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Tiffany Chang conductor 


Here are some of my favorite posts:

What's your mission? - I examined mission statements from 71 U.S. orchestras

Empathy in relationships - we know empathy is hard, and we should also know what it is not

Why don't we talk about it? - how organizations may encourage performers to be advocates

Note: New and existing posts will be hosted at

Below you'll only find archived posts from before June 24, 2021.


We're in the business of... people

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 13 May, 2021 at 8:30

I want to tell you about Zappos, the online retail company well-known for its obsession with providing the best customer service. The record for the longest customer service call is currently at 10 hours and 43 minutes! Of course, that employee's goal was not to beat the previous record (because he would've stopped at 9 hours 38 minutes--one minute beyond the previous record). Instead, he was living out one of Zappos' core values of "delivering WOW through service." His exceptional service created a meaningful relationship with the customer that allowed the real person on the other end to feel truly seen and heard. And this was directly serving the company's ultimate vision of "delivering happiness."


It's actually interesting to track the evolution of Zappos' vision, because it didn't start out nor stop with customer service. 


Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh explained that at first the vision in 1999 was the largest selection of shoes. In 2003, it became providing the best customer service and in 2005, to use culture and core values as their platform because that was where the great customer service really came from. Then in 2007 they focused on developing a personal emotional connection as a way to define their unique customer service. And finally in 2009, they took a step back and said this is all about delivering happiness to people -- customers, employees, and partners alike.


There is a lot to take away from this transformation, but I want to highlight two key aspects of this journey that are worth considering for musicians. One this week, and another next week.


The shift I want to talk about today is the one in 2005 - from a focus on customer service to "using culture and core values as a platform."


Work culture is generated through people, their collective shared values and behaviors. We can usually identify our company's core values by asking "what do we stand for?" or "what are we like?" or "what does the company mean to you?" Some of Zappos' core values include: deliver WOW through service, create fun and a little weirdness, pursue growth and learning, and be humble. 


When its employees live out these core values, amazing customer service simply was a natural byproduct - a result rather than the vision or goal itself. When Zappos realized this and graduated their vision from customer service to focus on core values, it not only reaped the benefit of continued top-notch customer service, but it also strengthened its responsibility to employees by nurturing them as people and building community (foreshadowing its later final shift to something bigger--delivering happiness). This shift takes the spotlight away from the customer and onto the people who serve the customers. It allowed Zappos to live by Jim Collin's notion of getting the "right people on the bus," thus creating a high-performing team to achieve the company goals and purpose. 


Here are some ways the company curated its culture and nurtured its employees:


      • They interview cautiously for culture fit and alignment of values - not just for skills. For example, they ask the shuttle bus driver afterwards how they were treated by the interviewees. And they actually ask the question, "How weird are you?"

      • They give new hires a $3K incentive to quit after their initial training if it's not the right fit. This encourages the new hires to carefully consider whether they indeed are in the right place.

      • Performance reviews are 50% based on core values - as Hsieh puts it, "whether you’re living and inspiring the Zappos culture in others."

      • They also empower employees to celebrate the core values in their colleagues. Once a month, each employee is given $50 to reward as a bonus to a fellow coworker.


Zappos emphasizes committable values, ones that they're willing to hire or fire over. This creates a workplace where everyone feels camaraderie, personal accountability, belonging, and pride.


Orchestras are responsible for...


How many times have you heard that an orchestra is responsible for serving its audiences? Probably a lot. How often do you hear that an orchestra is responsible for serving its musicians? Probably never.


I think we can learn a lot from companies like Zappos who serve their customers by taking care of their employees, who are the ones really serving the customers. When we neglect the well-being of employees, we actually sabotage how effective we could be at serving our customers.


When we hire musicians, we focus on mostly observable, measurable skills. While artistic skills are crucial, it doesn't have to be 100% of the evaluation process. We don't consider if the musician would be a good culture fit, or the equally-powerful culture contribution (where their differing culture adds what's missing in the existing one). We don't consider if the musician would subscribe to and live the values of the organization. We don't know if the musician would find meaning in the organization's purpose. What would they bring to the organization and the customers besides the artistic skills?


