What I learn working with and for an ex-Amazonian
Until very recently, I didn't know much about Amazon from a workplace standpoint. As I have never worked there, I don’t know if the Amazon work culture is good or bad. I have heard both sides of the coin and like any workplace, I don’t assume or expect that it is perfect. It is notorious for its breakneck-paced and for its leadership principles. In any case, I can’t judge or comment on something I don’t know or haven’t experienced. What I can do though is talk about my experience working with and for an ex-Amazonian. You might wonder why I decided to write about this. The answer is simple, over the last few months, I have unlearned and learned so much, it is time to put it down on paper to wrap my head on all the recent growth I have experienced. If you have read anything I have written before, you already know that I am a personal development junkie. I constantly seek to challenge myself in unlearning what I thought I knew and in learning new ways. I drive on facing my vulnerabilities, talk about them publicly and come out on the other side strong enough to repeat the process all over again. So here is what I have been learning over the last few months working with an ex-Amazonian.
First, let’s talk about principles. Amazon has a long list of leadership principles. I won’t list them here but you can easily find them on their website. I don’t know if this is generalized, but in my case, working for an ex-Amazonian means working with many of the Amazon leadership principles on a day-to-day basis. Over the last 4 months, I have seen these leadership principles being contextualized and I have seen how they are being applied in practice to day-to-day work. I admit humbly that being exposed and learning new ways is never easy, but like any growth experience, unlearning and developing is tough and one has to lean in and take the time to understand how new ways add value. Change is not easy and it can be uncomfortable for a time, but it is in discomfort that we grow the most. Learning new ways of leading is the same, it’s a change. But if you keep an open mind, you might find new and even better ways.
Of all the amazon leadership principles I have now been exposed to on an ongoing basis, I have a few favorites:
1. Customer obsession: Leaders start with the customer and work backwards.
For a very long-time, I firmly believed I was customer focused. I believed that what I did was always with the customer in mind. That being said, over the last few months, I have come to realize my belief to be false. I had the right intent all along, I really wanted to be customer centric, but I realize now that I didn’t really know how. It was not a problem of intent, but an issue of mindset.
Over the last few months, I started learning a new way to guide me towards customer centricity and in retrospect, it’s so simple, I don’t know why I didn't think about it before: start with the customer and work backwards… It’s that simple… in theory.
In practice, starting with the customer and working backwards is really hard. Really really hard. I have to constantly remind myself to start there. What is the customer thinking, what is the customer facing, what is the customer issue here, etc. And only when I know what the customer’s pain is do I start thinking of what I can do. And when I say that I start thinking about what I can do, I don’t mean that I start looking at tools, systems or products we have already available off the shelf. No. I mean that I start thinking about what would be the best way to solve the customer’s problem regardless of the solutions we have already available. This is hard as I need to constantly remind myself not to look at solutions available around me first, but really think of the customer first and then what solution would be best. That’s how we start with the customer and work backwards… it’s not about us and what we can offer, it’s about what the customer needs and how we will solve their pain points. Reading this, you might think this is obvious and in theory it is , but I challenge all of you to do it day in and day out… It's hard to start with the customer and work backwards because it’s a mindset shift and shifting mindset takes practice. A lot of practice.
2. Think big: Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.
I see, feel and live this leadership principle daily at work. I am privileged to work with someone who has an innate ability to present and express vision with focus. Over my career, I have come to realize that thinking big and having a vision to lead doesn’t come easy for many including myself. Thinking big might sound like something anyone can do, but thinking big is not about expressing the end goal alone as anyone can do that, but thinking big is about (a) communicating a vision that might be disruptive and create discomfort for some as innovation often does, (b) have the ability to draw a journey towards the vision and (c) inspire people to embark on such journey filled with challenges, obstacles and milestone. Having the ability to think big is hard and it is something I have always wished to attain. I don’t think I have it at all yet, but I hope that overtime, as I observe others who can think big, I will learn how. So that in turn I can also lead to create and communicate bold direction that inspires results.
3. Learn and be curious: Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves.
This leadership principle is my dose of daily comfort. Learning and being curious is second nature to me so I strive in an environment where such attributes are expected for any leader. I love to learn, I love to challenge and improve myself. I demand feedback, I push my team to grow. Learning and being curious is how I believe we can keep any workplace fun and never get bored.
4. Invent and simplify: Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify.
Inventing and simplifying is super hard. On one hand inventing means thinking out of the box and challenging myself to get out of my comfort zone to find solutions. On the other hand, simplifying is the opposite of simple. Making a solution simple for customers doesn’t mean it was simple to find or simple to construct. To simplify anything, one needs to constantly go back to the objective, go back to the customer and streamline the solution. It can take time and multiple iterations to simplify anything and it requires hard work, courage and discomfort to invent and simplify. What I like the most about this principle is that it is not a one off guideline, but a way of working that is brought into work everyday. I don’t think I can yet invent and simplify, but my mind is slowly learning to strive for this vision and everyday at work I can feel the “invent and simplify” mindset make its way.
