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C H A P TE R 14

Lessons from the Best Company in the World

“Amazon is a great case study for how a company can reimagine its role in an economy and also through its use of imagination, be a driving force in the recreation of an economy.”
~Hendrith Vanlon Smith Jr

I am unashamed to declare to anyone who will listen that I believe Amazon is one of the best companies in the world. Many of you have either been overjoyed by, mad at, or, in some cases, indifferent to the travails of Amazon from a customer or seller perspective. But as an employee, I have experienced both the passenger and driver’s seat in the good and bad. As a result, I have been able to see what makes Amazon so unique and what I believe contributes to its long-term and growing success.

Amazon has colored my experience and how I manage the teams, shifts, departments, and sites I’ve been charged to lead. When I started with the company shortly after my retirement on September 11, 2018, there were just a tick over 400k employees; two years later, there were just under one million customer-obsessed fellow Amazonians showing up to keep the company great every day. Now that number, including both full-time and part-time employees, eclipses one-and-a-half million.

I often refer to defining your success and making the choices you need to make to ensure this second career is as life-giving as the first was. Or more! I want to share with you some of the lessons I have learned at Amazon and why the company is so important to me. I am gratified to have learned lessons from Amazon that I will take with me forever.

Lesson #1: Don’t fight the Skid

I believe that one of the reasons I have had such an overwhelmingly positive experience at Amazon is due to my approach to the company and my work. This tactic of adjusting one’s perspective was something I learned from the Army.

As a post-Brigade Deputy Commander of one of the largest installations in the world, my scope was in the tens of thousands. As a newly minted manager at Amazon, I had one processing assistant and 45 not-so-enthused associates under my management. I would say not so enthused because they were being forced to give up their 24-year- old, super-eager, Amazon-experienced manager for me—the old dude who didn’t know crap.

Rather than fight against what they (and I) knew to be true, I leaned into it like your father taught you to do when you slide into home plate. If you resist, you crash. So, I accepted that they knew more about Amazon than me on my first day. And my approach was just that: I don’t know crap, but I am absolutely willing to learn, deep dive, and earn your trust in an effort to get better. There was a point early on when I could feel them collectively breathe a sigh of relief, and I knew I had won them, at least for the time being.

A lot changed quickly at the company, which is the nature of things. As we buckled up and got to work, we closed ranks to navigate all of the twists and turns. My learning curve was steep, but I was up for the job. So much of what was happening was new, and we were growing. My team and I grew closer, and Amazon as a whole grew too. From when I started in September 2018, Amazon merged with or acquired: Ring, PillPack, Tapzo, CloudEndure, Eero, Canvas Tech, Sizemek, Bebo, E8 Storage, IGDB, Zoox, Whole Foods, and more, spending in excess of $20B. I wasn’t the only one transitioning to a new experience. Thousands were. I just committed to having the best transition of any…!

Lesson #2: Microfocus points can help improve your organization.

For years, I focused on campaign plans, operations orders, and lean program development, but my time as an operations and small-teams manager taught me that hyper-focusing on seemingly small points can incrementally improve the performance of individuals and shifts and, in the end, make a huge difference.

Hyperfocus is a forgotten element of training. But it is extremely powerful when properly applied. Hyperfocus allows an employee to get so skilled at their work that they seem to be blind to anything else that is happening in the room. As they improve one element of their work, their overall productivity rises significantly.

Children are masters of hyperfocus. You can see them get so lost in a game that they cannot see or hear what is happening around them. They can “get in the zone.”

The lesson is that over time, associates master an area, and muscle memory kicks in, allowing them to shift their focus to other areas of concern or interest.

At some point, every manager hired at Amazon was assumed to be better than 50 percent of its current employees. As a philosophy and a way to keep raising the bar, Amazon commits to hiring managers who they believe are better than the top 50 percent of its current leadership. By so doing, Amazon attracts top talent and helps the teams achieve higher performance and productivity.

As a result of this approach, for example, Amazon was able to sustain its work during the 2020 COVID pandemic scare. At a time when people couldn’t leave their homes, the country relied heavily on Amazon deliveries to keep goods flowing. Everything from medicine to food to the entertainment that kept us from going stir-crazy was delivered by Amazon, or carriers like it.

