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What vs how – Amazon’s leadership lost their balance

Last month, The Globe & Mail asked me to write a piece for their Weekend Commentary & Analysis section about Amazon’s controversial and (some say) “toxic” corporate culture. I blogged about the article soon after it was published in What vs how – Amazon lost sight of the difference. But this topic continues to dominate the news, and is of such great importance and relevance to leaders everywhere that I felt that it deserved to be brought up one more time today.

NYT_Amazon_081515First some background. The tumult started on August 15 when the New York Times published a lengthy story about Amazon’s “bruising” work culture where only the fittest survive, and the rest are discarded as collateral damage along the way. Interviews with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees painted a workplace characterized by demanding hours and a grueling pace with no room for mistakes or missteps. In this toxic environment, employees are battered with unrelenting deadlines, constant criticism, heartless disregard for personal health and life circumstances, and zero work-life boundaries – all leading to a system that is inherently designed to “churn and burn”. New recruits enter the company, and those that can handle the relentless pressure are tagged as future stars, the rest burnout and leave within 2-3 years; which explains, at least partially, Amazon’s high attrition rates. The story struck a chord with many, and the online world flooded with comments and social media discussion. In fact, the Times officially announced this as “the most commented-on story in NYT history”

My analysis ran in The Globe & Mail‘s print and online editions on August 22, exactly one week later. For me the fundamental issue comes down to Amazon’s inability to balance the how with the what. Somewhere along the way, as this company grew in size, managers in the organization became so focused on results, the WHAT, that they lost sight of the HOW, the people who make results happen, those who are the proverbial wind beneath the wings. You can read my piece directly on The Globe‘s site here: Amazon’s leadership forgot that ‘how’ is as important as ‘what’. Occasionally your access to the direct link at The Globe‘s site may be restricted; if that happens, you can also download the pdf version here: http://www.turningmanagersintoleaders.com/PDF/G&M_CommentaryOnline_Aug-22-2015.pdf.

My underlying and critical message to leaders in companies everywhere: sure, codifying your workplace culture so that your employees live and breathe it is one of your most important roles, BUT it is just as vital to emphasize the balance between outcomes and processes, between the end and the means, between the what and the how. Trying to achieve the former without heeding the latter is absolutely a recipe for long-term failure.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts and perspectives. What went wrong at Amazon? Or was all this commotion much ado about nothing? Please share your insights by adding your comments below.

4 thoughts on “What vs how – Amazon’s leadership lost their balance

  1. Merge —
    Jeff Bezos commented shortly after the article came out that the description of Amazon “was not the Amazon he knew.” If he believes that the organization is not as toxic as depicited, he likely has not gotten out from behind his desk in a while.
    I have a close family friend who had a fairly high level position at Amazon who left because the culture was so toxic. The toxicity in this organization is overwhelming.
    To truly lead, one has to get out and about with the front line employees. Had Bezos done so, he wouldn’t have been the last to know how bad the culture really is. More importantly, assuming for a moment it is a culture he didn’t want, he would have known first hand and taken actions to remedy it.
    Whether the culture grew with or without his blessing, it is ultimately his doing. Ignorance is no excuse.

    1. Larry, I couldn’t agree more! When a senior leader becomes so distanced from the front-lines that he does not even realize the toxic environment that exists in his company, he has lost his way somewhere on his journey.

      1. I read the NY Times article with a personal interest as my son works for Amazon.com at the Seattle headquarters, as a software developer. He joined Amazon directly from university six years ago. In that time he has been promoted twice. He is very well paid and gets generous bonuses of stock. The atmosphere described is not the Amazon he works for. He has been mentored and guided by managers and senior team members. He has been given plenty of opportunity to grow his skills and, according to him, work on interesting and challenging projects. I visit him in Seattle yearly and time off for my visit has never been an issue. He visits me, in Canada every year and I have his full attention, he isn’t distracted by emails or texts from work. I am no fan of Jeff Bezos, I’ve read the descriptions of the conditions in Amazon warehouses, but my son loves his job. I asked my son about the article and he did say Amazon is not for everyone, but he is staying and looking forward to many more years with Amazon.com.

        1. Lori Anne, thanks for sharing your personal experience. Clearly there are pockets in the company where exceptional leadership has prevailed, and your son is proof. But the overwhelming anecdotal evidence from reliable sources is that this atmosphere does not exist across the entire company; in fact, the Amazon described in the NYT article seems to be more the norm than the exception. If that’s true, then it means that Bezos’ and his senior management team have failed in communicating the company’s vision and principles as broadly as they should have. Inadvertently perhaps, they’ve created an environment in which many of their mid- and junior-level managers have focused on results (what) to the detriment of their people (how).

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