I Learned a Lot About Strong Company Culture From Jeff Bezos -- But There's 1 Strategy I Won't Copy
Spending the first two years of my career at Amazon, arguably one of the most innovative companies in the world, was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life. Love him or hate him, Jeff Bezos runs a tight shop, and his vision and management style have made Amazon the company it is today.
As one of the first employees on the Amazon Web Services team, I had the opportunity to work directly with Bezos and the executive team. I learned a ton during that time but one of my biggest takeaways was that the culture you create determines the company's fate. Building a culture of excellence where every employee gives their all every day is tough, but here are a few best (and worst) practices I learned at Amazon.
The devil is in the details.
Bezos is obsessed with the details. He closely monitors data about every part of the business and as soon as he spots an issue, he digs into the nitty gritty details to identify the root cause. I remember he once noticed a single API call wasn't performing as he expected. A single API call! You'd think a CEO has more important things to worry about but Bezos was maniacal about getting every aspect of the customer experience right. He spent days digging into the code to diagnose the issue, then another week working with the engineer who'd built it to implement a fix and make sure it never happened again.
I strive to be as close to the ground as Bezos is. One of the things I do at Outreach is regularly field support calls. When you're hearing about problems from customers you learn so much about issues with your business. And as soon as I find an issue, I just keep asking why until I get to the bottom of it. You can't effectively run a business if you're removed from the details.
Tension isn't all bad.
Amazon is a company that runs on tension. It's not a comfortable place, but I learned that's a good thing -- there's always tension in excellence. There is tension between priorities, between teams competing for resources, between individuals with differing ideas and Amazon encourages it. We're inclined as humans to try to remove tension but it's what propels you forward. It makes you examine things at a deeper level. It makes you smarter. Building a business is uncomfortable.
I think of Bezos every time I have the instinct to step in and sort things out when tension arises. Often the best solutions are born of letting those tensions play out. All the hard questions get asked, teams do deeper thinking on an issue and usually land on a solution that's far better than where they'd started.
Strive for failure.
For all the Amazon failures we know about, there are dozens of others that never saw the light of day. The fact that Amazon fails isn't surprising, but how the company handles it is. Failure is seen as inevitable and a long period without failure is seen as far riskier because that means you're not pushing the boundaries far enough. The trick is every failure must take you a long way toward your next success. The post mortem at Amazon is intense. You're not just looking for what went wrong; you've got to demonstrate that you learned how to make better decisions the next time around.
I took these lessons to Outreach. I strive to make it safe for my teams to take calculated risks but I work even harder to drive them to perform rigorous analysis every time things don't go as planned. Decision-making is a muscle and you've got to put it through intense workouts to make it strong.
The other side of the coin: Don't turn employees into rivals.
Of course, Amazon isn't perfect, and I also took away lessons on what not to do. Amazon's culture is fairly cutthroat and trust does not run high. Every year employees are stack ranked and those at the bottom of the list are cut. In theory, it's important to keep the bar for performance high and this is one of the ways Amazon does that. But, this practice pits employees against each other. Instead of working as teammates they compete as rivals. Trust is essential in building a healthy company. You need every person on the team to be willing to shift priorities and pitch in on initiatives that fall well outside their defined job role in order to make the company successful. You need a culture where people have each other's backs. If you get the right people on board and align them all around a single vision, this will happen naturally.
Those years I spent at Amazon weren't easy. The company had lofty goals, and we had to work hard and get creative to deliver on them. But, Amazon was like a learning laboratory. And I don't think I would have made it this far without the lessons I learned there. They have served me well in business, and in life.
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