Lesson #3: Individual contributions can make a difference in large organizations.

Amazon is a huge organization. The company encourages innovation at the lowest level and often rolls that innovation out network-wide. Inventing and simplifying is a huge part of company culture. This culture prompts employees to believe that they can make a difference in its operation. This is not a cliché about how we are all a part of the million-and-a-half Amazon team. No, this philosophy reaches each employee individually and convinces them that they matter.

I cannot count the number of times that I have mentioned something great about Amazon and had someone in the room say to me, “Yeah, so and so came up with that.” Invariably, this is someone they know and have worked with closely. Imagine how empowered that must make others feel to know that an idea in their minds might be validated by Amazon and implemented in its daily operations.

It is incredible how things get promulgated at Amazon. If you want to make a difference and live up to the Are Right A Lot leadership principle, Amazon is definitely for you.

Lesson #4 - You May Not Be the Expert

Get comfortable not being the subject matter expert on anything when you are transitioning. It is like standing in line for the roller coaster you’re a little scared to ride. You know that there will be lots of fun moments, but you may not be looking forward to the part where the track goes into the dark cave and turns you upside down. Your journey to a new career starts with the application, resume, headhunter, and interviewing processes. You pray and hope that someone will see your curriculum vitae and be impressed. Then, when you get the offer, your excitement is tapered off by terror. You will ask yourself at least once, “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I do this job?”

Then, after you start, there will be ups and downs. The parts you know will cause you to shine like the North Star. The parts you don’t know will tempt you to run and hide in the bathroom.

Fear not. It gets better, but it also gets harder. Your trek will be rocky initially, but you won’t remember the rocky start a year from now. Lean on those established experts, pay homage to the process champion, and ensure that you express your gratitude for them having made you a better manager.

Lesson #5: Mentorship is a continuous process.

Mentors are invaluable. I have had several and found them to be required for leaders’ personal and professional development. This is not a surprise to most people since the message of mentors has been shared far and wide, both in the military and other organizations. Mentors are quite remarkable people, as they take an interest in someone else’s career with no promise or expectation of gain for themselves. The gain belongs solely to the mentee, as the lessons they learn are essential to their ability to achieve at a very high level. Mentors require us to reflect on what we have learned and help us apply lessons to our lives.

I raise the issue of mentorship in this leadership book about the transition because I find companies and people in general woefully inadequate in establishing mentorship programs or securing mentors individually.

Even the best leaders need mentors. If you are fortunate enough to choose a company that offers a mentorship program, thank your lucky stars. Mentorship programs make it easy for people who want to share to be paired with people who want to learn. The process is easy, and there is no embarrassing rejection when someone wants a mentor who says no to the idea.

If your company or organization doesn’t provide mentors, you should take it upon yourself to choose one. Choosing a mentor is not as difficult as it may seem at first glance. Your mentor does not have to be someone who is an expert in your field. That is a plus, and if you can get it, you should go for it. But the real benefit of a mentor goes far beyond your industry. Look for someone who meets the following criteria:

  • You like to be around them.

This may seem obvious. But the first thing that should draw you to your mentor is that you enjoy being in their company. This could be one-on-one or in a large group. Perhaps you have never formally met your prospective mentor but have heard her or him speak publicly. During those talks, you found this person to be attractive to you as a mentor.

  • They are trustworthy.

There may come a time in the mentor-mentee relationship when you will need to share information that you would prefer not be repeated. Ensure that your mentor is up for that challenge and mature enough to hold information without sharing it as fodder for gossip.

  • They know more than you do.

A mentor is not just a buddy to sit around and chat with over a beer. A mentor should be able to guide and advise you. They may not be an expert in molecular biology, but they know how to get teams to work together effectively.

C O L ( R) L EE A . F L E M M IN G

• They will hold you accountable.

A good mentor is not just a sounding board or someone who is there to help you solve your problems. Their main task is to help you draw out the genius that lies beneath the surface. They must be tough enough to hold you to task and inspire you to press on toward your shared goals.


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