My First Year in Review
The year I took the uniform off after almost 30 years of service in the US Army was eventful, rewarding, and extremely enlightening
in many ways. It impacted me personally and professionally. September 11, 2018, was the last day that I suited up for the country, and just six days later, I found myself seated with some of the nation’s brightest young minds at an Amazon orientation just north of Nashville. The thoughts and emotions that coursed through me at that time are nearly impossible to describe. There was exhilaration at the new opportunity and all that it would bring. There was nostalgia for leaving behind a life I knew, like I knew my own name. There was a determination to be as effective a leader at Amazon as the Army had taught me to be. I was beginning a new chapter of my life. My destiny was firmly in my hands. I was behind the wheel of my life. This was no time to lose control.
The immersive nature of Amazon has taught me many things about business, the community that I served for so long, and myself. What I learned about myself and life was a part of my reshaping as a person. As I stand today, it was among the best decisions I have made in my lifetime.
The Military Pathways Program, of which I was a member, commits to giving invaluable time and opportunity to its participants. My first responsibility in this program was to lead a 60-person team of pickers, counters, and stowers called associates through the company’s busiest period, from Black Friday through Christmas Eve. It was a huge task to lay on the shoulders of the new kid on the block. Seemingly, this would have been a piece of cake for a retired officer who, at times, had led thousands of Service Members, but you have never been humbled until an associate, in no uncertain terms, tells you that you are not doing your job. Part of the culture is the right of every associate to speak openly and honestly. But this was something that would never have happened in the Army. It was quite a change to adjust to.
In fact, Amazon has a way of introducing situations that are humbling. These stretching opportunities, where you have the chance to share lessons and improve processes that are meant to both develop you as a manager and advance the company, are not uncommon. Team management was just one of the many things that generated personal growth over that first year.
As different as Amazon is from the Army, there are many similarities. Management, benchmarking best practices, the establishment of operating procedures, and one that I continue to find rewarding, mentorship, are threads that run deep both through Amazon and the military. Although it took me some time to find my voice at Amazon, primarily because of the difficulty mastering the technical side of the job, I made my way back to old principles like leading by example, remaining positive, connecting on a deeper level, and most importantly, mentorship. These were the tools I employed throughout
my life and career. They were time-tested and true in any of life’s arenas, so I knew that they would serve me well at Amazon. And they did.
Sharing experiences, finding common ground to impart lessons learned, and providing a sympathetic ear to new and junior managers has been a welcomed commonality between Amazon and the Army. Two key experiences provided mentorship opportunities that I especially treasure. The first involves an amazing fellow manager, Steven Ritch. He and I established the Operational Integration Program to introduce new managers to their responsibilities. This was a program about transitioning, essentially. Making the transition into the management ranks at Amazon requires a particular skill set and mindset. So, we developed the program to help new managers find their footing and focus.
The second occurred when I was given direct charge of several Area Managers and an entire shift. To say that I welcomed the opportunity to manage and mentor junior leaders would be an understatement. It was a blast and continues to be a great joy.
Following a Peak period, I was tasked with leading an entire process and a shift of Amazonians. This shift basically put me in charge of half of the warehouse and coordination responsibility for the other half. The crucible event that I was immediately preparing for was Prime Week, when traffic was especially high on the site with lots of new and returning Amazon Prime members. I am proud to say that my first Prime Week in the fall of 2019 was one of the most successful Amazon periods ever.
Leading that shift was one of my most challenging experiences at Amazon. Focusing on the quality and productivity of an entire process and building is much different than doing so for 60 Associates. Delegation was probably the most transferable military skill in that position. Sharing a higher-level requirement with a subordinate and watching them improve on established processes is very gratifying. I have also learned that through delegation and mentorship, you can prepare managers for their next level of responsibility, boost their confidence, and indirectly assist with retention. Seeing managers on my shift grow and excel was extremely rewarding.
As I reviewed that year, there were certainly highs and lows. But I choose to remain optimistic about it all. Any bumps in the road were met with the same positive attitude that had shaped my career. And I was surrounded by incredibly thoughtful and forward-looking associates who were fellow problem-solvers. We took everything in stride and viewed our problems as opportunities.
My most valuable lessons to date were learned in that first year. These favorites may be eclipsed in the future as I continue my trajectory. But nothing can compare to year one at a company like Amazon. It is like visiting a new country for the first time, learning the language, immersing yourself in the culture, and getting to know the people.
I took several big ideas away from that first year that may help you on your journey in Amazon.
