Jeff Bezos has been taking a lot of heat about the recent New York Times article featuring some very unflattering stories about life inside the juggernaut we all know as Amazon. I had the opportunity to chat with leadership expert and author of StandOut 2.0 Marcus Buckingham about the fallout. We discussed how culture, data, storytelling, and choice have influenced the story and how Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) should move forward.
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Culture and Fit
Buckingham started our conversation by noting that “the wonderful thing about Amazon’s culture is that it is repulsive… it is strong enough to repel those who don’t fit.” He further explained that “Amazon has a certain approach to getting the most out of their people” that only works well for some people. Their hard charging style isn’t for everyone, but it isn’t all that new or unique either.
The reality is there are a lot of companies with strong cultures that require a specific personality, value system, and mindset to allow you to thrive. Take for example Patagonia and Chick-fil-A. These are two companies with very strong cultures that aren’t for everyone, but they do work incredibly well. Part of the reason for their success is that they are very upfront about who they are which helps them attract and retain those who fit their culture.
The Case for People Data
One of the missteps in the Amazon response was that Bezos didn’t condemn some of the more deplorable behaviors or even acknowledge the possibility that they could have occurred. In a company of more than 150,000 people you are going to have boneheaded mangers making bad people decisions far more than anyone would like to admit. It’s just reality. The true test is how leaders at every level respond and course correct as they go. To do this every leader must have their finger on the pulse of their teams, which requires data.
Buckingham notes that Bezos built his company on data. He revolutionized marketing by developing and relying on the right data tools to create precision marking. “The irony is that Amazon doesn’t have any people data” notes Buckingham. If Bezos had the same kind of real-time data on his people that he does on every other aspect of his business he could have simply pointed to the data in his response to the article.
Far too often companies rely on anecdotal information and annual engagement surveys as opposed to actual real-time metrics to understand where they are with their people. Amazon is an “attention rich environment,” which is why Buckingham is surprised they don’t have better people metrics in place.
Without people metrics anecdotal stories like those shared in the Times piece will dominate the media. The lesson here is that every leader should have real-time people data, so they can take constant pulse checks to get a real understanding of where the whole team is and make smart decisions on any course corrections as they go.
Writing Their Own Narrative
Amazon has a strong culture, but they need to be more explicit about who they are and “really own their identity” says Buckingham. From an employer perspective Amazon really hasn’t developed that strong of an identity, which is part of the reason the Times story has garnered so much attention. There really isn’t a counter narrative. Buckingham believes Amazon needs to get positive stories out there that are true to the culture. He shared three key elements of storytelling that could help Amazon:
Mythology: Stories can really help humanize an organization. Mythological stories of innovation, comebacks from failure, and breakthroughs can shed light on the triumphs that have shaped Amazon’s culture. It’s important for these stories to make their way into the public and slowly take hold as the foundation for how prospective talent views life at Amazon.
Heroes: We all love stories about heroes and every company has them. They are those standout individuals who have gone above and beyond to make a difference for both colleagues and customers. Because Bezos is such a standout figure it will be critical that they find other figures inside Amazon with compelling stories who can stand out as well. Highlighting these stories can really shed light on the kind of actions Amazon values and what success there looks like.
Rituals: The Times article references the 14 principles of Amazon. Although they sound good in theory there isn’t any evidence of how they actually work. Buckingham believes Amazon should illustrate the ways in which these principles play out in everyday life at Amazon. The way to do this is by talking about the rituals and routines that reinforce the positive aspects of Amazon’s culture.
The greatest asset any organization has is its people. If you don’t get your people right you won’t get anything else right, at least not for very long. The challenge for Amazon is making sure they attract the right fit so as to get the right people onboard. Regardless of your beliefs about the culture of Amazon, the individuals interviewed by the Times reporters clearly didn’t fit within that culture. This creates a lose-lose situation.
The bottom line is that when you take a job at a company like Amazon you are making a choice. When you decide to stay with a company like Amazon you are also making a choice. In this particular case we are talking about well-paid white collar office workers with choices. Granted, leaving your job isn’t an easy choice and there are always tough consequences to consider. The challenge is being willing to put your health and well-being ahead of your financial goals.