5. Bias for action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
I have always been a doer, a go-getter and someone who favors pragmatism over theory. Like the learning and be curious principle, I feel right at home with the “bias for action” principle as this is how I like to operate. Over the last few weeks, I have also seen this principle in action. Decisions are made based on information and data, risk is calculated, but we move forward and don’t stand still in the no man’s land of decision paralysis. We look at what we know, calculate risk and move forward.
6. Dive deep: Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdotes differ. No task is beneath them.
Throughout my career, regardless of my level, I have done my fair share of tasks across all levels of competences and capabilities. I am a doer so when things need to get done, if my team has no more bandwidth or we need to push, I roll up my sleeves and I do what needs to be done. As I joined a startup incubated in a large company, the roll-up your sleeve mentality is intrinsic to how we work. Having a leader who also believes in this mindset is critical for success. Additionally, as we develop our product, I can see how close we need to stay to the details and audit frequently what is being done. Additionally, for a long time, a lot of my decisions have relied on anecdotal information and I come to realize that anecdotes are fun, but often used for decision making instead of gathering the data required. It is indeed easier to collect a few anecdotes, but anecdotal evidence is not statistically sound. Often, anecdotes stand out as they are outliers and don’t offer a true representation of reality. Over the last few weeks, I have been forced to reconsider how I dive into details, I have been looking at data more than I have in recent years and I have been striving to understand situations based on metrics, statistics and insights. This is a change for me but one I welcome as I used to be a data nerd. But although my background was once within data, this is definitely a change that requires practice as I am unlearning to focus on anecdotes and learning to ask questions so we uncover a truth that is more fact based. I am not there yet, but the journey has started and I am excited to see where it takes me.
7. Have backbone, disagree and commit: Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
In theory, the above is common sense and something one should expect every leader to do and always live by. In practice, throughout my career, I have to admit that I have seen many leaders, including myself, lack backbone at times. Having backbone and challenging decisions is hard and can get personal very quickly, even when it has nothing to do with anything personal. Having backbone also means to challenge decisions even when doing so is uncomfortable and although we wish everyone had the integrity to do so, let’s be honest, not everyone wants to be uncomfortable and challenge authority. This is why I love this principle so much. Not because it is obvious, but because it is spelled out and by doing so, it enables leaders to use the principle and when facing adversity, call upon it to remind everyone that this is their duty, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
Working with and for an ex-Amazonian doesn’t only result in being exposed and working with some of the Amazon leadership principles. Over the weeks, I have also noticed and learned that other Amazonian practices have emerged and started influencing the way I approach my responsibilities and lead my team. Let me present a few to you I have come to love. Maybe some can be inspiring enough for you to use in your daily work.
The 2-pizza rule: I looove the 2-pizza rule! The 2-pizza rule is simple: No team or meeting should be larger than the number of people that can be adequately fed by two large pizzas.
We don’t use the 2 pizzas rule for teams but we do for meetings. For a large portion of my career and still today, I attend meetings with way too many people. For a long time, I just kept quiet thinking it wasn’t my place to question why so many people were attending and who should be excused unless I had booked the meeting myself. I felt uncomfortable even bringing the question up or even excusing myself from the meeting when realizing I had nothing to contribute. Instead, I would sit silently and often space out as my mind gets bored when I am not engaged. The 2-pizza rule has come to my rescue. Although I am not using it as much and as often as I should, quoting this rule has started to enable me to feel more comfortable questioning the number of attendees in some meetings. I don’t use this rule in all meetings I attend, but now and again when I see that a meeting includes a dozen people and I know that only 3-4 are actually truly required, I now bing the pizza rule up. As it’s a fun metaphor, it doesn’t come across rude and it enables anyone in the meeting who might feel out of place to excuse themselves gracefully before they end up wasting their time.
The interview loop: At amazon, the interview loop is where a candidate will spend a day at Amazon being interviewed by 4-6 employees. In my current role, we have established “the loop” as part of our recruitment process, meaning that for any open position, the final candidate will have to be interviewed by 4 people (future peers, future direct reports or other managers). I have done my fair share of recruitment in my career, both at my current employer, but also to an even greater extent when I was the interviewer manager in a B2B market research firm where I recruited and hired over a hundred people in the course of three years. When that is said, beside getting support from HR for the overall recruitment princess, I have rarely asked others to interview potential candidate. This has now changed greatly as we use “the loop” for all our recruitment and I have become a big fan, enough that I know I will use this technique for every future hiring I will have in my professional life. Why? The loop is a very advantageous process. In addition to mitigating recruitment bias as more people than just the hiring manager interviews the candidates, it also enables future candidate to meet the team, ask relevant questions, be assessed by others and at the end of the day, ensure that every new person we hire is a fit for the team and a joint decision (to the greatest extent possible). In short, I find this process extremely valuable as I could hire the wrong person but I doubt 5 people would all make that mistake jointly.
