you have a sense of ownership, and so, if I said, “Hey, Jacob. We are going to throw a party. How about you take care of the food, I’ll take care of the band, we’ll somebody else to take care of music,” everybody is involved in creating it. Suddenly, you are really invested in that party, you are like, this is ours and we created it together, and it might not have much money and people as if you walked into a really well-created party, but you feel much more ownership.

This concept of co-creation is absolutely key because anytime you find yourself stressed about the culture, most likely because you are trying to figure it out on your own, and that’s where people really go wrong.

Is Company Culture A Buzzword

Jacob Shriar: Wow, that’s a great, great point. Super interesting. Wondering what your thoughts are on, do you think that, I’ll say company culture and employee engagement, are they slowly becoming buzz words? It’s a real concern that I have because there is so much focus and hype and cheer leading going on these days. I am wondering that’s a legitimate concern. What are your thoughts there?

Robert Richman: I think there is a lot of, I could call them misguided efforts, because there is very strong intentions, I mean whenever [inaudible 00:09:24], all they want is best for their employees, but it’s kind of like where the parent wants the best for their kids by trying to give them everything as opposed to the best thing that you can really do for your kids is to teach them how to create and provide for themselves and how to be independent and how to develop their sense of confidence, and it’s not always easy to watch.

When they are going to fail, they are going to have to figure things out, they are going to do all those things and sometimes when people focus just on happiness and engagement and trying to provide, all these benefits and things, it’s really great intention, but what I found is that, it can actually disempower if you are giving too much, you can spoil people, it can lead to entitlement and these types of things.

The real answer to engagement is giving people the chance to opt in, to whatever it is they truly want to do, because that’s how we really really respect their intelligence, their desire and this assumes that you’ve got right people on the team. If you’ve got wrong people on the team, we have got a whole different thing to discuss and figuring out who you got to get out of there. So, this all assumes that you have really done your homework in terms of recruiting, in terms of getting to know people, in terms of having people you really want to work with potentially for the rest of your life. If you’ve got that going on, then we can assume that they are very intelligent people who know what they are doing and who have the best interest of your company in mind.

The best thing you can do is really open it up for their passions, for their interests. What if they have a real interest in finance but that’s not their background, how can they get involved? Maybe they are able to contribute something interesting because they are passionate, and where companies really go wrong is they do the opposite of opt in. The opposite of opt in is mandates, making people do things, forcing change, telling them, “This is going to be really good for you,” and forcing them to do things. And it happens at every level, from their job descriptions to their tasks to anything. And the truth is, nobody likes to be told what to do, nobody.

We assume that we have an agreement, I assume that if I hand you over a task that you agree to do it. But often times in the back of our minds, we are saying, I never voted for that, I never agreed to that. We hold back our best efforts, unless we consciously agree and it becomes a whole different thing if I say to you, “Hey Jacob. Would you like to do this task on this new report?” and then I can see immediately from your reaction, if you are like, oh, yeah, awesome, I have been wanting to work on that. If you have a hesitant response, then that’s probably you are just doing it because I am the boss, and then we have the chance to discuss something.

What’s even better though is we empower people to say no, to say you have the opportunity to say no to me, because I only want you working on things that you are completely driven with, that you have energy for. Here is one of the best culture hacks anybody listening can do, where you can notice this in moment. Your whole culture is going to shift if you try this hack. This culture hack is to make your meetings completely optional, as in stress, like I used all caps, optional meeting. And C.U. shows up, because one of two things will happen.

One is, if you are afraid that people might not show up, they might not, which means your meeting is not relevant to their job or it’s not that interesting, and then that’s on you. Why didn’t you make that relevant to people’s work and why didn’t you make it into an interesting meeting invite that says, here is why I am meeting with you, here is what I want to get done, here is what we are going to do together. What oftentimes happens, especially if you have a great team, is that, instead the people who you thought will show up might not and people you think wouldn’t have any interest will show up, and then you will have one of the most energized meetings you’ve ever had because everybody really really wants to be there and discuss it.

The first time I did this, it was a six-hour meeting and it went by in an hour because everybody was so happy, engaged, talking about it. Even people who didn’t have their job description to anything to do with what we were talking about, still were there because they wanted to be there. So, that’s that simple hack. Open up those opportunities, make things optional, ask if people are interested, send out invitations that are enticing rather than required mandates and required tasks and required meetings, and notice how your culture can shift in a moment.

Culture Hacks

Jacob Shriar: That’s a really, really smart hack. Honestly, that’s very interesting. If you don’t mind, I would love to ask for some more hacks. It sounds like you are a treasure chest full of interesting culture hacks. Can you raffle off a few more, if that’s okay?

