Could your school take management lessons
from online giants Zappos and Amazon?

Zappos is doing away with traditional managers, traditional corporate hierarchy, and job titles. Following a management concept dubbed "holacracy" by creator Brian Robertson, Zappo’s has transitioned 10 percent of its employees to the new system, and will transition the entire company by the end of 2014.

The goal is to prevent the expanding 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid and bureaucratic as it grows. Read more details on management changes at Zappos (here) and on the holacracy social technology (here).

Holacracy is not the only unusual feature in the way Zappos management has chosen to operate. The company also has an unusual hiring strategy: after the first week or so of work, new employees are given the opportunity to quit, and take with them $1,000 plus whatever salary they have earned up to that point. The goal is to find out which employees are emotionally committed to the company, and get rid of the less invested.

Zappos was acquired in 2009 by Amazon, but Amazon has allowed Zappos to be run mostly as an independent unit.

Perhaps one of the things that attracted Amazon to Zappos is the fact that Amazon has its own unusual management techniques.

For example, their hiring program includes the presence of “bar raisers” for every upper-level hire. Bar raisers are employees who interview job candidates. Greg Bensinger writes in The Wall Street Journal, “Bar raisers are skilled evaluators who, while holding full-time jobs at the company in a range of departments, play a crucial role in Amazon’s hiring process, interviewing job candidates in other parts of the company. With a word, they can veto any candidate, even if their expertise is in an area that has nothing to do with the prospective employee’s.”

Evaluating a candidate typically takes five or more employees at least two hours each, and top bar raisers interview dozens or hundreds of candidates, asking tough or unexpected questions, and have a reputation for recommending employees who go on to become leaders in the company. The exhaustive interview process is designed to weed out candidates who are not adaptable to change and to prevent expensive hiring mistakes.

It goes without saying that a seminary is different from a for-profit Internet giant. But it seems as if some of these corporate innovations are compatible with the tradition of shared governance in higher education. Is there a way to integrate innovative management practices into your institution?


Illustration adapted from a photograph by Yoshiyasu Nishikawa.