How to Influence Like Billion Dollar CEO


Zappos is the largest online footwear retailer in the United States. The company was founded during the tech boom in the US in the late 1990s and continued to grow even after the boom subsided.

Zappos made a change during its initial years to focus on getting the right people on board. The focus was built around ten core values. This focus became so intense that people are hired and fired based on the core values alone. It doesn’t matter if the person does an adequate job.

This might seem harsh to some, but it’s part of what makes Zappos successful.

Recently, Tony Hsieh, Zappos founder and CEO, went to Sanford to speak with business students and he was selling them on the concept of the core values.

Even though Zappos has been successful the core values concept was a hard sell.

In the video we can learn from Tony Hsieh. We can see how he was able to convince those in the classroom that the Zappos core value system can work in other industries for other companies.

Tony has repeated this message in other speeches and presentations through the years. It’s an effective way to share his knowledge and get others to follow his perceived way to happiness.

The Video: Core Values of Culture (8:10)

By the end of this post you’ll have a better understanding of how you can get people on board with your ideas. Much of giving presentations and being a business leader is selling. Tony Hsieh has learned to sell his core values of culture. He sold it to Amazon for over one billion dollars in stock.

His methods work.

Lesson #1: Show the Struggle

To begin his presentation Tony discusses the issues he and other leaders in the company had with the concept of core values. The concept was cliché and overdone. They wanted Zappos to be a revolutionary company so they looked at other avenues yet they eventually came back to the core values concept.

By presenting this struggle with the clichéd world, Tony is stating what everyone thinks about core values, but dares not say – that statements and values are only given lip-service. This connects with people in the audience because they are now thinking, “I think that too – they are often meaningless!”

He is also showing them that even in a successful company there are struggles – not everything is easy even at the top.

It’s vulnerable for a leader as impressive as Tony Hsieh to show struggle, but it was a brilliant tactic. He showed that he is humble  – which is one of the 10 core values.

By framing himself and his company as something similar to those in the audience he makes a connection that keeps people onboard.

Lesson #2: Show Proof

People are skeptical. We want to know the reason why.

Even when Tony Hsieh walks into Stanford the students are going to ask why they should listen to him. The students know he is successful, but maybe he was just lucky. Does he even understand the reason his company has been successful?

Audience members ask these questions all the time and it’s the job of the presenter to show proof.

Tony does this when he makes two points in the presentation.

First, he doesn’t focus on the sales of the company or the press it gets. That is common knowledge to most in the online business world. He focuses on the Google rankings of the core values.

What this proves to the people in the audience is that Zappos is known to be the most relevant result for searches like “Be Humble”. That’s pretty impressive. Those in the audience realise that ranking for a basic term like “Be Humble” is not easy.

This is proof. Even Google recognises the success of the Zappos core values system.

As Tony says, you can do the same search for any other company’s core values and you won’t find them on the first page. This comparison to other companies – a challenge if you will – works to set minds at ease.

Second, Tony tells the story about the issue with the “Be Humble” value. He says it’s the most difficult value to use as a guideline for hiring. It’s hard to determine if someone is humble.

Tony shares the story that they ask the shuttle driver that drives each candidate to the Zappos headquarters how a candidate acted in the shuttle. Based on that experience alone Zappos will choose to hire you or not hire you.

This story is proof that Zappos means business with the core values system. If a person fails even one of the values they are not hired. There is no compromise in the process.

Lesson #3: Commitment

Building on the story about hiring and firing people based on the core values, Tony shows the company’s commitment.

With your presentations you’ll need to be fully committed to what you’re presenting. It will be extremely difficult if not impossible to convince people to do something if you don’t believe it.

Confidence and conviction have a way of coming through when you believe what you’re saying. Watching Tony in this video you can see how much he believes in the core values. He has built his company around the core values and that’s the commitment people need to see along with the other proof.

If you’re on board other people follow because they want to be as committed as you. They want to feel the passion and be part of something special.

Lesson #4: Focus on Individuality

In the middle of the speech Tony talks about weirdness. He says that everybody has a little bit of weirdness in them and that Zappos encourages this behavior. He says this is where the best ideas come from and that it’s helped fuel the growth at Zappos.

This is a brilliant move. It gets everyone in the audience thinking ‘How would I answer this questions?” This is cognitive engagement at its best. When you get individuals answering your questions they are listening to you.

Lesson #5: Research Is Convincing

Facts are needed to balance the emotional states aroused when you get people asking questions such as ‘How would I answer that?’

In his talk, Tony shares the story about using research to guide the company in the hiring process. The research was based on the perception of luck and how people that feel lucky tend to find more opportunity in life.

It’s hard sometimes to use research to make decisions, but Tony seemed to accept the results of the experiment and even went so far to use it in building his company.

Research is powerful and by sharing this story it gave more credibility to the core values concept that Tony is selling to the audience.

Tony has even gone on to talk about happiness in his book, Delivering Happiness. Talk about committing to an idea. Tony is living what he is presenting. It’s all very convincing to the people in the audience and it’s a reason many have bought into the core values concept over the last five years or so.

Lesson #6: You Get What You Give

At the end of the talk Tony uses a classic method for influencing people.

The concept is one of the core values, which is about being open and honest. Tony talks about how Zappos tries to be as transparent as possible with its customers and really with anyone that wants to listen to how the company operates.

An example is given that the company uses LiveStream to share its annual employee meeting. All the questions, even financial, are shared during the meeting.

When people visit Zappos they get the full tour and can speak with anyone they please in the building. There are few limits on what people can access when they seek information about Zappos.

Additionally, the company shares information on its own blog and in interviews with media. Even speeches and talks like this one show that Zappos buys in to the idea of giving as much as possible.

It’s the classic you get what you give mindset. In order to accomplish something or get something in business you need to first give something. It’s a concept that is based on social research so there you have more proof that the concept works.


Tony Hsieh is a very public CEO. His company has exceeded revenues of a billion dollars, but through it all Tony has been looking to take the lessons of his company to others.

In order to do this Tony has had to figure out a way to connect with audiences and convince them that the Zappos way of doing business is effective and can be used by others. He seems to be genuinely interested in helping people find happiness in life and in work.

Much of business is about selling yourself and your ideas. Speaking is a way to accomplish this and Tony Hsieh has mastered the art.

Now it’s your turn.

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