At Zola, an Unconventional, Informal, and Highly Inclusive Executive Decision-Making Method

Decision-Making Method: But, let’s face it: It’s never exactly been easy to read a room. Especially an executive-conference room. When it comes to high-stakes decisions, extroverts tend to dominate discussions; those with minority opinions might feel defensive or, worse, silenced. Consensus building is at times impossible; building unity without unanimity of opinion is also a challenge.

When it is faced with a major companywide strategic decision, the executive team at Zola, the New York City-based wedding-planning and registry company founded in 2013, has a go-to method for hearing out a diversity of viewpoints in its large management team. It’s an unusual system that’s evolved over the past five years, and has become a defining one for the majority-women-led company, which has more than 200 employees.

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“We want to make sure we are looking at something from all angles, and to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion,” says Rachel Jarrett, Zola’s president and chief operating officer. “We have many introverts on our leadership team. I’m not one, and it’s something that I have to be cognizant of.”

Surprising Results From Inclusive Meetings

Jarrett began executive-team polling casually, five years ago, after a leadership retreat saw particular success in collecting a diversity of opinions using an anonymous Post-it note system. Since, she’s been working to give floor time to the voices that aren’t necessarily the loudest–and has evolved her voting process into this three-step one. The combination of debate and polling yields surprising results.

“Nine times out of 10, we see a drastic movement in the vote, and about 80 percent coalesce around the vote,” Jarrett says. “Usually, it’s because a compelling argument is surfaced.”

The process itself is nameless, though is casually known as “taking a vote.” That’s not to say the process is democratic. Instead, as a system it informs the decision-making process, helps consensus surface, and keeps the team more glued together in supporting decisions–even when individuals or entire teams might not agree with them.

Here’s how it works. When faced with an important decision, any department head could propose a vote for during the roughly weekly department-head meeting (held currently on Zoom, and previously in a large conference room called Wedding Crashers in Zola’s Lower Manhattan headquarters). That executive would then present their conundrum or decision to the group of 12 to 20 other vice presidents and department heads.

Next, everyone at the table is presented between two and four options–and votes. Sometimes, it’s anonymous, a process formerly done on Post-its or paper; this year it’s simply executed through Zoom’s polling function. Next, a vigorous debate exploring the rationales behind individuals’ votes–and this step is key. Finger-pointing and politics are banned. Specific time is spent exploring outlying opinions–and making sure everyone with a non-majority opinion has uninterrupted time to speak. Finally: another vote.

The decision-maker isn’t required to take the final majority’s recommendation. Again, it’s not a democracy. “This is about giving the decision-maker the information to make a better decision–and to know we’ve taken the time to understand every perspective,” says Maya Simon, the senior vice president and general manager of Zola’s vendor-marketplace. “It means that we all walk out of that room holding hands on the decision.”

Informing the High-Stakes Decisions

It’s a process the company has found useful in decisions monumental to its future path–and lighter ones, say, about how to combat Zoom fatigue (they voted recently to give extra days off around Memorial Day). Votes happen roughly every six weeks. The most significant of recent years was almost immediately after the office shut down in-person operations in March of 2020. It quickly became clear that some of the company’s recent investments might be dramatically affected by the Covid-19 pandemic–as tens of thousands of couples called off their summer weddings–including its new honeymoons product, which it was testing.

The vote was complicated, with multiple departments and products at stake, including an onsite home store that the company could branch out of its wedding registry product, a local-wedding-vendor marketplace, holiday cards, and photo albums. There were smaller decisions, too: Should we make a pandemic-era “change of date” card for weddings?

Out of five or six outcomes at the start, debate narrowed it down to three. After holding a second vote, the company decided to invest less in honeymoons, but to continue developing its wedding-vendor marketplace, as more than 14,000 small businesses around the country were learning to use it–and could continue to be introduced to it during the slow summer of 2020. It launched a home store in August, and has seen growth in online home-shopping, mirroring an industry trend. Around the time, the company also restructured, laying off 40 staffers, or roughly 20 percent of its employees, and cut salaries by moving to a four-day workweek for many remaining workers.

A year later, Zola has begun hiring again. According to Jarrett, the pent-up demand from delaying large gatherings is surging business: “Now we are seeing couples getting even more gifts, and we’re seeing couples planning weddings on shorter timetables. People are really eager to finally get married!”

Simon says the decision-debate framework has given Zola’s executive team a sense of balance–allowing the voices of quieter, more introspective team members to be heard. She says it’s also efficient: Polling very rapidly illuminates whether an issue is contentious or is worth spending time debating. She says it’s a tool not just for large management groups; she also applies it to her own smaller marketplace team.

“I actually made my team take a vote last week!” she said on the phone recently. A small team meeting turned into a debate–and the tone suggested to her everyone might disagree with her. The vote showed otherwise–and meant after the tally, everyone was satisfied, and could turn off their Zoom and get back to work.

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