Every CEO, leadership expert, and financial investor is talking about Amazon this week. Not because of their drone technology or their explosive stock price growth, but because of what 100 employees told The New York Times, resulting in the equivalent of a scathing one-star rating for Jeff Bezos in "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace."
Many are talking about how this has hurt Amazon, but I disagree. It will actually help them and many other CEOs who are wondering if this is a true representation of what is occurring in their own organizations that they don't know about. In my work, helping accelerate growth and innovation in companies, I find the most successful leaders know when to be ruthless with how they spend their time, energy, and resources.
Amazon has a unique culture, one that may not suit everyone. Armchair corporate commentary is easy and often misguided. Until you live, breathe, and become an Amazonian, as I did on the Fashion Leadership Team during explosive growth, it is impossible to understand. Imagine having a job where your sole purpose is to delight customers. Where you are free to challenge your boss and your boss's boss as long as you back up your arguments with data. Wouldn't you want to work at a place where all of your time, energy, and resources are spent obsessing over customers, rather than internal drama? Prove you have an innovative idea, as I did, and you will get fast funding and approval to go hire a team to create your dream idea.
Ambitious, determined, focused entrepreneurs don't choose a career in civil service at a local government office. Similarly, anyone looking for two-hour lunch breaks and an easy workload shouldn't choose to work in a fast-growing Fortune 500 company that sprouts more innovation every 12 months than many companies create in a lifetime. Amazonians who did their research well prior to accepting a job offer should not be surprised. When I read the New York Times article, I winced at some of the personal examples, but quietly nodded along with some of the points concerning intense focus and relentlessness. I wasn't surprised that a journalist could find 100 disgruntled employees from a company that employs 180,000.
Amazon is experiencing what is becoming the new corporate flagrant weakness: investing in too much talent. They are trying to hire too fast. Like many CEOs of fast-growing companies, Bezos targeted top industry talent to run new initiatives in TV, fashion, cloud services, drones, and gaming. New executives arrive, and they are expected to drive for results and have a bias for action (referring to two of the 14 Amazon leadership principles), yet they don't have the right teams in place to go and execute on all of the great ideas.
This has created many tornados inside their rapidly growing divisions because initiatives are not scaled back or prioritized when the team is only 50 percent staffed--the team just has to absorb the extra work. If you are in a team that is staffed fully, your experience is remarkably more positive.
I have distilled the lessons from Amazon and other successful, rapidly growing, and innovative companies into four ways leaders can accelerate innovation:
- Stop hiring so fast
Use this Talent Barometer to prioritize who you should hire when: consider the role's strategic importance, your desired speed to market, how scarce the expertise is, and what productivity gains could be made by hiring someone to fill the role right now. Innovation stalls when you have incomplete teams.
- Avoid haphazard understanding
Amazon's average length of service is reported to be just 12 months. There are more new leaders than old leaders everywhere, and they're all trying to figure out a peculiar culture that creates rapid innovation but is hard to understand. Don't let your new leaders learn your culture in a haphazard way. Ruthlessly prioritize giving new leaders the support they need to understand how your company works and apply that knowledge. Provide coaching and mentoring as they make the cultural leap from their last company to yours.
- Become more employee-obsessed
Amazon's customer obsession is commendable. It is the pivotal reason they can create so much innovation rapidly, and their marketing and communication to customers is refreshing and inspiring. To continue to grow, Amazon is going to need to apply this equally to their employees. Innovation occurs when candid conversations happen at every level of the organization. Are you inspiring your current and future employees? Here are 17 ideas you could implement today.
- Start being more Thoughtfully Ruthless
Rapid growth can create incomplete teams, which drags everyone into spending too much time worrying about tactics and execution. Try this to rapidly accelerate your innovation: Ask your recent hires how you can help them be more ruthless, in a thoughtful way, with how they spend their time, their energy, and their resources. Ask, listen, and act.
While Jeff Bezos and his executive team may have marked the one-star New York Times story "Not Helpful," many future Amazonians now can decide for themselves if this is a company they want to join, and complete their own research into the business, team, and manager they are going to work for. At the same time, Bezos can decide how much more employee-obsessed he wants to become.
How can these lessons help you become more ruthless?
Contact me if you want to receive my Innovation Inventory Measurement tool to determine how innovative your company is today and how you can rapidly accelerate innovation.