If you haven't already readJeff Bezos' latest Amazon shareholder letter, you should. In it, the Amazon founder offers up eloquent and poignant thoughts on company culture, most likely in response to the highly critical New York Times article that ran last August (for Amazon's take on the piece, see Jay Carney's response on posted on Medium).
In the Times piece, the writers explain how Amazon pushes its corporate employees to conform to the company's vision of productivity through a combination of cultural reinforcement and aunique system of management. Almost immediately after it was published, I saw my social networks light up with conversation as many leaders whom I respect weighed in on the merits of Amazon's approach.
The last time I saw such a response was after the publication of Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. It seems like every time the curtain is pulled back on the inner workings of a successful business everyone rushes to emulate the lessons it has to offer. Back in 2011, it seemed like everyone wanted to be Steve Jobs.
I distinctly remember listening to people refer to their products as "insanely great" and emulate some of the most abrasive habits of Jobs. Similarly, I suspect that the conversation about Amazon could have inspired some entrepreneurs to try and replicate elements of Amazon's unique culture inside of their organization. This, in my humble opinion, would be a huge mistake.
But don't take it from me. In his shareholder letter, Bezos writes that, "We never claim that our approach is the right one - just that it's ours - and over the last two decades, we've collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful."
Jeff Bezos is right. Corporate cultures are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. Most importantly, they are organic creations, inexorably tied to the organization itself. Trying to adopt a foreign culture and apply it in your business is a recipe for disaster.
You are not Jeff Bezos
Here's the thing: you're probably not a genius. That's not a bad thing, of course, but rather a simple fact. Of the tens of millions of business leaders and entrepreneurs in the U.S., there are only a handful of true outliers who have managed to create great, world-changing businesses and Jeff Bezos is one of those people.
The culture of Amazon is a direct outgrowth of Bezos's personality, having been part of the organization from inception. If another business owner simply decided to adopt an extreme data-focused view of their organization, it would be jarring, counter-productive, and inauthentic.
Authenticity is the single most important thing in business. Your culture and management style has to be an outflow of your personality. It's foolish to point to a model that ostensibly works for another organization and hope that it will work for you.
Your business is not Amazon
By most accounts, Amazon is a pretty tough place to work. It reminds me of a modern version of the old General Electric where the bottom 10% of employees was purged every year, without fail. Churn is high due to harsh standards and pervasive burnout. Amazon can get away with this, however, because there seems to be a never-ending supply of fresh recruits looking for employment.
Whether this is due to the company's size or their ability to offer financial incentives, I'm not sure. I am sure, however, that you can get away with an awful lot if you can easily replace employees at a moment's notice.
Most businesses, however, don't have the broad recognition and vast resources of Amazon. Attracting and retaining talent is incredibly hard these days. Business owners that tried to adopt some of Amazon's management techniques would be guilty of overplaying their hand.
Pushing employees out with impossible standards may seem easy, but finding people to replace them is not. For most leaders, their team is their greatest asset. Employees in small and mid-sized companies need to be nurtured and supported, not treated like easily replaced parts.
You aren't prepared for the unintended consequences
One key feature of Amazon's management system is the Anytime Feedback Tool, a resource that allows employees send feedback on their colleagues to management. While the concept seems strong in theory, the tool has led to unintended consequences.
According to the NYT article, it is often used by employees to torpedo their competition and further their political agendas. Most organizations simply cannot handle that kind of negative and paranoid culture.
Amazon is, by most measures, a very successful company. Earlier this year, they became the fastest company to ever reach $100 billion in sales. They've managed to reinvent the way the world shops, and it appears as though they're going to continue to innovate. Their culture may work for them, but it almost certainly won't work for other organizations.
Entrepreneurs and leaders need to stop looking backward to what has worked for others and instead strive to create their own solutions. Find the right balance that works for you and your team; if the culture you arrive at is authentic, it will undoubtedly take root.