Embrace your critics
One of the lessons I gleaned from the first year, which I still hold dear to my heart, is that the associates and managers you have the hardest time connecting with are the ones you should spend the most time with. I chose to spend extra time with these folks nurturing relationships with them, getting to know them, and learning about their dreams and aspirations in the company. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the investment in these relationships can bear fruit and provide the honesty that you absolutely need on your shift. I could rely on these folks to hold me to task when something wasn’t lining up. And I could trust that it was sincere when they offered a compliment or word of thanks.
This is one of the basic principles at Amazon that came alive for me in a special and very personal way. Opportunities and knowledge gaps are not roadblocks to being successful at Amazon; so long as you are curious and willing to dive deep into those opportunities, you can absolutely continue to excel. Being curious became something of a superpower. It heightened my situational awareness. I learned to look at things with a third eye and ask:
Why do we do it that way?
Where is that going?
Can we do that better?
How can I simplify that process?
What caused that mistake, and how can I prevent it in the future?
The Ends Do Not Justify the Means
Some companies have a win-at-all-costs mentality. They don’t care who they have to crush to get where they want to be. They will steamroll over you if you stand in the way of their goals.
But my biggest lesson, and probably one of the most valuable life lessons I have learned, is that how you win is absolutely more important than if you win. The ins and outs of this mantra are so broad and sweeping that I could write an entire book about it.
The way winning is expressed is more of an inside commitment that my team and I have made rather than an Amazon obligation, but I have found it to be an essential part of my own code of conduct. It has guided decisions, broken ties at decision points, and served as the umbrella that has kept the sun out of our eyes and the rain out of our hair. Simply stated, Amazon is absolutely a business where doing what’s right is important.
In a company that I have seen grow from 400k when I joined to more than 1.5 million, there are many opportunities to learn about commerce, growth, leadership, and yourself. I wish I could tell everyone to apply and work for Amazon. But the truth is something that I have learned during my tenure: Amazon is not for everyone. There is an attitude, a spirit, and a mindset that help certain people succeed in the company. For others, it would not be the right environment or career choice. That is hundred percent okay. I have, sadly, had to say goodbye to absolutely fantastic, intelligent, and driven people who decided to leave when they discovered Amazon was not suitable for them. Associates, managers, and contractors leave for other prospects, and we always wish them well as they depart our communities for pastures that, for them, are greener.
Change is the only sure thing at Amazon. Processes, technology, and personnel are constantly changing. People are always either transitioning up or transitioning out. I have met long-tenured Amazonians who are driven by this ever-changing behemoth of a company.
Change is a critical component of my success as well. I have changed and evolved internally. I commit myself to improving every day and leaving this company better than I found it, hopefully, for many years.
Many people transition because they are unhappy with where they are in their lives. They feel unfulfilled, have unrealized dreams, or don’t feel a sense of pride about what they have already accomplished. That was not the case for me. There were a number of things I could be proud of before my transition from Boots to Amazon. I had commanded at all levels of the Army through Brigade, deployed in defense of our nation, owned my own business, my family was in the process of building a new home, and I was preparing to compete in the main event of the World Series of Poker as a capstone to a very successful and experienced amateur poker career. What more could any man want? But I did want more. I had pushed myself to stellar levels in my career, personal life, and hobbies. Yet, my thirst was not quenched. I surrendered my military clothing and equipment after 28 years in the military. That part of my life was finished, and a new chapter was set to begin.
The World Series of Poker was a major source of inspiration to make major moves in my life. Of all the intricate and scary things I have faced, it was one of the scariest. But I learned long ago that the only response to fear is to forge ahead. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” was a mantra I adopted and lived by. So, I was not about to blink in the face of realizing my dream to play in this event after cutting my teeth on local circuits, community, and series tournaments.
It was a lesson I carried with me into every area of my life. There is plenty to fear in the corporate world. The company could go belly up. Your department could be downsized and your position eliminated. You could get outright fired or, worse, laid off with no idea what your future with the company will be. There are fears in family life, with couples divorcing, kids veering off the straight and narrow path, and sickness ravaging families. There are fears to consider everywhere. And since fear is so ubiquitous, the only response to it is to disregard it.
Fear can never be allowed to vote. That is not to say fear does not have a role to play. It often makes good points at the board meeting of life. Fear alerts you to dangers you may have otherwise failed to consider. Fear highlights areas of deficiency that would make the task at hand untenable. But most importantly, fear gives you situational awareness.