The firestorm of controversy about the work environment at Amazon, sparked by the recent New York Times article, has become almost religious. Not only has it surfaced an important dialogue about the personal cost of success, innovation, and entrepreneurship, but it has also brought to center stage the increasing importance of entrepreneurship in organizations of every size.
The New York Times article focused on the enormous toll Amazon's culture of ambition takes on its employees. But what struck me most was that we're measuring Amazon by an artificial metric when, in fact, what Amazon has created is exactly what makes entrepreneurship so critically important to an economy; and I can prove it to you using the New York Times article in less than a minute with four quick steps.
1. Go to the article here.
2. Copy and paste it into a Word doc, then do the following:
3. Replace "Amazon" with "Free Market Economy."
4. Replace "Employee" with "Entrepreneur."
Now, go ahead and humor me, please; try reading the article again.
What you will notice is that everything it says about how horribly unfair Amazon is, how ruthlessly it pushes its employees, how incredibly abrasive and truthful its culture is, how unforgiving the priority of innovation is, and how demanding Amazon is of its employees, will suddenly make perfect sense for the way entrepreneurship works in any free market economy.
The reality is that what Jeff Bezos has done is what incredibly successful leaders do over and over: they create an internal dynamic that mimics the free market. And yet, every time I see this playing out, the company is lambasted for the way it treats its employees, and its CEO paraded out in public as a monomaniacal taskmaster.
Amazon is rich with opportunity to create and innovate precisely because it fosters a culture of intrapreneurship where people can rise above the otherwise deafening corporate din that stifles employees by treating them like children who need to be protected rather than setting the highest possible expectations for them. Is this uncomfortable for some people? Absolutely! But it’s also the meritocracy of a free market that we all aspire to; yet, when we find it, we try to demonize it.
The degree of your success is not measured against, nor limited by, some sort of universal threshold of entrepreneurial endurance beyond which you cannot be pushed.
Bezos' 14 Leadership Principles are the fundamental underpinnings of how entrepreneurs succeed in a free market. But none of this is news to you. For an entrepreneur, this is the world in which you live. You work on holidays, you struggle daily with work/life balance, you make thousands of sacrifices, and you do it because the marketplace is not going to give you a pass, no matter how good your excuse is.
The degree of your success is not measured against, nor limited by, some sort of universal threshold of entrepreneurial endurance beyond which you cannot be pushed. The only thing that is definite is that you will be pushed beyond your perceived point of endurance. The teams I've worked with that break through those barriers, who accept that they can achieve at a level that they never would have otherwise imagined, have formed the most extraordinary bonds of camaraderie and life experiences.
We can debate Amazon's methods all we want, but at the end of the day what we cannot debate is that this is the way free markets work. And it's increasingly the way all organizations will have to operate.
Your goal in leading an organization is not to shelter your people from the market, to dull or dilute the challenge, but to push them to rise to it and overcome it. Does that mean that leaders and organizations that raise the bar by challenging employees cannot also have compassion for them, celebrate individual accomplishment, and reward it? Of course not. Otherwise you will never keep your best and brightest. But lowering the bar never works; it's a sure-fire way to drive out entrepreneurial spirit and lock in mediocrity.
An old friend, Glenn Kelman, wrote an incredibly articulate response to the NYT article, which summed it up best: "Now more than ever, we should come to praise Amazon's grit, not to bury it. Silicon Valley needs it. America needs it."
Yes, that's the way free markets work.