One way doors versus two way doors: When I changed position last fall, one of the first new concepts I was introduced to was the one-way versus two-way door concept for decision making. In short, it’s a nice metaphor to help anyone visualize the importance of certain decisions. There are two types of decisions. A one-way door decision is a decision that can’t be easily reversed. This means that such a decision needs to be taken carefully. An example of a one way door could be a product launch. We can’t unlaunch a product. We could take it out of the market, but we can’t pretend it was never launched and never existed. A two-way door is a decision we can reverse. We can walk through the door, see what it’s like and go back if we don’t like it. Two-way door decisions can be made fast and even automated. An example of a two-way door decision could be to decide to start buying parts on an eCommerce platform. One could easily try it and stop if it wasn’t a good experience.
The reason I really like the one-way versus two-way door concept is that it has given me a frame of reference and an ability to easily categorize decisions into 2 groups. I know that for two-way door decisions, there is no need for slow-paced decision making and over analyzing the option, we can move fast and retract if it’s not what we wanted. For one-way door, we need to be careful and make sure we do what we believe is right. Having such a visualization now enables me to simply ask myself, before any decision, is this one-way or two-way and by doing so, I can assess how much I need to ponder on the choice to make.
Changing my mind: I have always felt that we value people who know what they want and that changing my mind is a sign of weakness and of uncertainty. I have always felt that only unsure people change their mind and therefore, in business, it is often valued highly to stand your ground and never change your mind. When that is said, over the last few months, I have been exposed, on a daily basis to a completely different view on this matter. Changing my mind is not just ok, it is the right thing to do. As I am being presented with new information, I have to reassess my opinion or my decisions and therefore, changing my mind is the only wise thing to do. It is not just ok to change your mind as you gather more insights, it is expected of me to do so when it makes sense. Standing my ground regardless of new information being presented to me is synonym of stubbornness and in extreme cases idiotic. So now, for a few weeks, I started to feel more and more comfortable changing my mind, revisiting what I think and pivoting when needed. There is something extremely freeing in knowing that it’s ok to change my mind and actually expected I will do so if needed.
No/less PowerPoint: Last and not least, PowerPoint. Amazon is known for not using PowerPoint for meetings and one might expect that when you work with and for an ex-Amazonian, there will be very few or no PowerPoints. Well, I am happy to confirm that in my case this is true, at least in part. We do use PowerPoint for some meetings where slides are the relevant format (customer presentation for example) but in most internal meetings we have, there are no slides. We have adopted, in part, the Amazon memo format and we are all learning to write (in words) the narrative of what we are working on and working for. We share the memo ahead of the meeting, allocate time at the meeting for everyone to read it and instead of having the meeting converted into a long presentation, we discuss the memo, the assumptions presented, the data and the decisions to be made. Overall, I have concluded that no PowerPoints is actually not really about no PowerPoints, it is about two things:
No one way presentation: by having no PowerPoint, no one is solely presenting all information to the audience in a one-way format. The no PowerPoint forces everyone at the meeting to engage and participate in a way I had rarely experienced before.
Information democracy: by writing a memo, one has to be concise and put all their thoughts on paper. It is a VERY hard exercise and I challenge everyone to try to write a memo instead of creating a presentation. You will see, it is not easy. That being said, as one writes the memo and shares it, something fantastic happens: information democracy. Although you might have received a PPT before the meeting, making sense of the slides isn’t always easy. You get glimpses of the narrative as a pre-read and at the meeting someone has to voice over the PPT to ensure all information is shared. Only then do everyone know. With a memo, there is no need to present, as the narrative and all information are black on white on paper. This enables ANYONE reading the memo before the meeting, at the meeting or after the meeting to know ALL of the same information as everyone else. PowerPoint presentations don’t have that ability.
All and all, I love to write so for me to write a memo instead of making a PPT is a blessing, although it is hard. Don’t underestimate how long it takes me to write a blog post like this one or a memo for work. Additionally, it is hard to be concise in word format and convert ideas, situations, metrics and results in word format that makes sense. It takes time and practice and I admit I haven’t really gotten the full hag of it yet. When that is said, I am becoming a huge fan of the memo format. I know there will always be occasions where I need to make a slide deck, but from now and onwards, I am going to try to do as much work in memo format as I can, regardless of where I work, because it’s game changer and really enable meetings to be decision making sessions and discussions on a completely different level.
Finally, whether you start working with an ex-Amazonian or a new leader, change will be inevitable. We all fall into comfort and when we seek change or change finds us, it gets us out of our comfort zone and that is when we grow most. I once read a quote that said that we can’t grow when we are comfortable and change can be a great catalyst for a new phase of development. In my case, such a change was sparked by an ex-Amazonian and I have spent the last 4 months learning at a high speed and constantly trying to keep up…and I love it!. I won’t lie. I am very thankful for the changes I am facing and for being exposed to the Amazon leadership principles and new ways of carrying out day-to-day business. From this exposure, one thing is for sure, I am testing myself, pushing myself and growing more than I have in many years.