Disclosure

I’m a fan of shopping on Amazon.com. In the last year, I’ve purchased headphones, a hat, shorts, a t-shirt, candy gifts for a coworker’s sick wife, a router, over a dozen books … you get the picture. Being able to quickly find what I need and having it arrive days later is ideal. It saves me time and money. The burning question though, especially considering the latest article about what it’s like to work for Amazon, is: is Amazon run by leaders or managers?

Introduction

I suspect that there are more people who found themselves wishing that they worked for Amazon as they read the NYTimes.com article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” than one might expect. The bias of the author is clear — that Amazon is a horrible place to work. Certainly with over 100 current and former employees interviewed, the information is most likely reliable despite the intentionally negative writing slant. But the question I find myself asking, is Amazon led by leaders or managers?, hinges on a few unknowns. I have experience working for companies awash with internal politics, hyper-critical bosses, and a leadership hierarchy only concerned with results and not behavior.

The Question

At one point in my career while working for a small company called Certiport, I was resourced to a project with the IT department and my manager at the time asked me “do you still remember whose team you’re on?” At first the question threw me — I had no idea what she was asking. Then it occurred to me that the undercurrent of competition and jealousy I thought I’d originally imagined was in actuality so thick that, in the end, it made my job impossible and I ended up leaving for a less prestigious position at a difference company just so my feet could heal from kicking for so long against the cubicle pricks. The department I worked for was always at odds with the CIO division, so much so that I was used as a pawn in their power-play. I had to deal with things like being allocated an ancient desktop with a malfunctioning monitor, ever changing cubicle locations, and sabotage at a trade show (yes — the CIO set me up so that my demonstration of our core product at a trade show failed so that it would be his team at future trade shows instead of the CLO’s department). I lasted 11 months before finding a different job and was one of a large percentage of employees who jumped the first chance they got from that mutinous ship.

Honestly though, all of that intrigue could have been endured if the end goal was innovation and creativity, instead of two big personalities clashing in the C-suite. I contend that the Amazon described in the NYTimes’ article, instead of pushing innovation as fast as possible, instead breeds unhealthy contention. Yes — they have made some great advancements. But I wonder what could have been done if the culture was one of creative collaboration and support, instead of the apparent cold machine of progress. I imagine conference rooms full of debate where the loudest wins — not the most creative, thoughtful, or innovative. Braggarts who boast about their 60 or 80 hour weeks are not, I would argue, focused on any of Amazon’s leadership principles. Instead, they’re focused on the unhealthy addiction to external motivators such as sycophantic praise and fleeting respect.

I think it boils down to one essential principle of leadership: are there leaders at the company who can mold and develop employees so that they perform at the desired level, or are there managers at the company who fit people as widgets into the corporate machine? It appears as if Amazon, for good or bad, is looking for widgets.

The Bright Side

It’s not all bad though. There are two things I read in the article that appeal to me — doing more with less and incorporating more data into leadership decisions. I’d like to work with my own team to try and instill both of these values in our culture.

First: using as much data as is available for decisions is vital and is becoming more and more a possibility. Regardless of how impartial we believe we are, everyone is afflicted with a certain degree of cognitive biases — deviations in thinking that lead away from good judgment.

Second: doing more with less, I believe, is a very effective way of inspiring innovation. In fact, I’ve been known to say that “desperation is the mother of inspiration.” Unfortunately, many people think that innovation can only be done with more time and resources. I contend that a surplus of time and resources actually diminishes our creative capability. Scott Anthony, in his book “The Little Black Book of Innovation” lists gluttony (an over-abundance of time and resources) as one of the seven deadly innovation sins.

Currently my team’s culture is one of strong collaboration and support. Although we’re a virtual team — geographically spread across six states and two countries, we use communications technologies in very creative ways to mitigate the potential drawbacks of our significant spacial dispersion. I think, however, we’ve become complacent in our solutions, usually blaming technology (and a highly rigid IT department) on any potential shortcomings. We also cannot seem to aggressively attack projects and problems and are happy to stretch projects out to just beyond most clients’ pain threshold, leaving them sometimes wondering if they’d been better off creating a training solution themselves.

Conclusion

Amazon is looking for widgets to fit into the machine. It’s working for them and, if you can keep up, is probably a great place to catapult your own career. There are a couple of redeeming values in that culture — innovation and data. Personally, I tend to think solutions are more effective when leaders help drive them in a culture of support and foster individual development.

What do you think?

Comment below on what your thoughts are!

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