Robert Richman: Sure. Another hack is that destruction is more powerful than creation in terms of, I would say not more powerful but higher leverage. Leverage is the idea of how can we handle little input but maximum output. Very little effort but huge return on investment, on energy. It’s kind of like what we do for energy but with money, you want high return on your investment of money, this is the high return of investment of energy.

The thing is, creating something whether be a program, a product, anything, it takes a lot of time and energy. But destroying something that isn’t working takes very little energy and has a high output. Think of it like a skyscraper, it takes years to build a skyscraper, it takes a moment to destroy it. Really high leverage. This is what is called a reverse beta. A beta project is, why don’t we start something out and try it and see how it goes. A reverse beta is, why don’t we try destroying something that might not be working and see if anything really falls apart, and what happens is, you can usually find this through any kind of frustration that is happening on a team, often times it’s a bureaucracy, it’s a policy, it’s something that people really don’t like to deal with, and try destroying it and seeing what happens and I have seen a tremendous amount of energy come from it in weirdest of the places.

One company went back and they said, okay, what are people frustrated about? You know what, it was the dress code. It was, why do we have to wear slacks and button downs and all this every day when the clients aren’t even always here, and then one day they said, you know what, you guys just abolish that dress code, just destroy it and now you can wear jeans, and everybody just erupted with applause and energy, feeling like, oh my gosh, I can feel more myself, I can be myself.

It didn’t cost anything. All it was, was a sentence and elimination of something that didn’t work, and something that you can always bring back if you suddenly find that, oh gosh, this is terrible. A month later, just bring it back. So, this is one of the highest leverage hacks, destroy something that isn’t working.

Transparency And Communication

Jacob Shriar: I am hearing sort of a common theme, a recurring theme in a lot of what you are saying, and it seems to sort of always fall back to transparency, open communication, really sitting down, having an honest chat between the senior leaders and the employees, and just really being open, honest and frank about everything like meetings, dress codes, and things like this.

Am I correct in saying that? Is that really sort of the key here, the transparency and the open and honest communication?

Robert Richman: Absolutely. I tend to not to use those words just because they can be misused, just because you are honest doesn’t means you are not going to be a jerk. You can be really honest and be a jerk too and really disrupt the culture. I don’t think its pure honesty, pure transparency. It needs to be kind of in some kind of safer context and understand why, and that’s why I described the meeting as the way I do. If I just said to people, open up any meeting to everyone and anyone, then people suddenly get scared and they are like, oh my God! What might happen, it feels like chaos. But the way I described it is more of context of energies and about what people want.

I think often times transparency used alone, I think more refers to what people don’t want then what they do, like anytime I see just the policy of honesty. People usually bring up honesty because they are worried about deceit, about lies, about things like that. If higher people used the word trust in the culture, I know there is not trust there, because when you got a culture where there are a lot of trust, people just don’t use the word trust. No reason to use the word.

So, that’s why I don’t tend to like to focus on honesty and transparency and these kind of things, because it usually only comes up when there is a problem with it. Instead, I focus on what do you want that transparency for, what you want the honesty for and if we focus on why we want those things then it becomes much easier to use and we don’t even have to focus on the negative.

Jacob Shriar: That’s very smart. I am wondering though, is that really such a bad thing? Like, if I am being 100 percent honest and even if I am a jerk, is that a bad thing?

I am wondering but I don’t understand why you would assume that’s a bad thing but, is it really a bad thing? I am wondering, is it better to be nice all the time and there is a level of fakeness there. What are your thoughts there?

Robert Richman: It’s just that it really needs context. It needs to be applied toward something. Think about it, if I would focus only on honesty every moment, at every moment, then I could be, just mid conversation being like, I am really bored right now or I hate that shirt or man, this is really stupid or why are we talking about this?

I mean it can just be honesty just in a vacuum, it’s just like why, why are we doing this? Why are we using it? It can be misused and it could be, I just don’t like to use it because rarely do people want honesty just for the sake of honesty. Usually we want to have stronger relationships or to communicate better or to understand each other and let’s focus on what we actually want rather than the tool to get it.

Sweep Before You Mop

Jacob Shriar: Very smart. Honestly, can’t really argue with you there. I want to ask you about one thing. I was reading some of your content on your site yesterday and there was section in a P.D.F. that I saw, I think it was called “Sweep before you mop,” do you know what I am talking about? I am just going to let you explain, I don’t want to butcher it.

If you can, maybe just talk a bit about that and actually why that’s so important because I was reading and I was thinking to myself, that’s a very- – companies often make that mistake, and that’s a very very important point, if you can maybe break that down for us.