When people are not good fits, they will not be entirely happy and the other people will be affected too. The culture suffers, and levels of trust, happiness, belonging drop--ultimately jeopardizing the artistic product for the customer. 



On a skills-based approach


Here's an interesting thought: with an entirely skills-based approach, we can clearly justify our decisions. We find comfort and safety in knowing that we relied on hard rules, metrics, and boundaries to hire those with the best artistic abilities, to hit revenue targets, and to top the charts. And when problems with culture arise, we feel safe to fall back on "but they were the best players." So we are used to building culture or solving culture problems using these tangible metrics - thinking that better skills, better pay, being number one will equal better culture. 


But culture, belonging, trust, and happiness are feelings. And at the center of feelings are human beings - not numbers. 


Metrics actually offer a false sense of security that limits us. It's where we go to hide when things go wrong. It blinds us to our problems and potential solutions.


Sure, we want the outcomes of artistic excellence, appropriate compensation, wide audience engagement, and high standing in the industry. But they don't exist in a vacuum. What we are really dealing with are people who hold these values and people who are driven by these goals. We can reframe our focus to serving these people by cultivating a meaningful connection between their skills and their values and goals. Here are some thoughts:


      • Instead of only seeking to hire all the best talent, also help musicians to always become better than they were the season before. The sky's the limit if people have a growth mindset.

      • Instead of simply advocating for increasingly better wages, focus also on establishing maximum transparency in acknowledging the financial worth of the people's work and how that specifically correlates to plans for improving pay. 

      • Instead of dictating the ways educational concerts build audiences or hustling to reach a numerical goal, also explore how musicians' passion side-projects may be catalysts for meaningful audience engagement. Connect the people with the people.

      • Instead of fighting to become number one, also evaluate internally how musicians feel about themselves, about each other, and about the organization's development. While external affirmation is great, people have a hard time lying to themselves. An accurate internal compass is more sustainable for fulfillment and happiness in individuals. 

Notice these suggestions are not either-or's, but and's. We don't have to give up the goal of metrics. The problem is that metrics should not be arbitrary, lofty directives, nor externally implemented. When we can motivate people from within to live a set of shared values and work toward shared goals, the metrics are merely the byproducts. The best part is that everyone's in it together, and we develop a deeper sense of safety through community and relationships that will be more sustainable than safety derived from any metric.


This is harder said than done, however. It's scary to implement and difficult to measure. It requires letting go of the traditional measures of success, and there is no specific timeline as to when results would come. Uncertainty in timeline is something that many artistic organizations simply couldn't afford to have. So, what if our fundraising efforts are designed to achieve this flexibility, instead of hitting some arbitrary giving goal?


And more generally, what if we thought like Zappos? What if our interviews and performance reviews (do we even have those?) included items that measured how we are living the core values? What if we incentivize people to leave if they know it's not a right fit? What would happen if one of our core values were "delivering WOW through service" and we believed in it and lived it day by day? How would our behaviors and attitudes change? How would our product change? How would our interactions with our audience change? 


Thinking about these things will eventually serve the audience more. But first it will help us realize that 1) the musicians are the ones who are serving the customers and 2) their well-being is paramount to customer service. Maybe we'll be able to inspire the musical equivalent of the 10-hour, above-and-beyond Zappos customer service call. 


I'll end with two quotes by two CEOs who are employee-centric and clearly in the business of people.


Jim Senegal, former CEO of Costco, said, "Of every dollar that we spend on our business, $0.70 is on people. It doesn't do much good to have a quality image, whether it's with the facility or whether it's with the merchandise, if you don't have real quality people taking care of your customers."


Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, said, "We will do well by doing good. Simply put, purposeful leadership recognizes that all companies are human organizations composed of individuals working together for a collective purpose. And the magic happens if you connect what drives individual employees to the purpose of the company in an authentic fashion."

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