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Zappos CEO: Training, Mentorship At The Core Of Our Employee 'Pipeline Strategy'

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Many corporations like to say that their people are their most important asset. There are a few problems with that approach. First, as soon as someone leaves, you've lost an asset. Second, if the company grows, then there may come a time later down the line when the company outgrows an employee because the employee still has the same skill set that he had when he first joined. When that happens, usually the solution in a lot of other companies is to bring in a more experienced employee from outside the company, which presents a third challenge: That new employee often may not be a culture fit.

Our philosophy at Zappos is different. Rather than focusing on individuals as assets, we instead focus on building as our asset a pipeline of people in every single department with varying levels of skills and experience, ranging from entry level all the way up through senior management and leadership positions. Our vision is for almost all of our hires to be entry level, but for the company to provide all the training and mentorship necessary so that any employee has the opportunity to become a senior leader within the company within five to seven years.

For us, this is still a work in progress, but we're really excited about its future. Without continually growing and learning both personally and professionally, it's unlikely that any individual employee will still be with the company ten years from now. Our goal at Zappos is for our employees to think of their work not as a job or career, but as a calling.

Our pipeline strategy started when we first moved to Vegas in 2004. Even though Vegas was great for hiring for our call center, we found it challenging to convince merchandisers and buyers who had years of industry experience to move from places such as Los Angeles or New York to Las Vegas. So we decided to start training and growing our own merchants from the ground up. Today, nearly all of the hires for our merchandising department are for entry-level merchandising assistants. We have a three-year merchant development program where merchandising assistants are trained, certified, and given increasing portfolio responsibilities as well as put into management and leadership roles.

At the entry level, all we really care about is if they are passionate about the category of product their team is responsible for. For our couture team, we hire people who love reading fashion magazines. For our running team, we hire marathoners. For our outdoors team, we hire people who regularly go hiking and camping on weekends.

Over a three-year period, merchandising assistants are promoted to assistant buyers and then to buyers. (After three years, they can go on to become senior buyers, directors, and eventually VPs.) Our pipeline philosophy has been incredibly successful within our merchandising department, and we've spent the past year working on rolling out similar programs for all of our departments.

There are specific training programs that are unique to each department, but we also have a Pipeline Team that offers courses for all departments. Many of the courses are required in order for an employee to be promoted to certain levels within the company, regardless of which department he or she may be in.

A Sampling of Courses Offered by the Pipeline Team:

  • Four-week new hire training (including answering phones)
  • Zappos History
  • Zappos Culture
  • Science of Happiness 101
  • Tribal Leadership
  • 1-week Kentucky Boot Camp
  • Public Speaking
  • Delivering Happiness
  • Intermediate-Level Competency with Microsoft Office

Once our pipeline is filled for every department, then anytime a single individual leaves the company, there will always be someone right in front of him and someone right behind him in the pipeline to take over his responsibilities. In this way, the pipeline becomes the true asset of the company, not any single individual.

Over the longer term, we are also planning on extending the pipeline concept up to four years before an entry-level employee joins Zappos. If our recruiting team can start building relationships with college students when they first start as freshmen, and offer summer internship positions at Zappos during their time in school, then by the time they graduate from college, both sides will have a pretty good idea of whether Zappos is the right fit for the student.

Once our entire eleven-year pipeline is built (from four years prior to joining Zappos all the way through seven years after joining Zappos), we'll have a substantial long-term competitive advantage over everyone else. Combined with our ongoing efforts to grow our brand and our culture, we believe that our BCP (Brand, Culture, Pipeline) strategy will provide the platform necessary for Zappos to be a long-term enduring and growing business.