Robert Richman: I literally made that mistake when I was in college and I started cleaning up after a party, and I started mopping. One of the guys came in he is like, what are you doing? All these bits of things on the floor, you got to sweep it out before you mop the floor, and I was like, oh, wow, you are right, that would make things lot easier rather than messing up.

I think the idea behind this is that, is clearing out that debris before you really do anything new and shiny, like don’t try to shine something without first focusing on what’s not serving you there. I really like to start by focusing on the negative, focus on frustrations, focus on what’s not working, focus on getting obstacles out of the way, and the analogy I have been using beyond that is, this idea of the David, that huge statue by Michelangelo, and how he said we created it was by chipping off the parts of the concrete that were not the David and that it just emerged.

And I think it’s a really powerful concept that, there is a million different things that we can do that are new to try. Try this program, try this book, try this fad, try this software. There are so many shiny new objects that are out there but the highest leverage, I am all about leverage, because I think we all love it. Low energy, high output, is to clear out things that are not working and that takes some real facing the truth. To face what is it that’s not really working here, can we be honest about it? Can we be actually promote it? When I go into groups, I even did this at Google headquarters in Europe and I said, we are going to go negative, and I keep encouraging them like, more negative, more, more, more, because when you got to start performing team, you don’t really want to go negative a lot.

Sometimes it can really be, especially nice people don’t like to be negative. But we need to, because its there, we don’t sweep it out, it’s still going to be there and be a mess. I would like to encourage, roll up your sleeves, let’s get in this and talk about what’s really frustrating.


Jacob Shriar: Wow, very cool. Very smart. My last question for you, I am not sure how you are still in touch with people in Zappos but of course they are in the middle or just about ending, their switch to halocracy. Do you have any idea how that’s going? Are you a fan of halocracy? Any thoughts there?

Robert Richman: I have a lot, I could seriously talk for hours on it. I did a very deep. Took the training, researched all practices that it created from, I have gone very deep into it. I think that, what I can say simply about it is, I think there is a reason why you are seeing companies like Zappos, Median, these small startups.

Zappos is the only one above about 200-300 people using it. I personally believe the reason that can happen, is because it set up a foundation of values, and to run the culture on those values first, because any system that’s going to run accompany with a governance model is bringing it’s own values to it as well, and what I believe personally is that, a company needs to know who they really are first and what they stand for before bringing in a whole governance operating system like Halocracy.

It’s a step by step. I think that if a company larger than that small, like a tribe size of a few hundred were to implement it without a strong values backbone, the system could be manipulated. It could be, its such a system of different protocols and techniques to run meanings and initiatives, that if you don’t have a really strong values-based people in there, they can manipulate that, and so I think it’s just really important that a company focuses on first things first. That vision, those values, getting the right people on board, all those things I think are required before implementing any type of system that is going to run the company like Halocracy.

The other thing I would say is that, whether be Halocracy or any other kind of system, again it goes back to that principle of co-creation. People really need to have a high amount of input to, and I would first address, any company thinking about using it, just first ask the larger question. Halocracy is a tool, same way I was talking about honesty, so why do we want it? What’s that deeper why and lets’ get into that. You might say, how do we become the most agile company in the world, and ask that question first rather than having a tool that you are going to push in there. It’s for the company to ask those deeper questions, why do you want it? How can we accomplish that? How can we do that now? And then take a look at it.

And then when you take a look at it, really have people involved in taking a look in it and making it their own, and making sure that it adapts to your company and so it works well. When the company is that worked really well, they just published an article on it. It’s Undercurrent. What they did was, they took on halocracy for six months and then they stopped using it for three months to notice the difference, they were actually going to throw the whole thing away and then they said, wait a minute, we have run better on that.

That’s some of those things that you got to be really brave to try out. Let’s say we are going to try it and dedicate ourselves for six months, then not use it for three months and see what the differences are, and then adjust. It takes a lot, it’s highly disruptive. So, any process like that, going to be highly disruptive of your culture. So, I would make sure that you have very strong culture because it’s going to have to handle a lot of disruption for any type of new system like that.

Jacob Shriar: Wise words of advice for sure. I think we will end it here, but honestly, Robert, just want to thank you so much, this was so interesting. You obviously are a very, very smart guy and you know a lot about this subject.

Seriously, I want to thank you again and hopefully, we can do this again sometimes.

Robert Richman: My pleasure. Thanks so much Jacob, it’s great to be here with you.

Jacob Shriar: All right, great. Take care.

Robert Richman: Thanks, bye.

I’m a manager,
I want to improve my TEAM

Simplify direct reports and communication, and boost team morale.

How it Works

I’m an HR leader,
I want to improve my WORKPLACE

Empower your managers and align all teams for a better company culture.

How it Works