Let me give you an example. Do you know how to email Jeff Bezos? As I explain in my free ebook, Jeff Bezos Regrets Nothing, you can reach him directly at jeff@amazon.com.

Now, is there a guarantee he'll reply? Of course not. Still, I know firsthand that the address works, because try to remember to send a note to it with a link to every article I write about Bezos (including this one), just to see if he might have any further comments.

I've heard back exactly once--and from an assistant, not from Bezos himself, mind you -- but I took it as decent proof that it's live. 

But if you want better proof, take the experience of Tara Jones, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Oklahoma, who emailed Bezos directly regarding a problem with her pay, and who changed the lives of many other Amazon employees as a result.

Let's recap the story, in case you didn't see this.

Jones was a new mom, out on leave at Amazon last year after giving birth, and she noticed a recurring shortfall in her pay: about $90 dollars out of $540.

According to Amazon, she contacted Bezos, sending a message to the jeff@amazon.com email address.

"I'm behind on bills, all because the pay team messed up," she wrote, as reported by the New York Times. "I'm crying as I write this email."

Here's what happened next. 

  • First, Jones got her personal pay issues resolved. 
  • Second, her message to Bezos prompted Amazon to launch an internal investigation. The company found that not only had Jones been underpaid, but many other employees had as well, at as many as 179 other warehouses.

As the Times put it:

Ms. Jones was far from alone. For at least a year and a half -- including during periods of record profit -- Amazon had been shortchanging new parents, patients dealing with medical crises and other vulnerable workers on leave, according to a confidential report on the findings. Some of the pay calculations at her facility had been wrong since it opened its doors over a year before.

The Times says Amazon "finished identifying and repaying workers who had been shortchanged while on leave" earlier this year. 

Now, I come here neither to praise Amazon nor to bury it.

On the one hand: It would clearly be unacceptable for a company of Amazon's scope to mess up employee pay like this.

On the other hand: It's admirable for any big organization to have in place a way that employees, customers -- anyone, really -- can go around the normal bureaucratic hierarchy and let someone at the top know that something is very wrong.

In fact, I've written before about the "question mark method" that Bezos pioneered at Amazon. Bezos apparently forwards problem emails like the one he received from Jones to others at Amazon -- topped off with a single character added at the top: "?".

"It's shorthand," he once explained. "'Can you look into this?' 'Why is this happening?'"

I admit: I love the idea of someone in payroll at the Amazon warehouse in Oklahoma getting an alert on his or her phone, and seeing a message with a couple of "FWD:" annotations in the subject line--and realizing that it's ultimately from Bezos, asking about Jones's pay.

Amazon couldn't confirm that this is exactly how things unfolded, question marks and all.

Regardless, the company was eager for me to understand, when I asked for comment, that "[a] big part of our culture is that ideas (and therefore concerns) can come from anyone," and that anyone at Amazon can find the address for any Amazon executive, via a published directory or mechanism that Amazon calls, "Phone Tool."

Ultimately, however, our concern here isn't really about whether Amazon has fixed these issues, or whether it has a chance at living up to the goal that Bezos articulated as he prepared to hand over the position of CEO to Andy Jassy earlier this year: "Strive to be 'Earth's Best Employer.'"

Instead, our concern is what lessons you can learn and apply, as a business leader, from the examples of big, public companies like Amazon. And, I see three key takeaways.

  • First, if you're the leader, it's important to have a way for stakeholders to reach you directly when needed. Maybe it's an email address. Maybe it's sharing your phone number. Maybe it's about letting people know that you will always be available in your office on Tuesday mornings (or whenever), and that anyone can come and see you without an appointment.
  • Second: Do something that the recently departed Secretary of State and General Colin Powell advised: "Check small things." Small things matter, and they add up to big things. Shorting a warehouse employee $90 as Jones reported is a perfect example.
  • Finally, remember that leadership is not always about preventing problems--or even, really, about solving problems. Rather, a big part of effective leadership is about creating culture, and thinking about how the people you lead will feel about the way you handle things.

A simple example: It would have been nothing for Bezos simply to tell an assistant: Send Ms. Jones a check for $5,000. That's much less money than Bezos made in the time it took me to write this sentence. 

But, how would that make her feel? What would it tell others about Amazon's values? What's the lasting feeling that everyone involved would take away?

Fixing the shortfall is key, but leaving stakeholders with positive emotional reactions like this is probably just as important. As an effective leader, it's all part of your job.