Pillars of Development
Sometimes it ain’t about being the most talented.
Sometimes it ain’t about being the smartest. Sometimes it’s not even about workingthe hardest. Sometimes it’s about consistency! Consistency!... The next time you feel slightly uncomfortable with the pressure in your life,remember no pressure, no diamonds. Pressureis a part of success.”
~ Eric Thomas, Ph.D. in Education Administration from Michigan State University, motivational speaker,
pro football player, hip hop preacher
“Own Your Development” is a common tenet at Amazon and other companies. Owning your own development does not mean that you should consider working for a company with no development program. I have already suggested that would be a bad idea. But even if the company has developmental resources, your education is your responsibility, especially since you have the most to gain (or lose) from what you do or do not know.
For months, I misunderstood Amazon’s developmental mantra of owning your development. I mistook their recommendation that employees get in the driver’s seat of their professional growth as a sign that the company did not take the development of employees seriously.
The truth is that Amazon offers countless professional opportunities for managers and employees alike. They were not seeking to discourage access to these opportunities. Instead, they admitted that each employee’s development could follow a different trek and include unique elements. They wanted each employee to think carefully about the additional knowledge, training, or experience they might need to advance their careers. The mantra encourages employees to take advantage of opportunities as they arise and to seek out managers or fellow Amazonians who can provide feedback and assistance on topics that may not be covered or aren’t covered to the extent they need them to be.
I launched DAL3, an Amazon Robotics building in Dallas, Texas, as a Senior Operations Manager in the summer of 2020, very close to Texas high school graduation time. At the time, we were onboarding a host of new associates. I made it a practice to ask new employees what brought them to Amazon. One night I asked the question to 100 new starts; 35 of them had graduated from high schools in the Dallas area that day. I could only imagine how nice it must have felt to those associates to finish school and, on the same day, get a job that could pay you over$30k per year. Millennials! Talking about hiring and developing the best. It was amazing.
It was exciting to have these fresh faces and wide eyes on board. But I cautioned them (and, hopefully, inspired them) that their opportunities at Amazon were nearly limitless. They could grow and develop along many different paths if they were willing to invest time in training and study.
Intuitively, we all know that development is essential to a company’s growth and to the growth of each employee. Investing in employees, junior managers, and senior leaders and creating an environment where priorities and objectives are reviewed, understood, and challenged is a tenet of large organizational structural development. In this light, Amazon focuses on this imperative by challenging associates and managers to own their development. Leadership principles like Learn and Be Curious, Ownership, Deep Dive, Innovate, and equally task-worthy mantras highlight the onus to charge one’s own growth. This model has been extremely successful to date but is not easy to sustain over time.
This is tough to admit since the concept looks attractive on paper and feels very empowering. In reality, it can be a source of great frustration for employees. Behemoth companies such as Xerox, Kodak, Nokia, and IBM all failed in some part due to the lack of development of their personnel and their failure to innovate. My experience working for 28 years with another large company, the United States Army, highlights that both institutional and personal-development are essential to cultural and relevant survival. One does not seem to exist in the wild without the other. The primary difference between Amazon and the military is that the military has hundreds of worldwide competitors that, on any one day, could prove themselves better and overtake the US’s spot as the most powerful, well-trained, and feared force on the planet.
Ask any of the close or even far-flung competitors of the United States military why they have not achieved similar prominence. They are not likely to highlight the technological advances, educational advantages, or money machine financing the military-industrial complex in the US; instead, they will simply state that the country’s investment in leadership development from the youngest corporal to the most seasoned sergeant major and general is lacking in their country.
An honest assessment would illustrate that they would not be able to catch up to the US in leadership development any time soon because it takes years—decades even—to build such a culture that it would be faster to tear the whole thing apart and rebuild it from the ground up.
Similarly, Amazon could confidently say that current-day competition is in the single digits, if they are being generous. The barrier to entry for creating anything close to Amazon’s size, girth, and capacity is massive. But their commitment to developing leaders cannot be easily quantified in a Fox Business News or Forbes Best report.
Owning your personal growth and development is essential, but organizational education and benchmarked development can add near-term and intrinsic value that sustains and promotes culture at whatever level they are introduced. The military sees development in terms of legacy, the next generation, and an investment in the future of the forces.
Amazon, a giant in its own right, could learn a few things from the US military. If I had the ear of the CEO, I would recommend a continuation of the self-paced development model, but I would add two more pillars to that model to ensure the long-term stability and legacy of the company. The second pillar would be a more established local developmental program. And the third pillar would be a formalized institutional development program.
The fact is that these programs would not be a stretch for Amazon in that they exist in some ways already. Whether through computer-based training or career choice seminars taught by facility leaders, Amazon has local development programs that exist under other names. The point is that these programs often appear disjointed and lack synchronization. This would not be a surprise to the staunchest Amazon advocate like myself to hear.
As facilities have relatively flat architecture, these programs could be used as incentives for hard work, achievement, and future potential. The great thing about a formalized development program is that it gives both associates and managers a tool to use for acknowledging exceptional work ethics. As a company, Amazon is big on recognition, so introducing a development experience for a high-performing employee could be a great addition to the current appreciation structure.
As much as local development would not be a stretch for Amazon, on the opposite end of the spectrum, large-scale institutional development does not exist at present and would challenge the prevailing norm. My big idea: Amazon needs an instructional facility, a so-called “Center for Excellence,” that aids the company with new equipment fielding, associate and manager training, and above all, Development. These educational tools abate attrition, tie transitioners to company culture, and ultimately increase the longevity of our Veterans by offering similar experiences. The facility could comprise a fully functioning operations and customer fulfillment platform that is run by high- performing associates and managers training for their next position. Classrooms could deep-dive, discuss, and then test the fielding of new equipment and software before it was rolled out to field FCs. And development opportunities for associates and managers from around the world would allow benchmarking of high-potential employees and possibly extend the tenure of exceptional Amazonians within the company. The Amazon Center for Excellence could be established in short order and provide an immediate impact on the FC operations environment within a very limited period of time. Whether a current, obsolete, or new facility was converted to the Center, much-needed developmental opportunities could be offered to associates and managers.
The beauty of Amazon is that it recognizes opportunity wherever it exists. From small to big innovations, the company is always growing and reaching new heights.
I have learned while leading America’s finest men and women that being different is not always bad. In embracing the differences of Amazon’s leadership principles, I have discovered more similarities and commonalities than divergence, especially in the realms of development, communication, earning trust, and delivering results.
Employee development reflects how good your leadership is, and great leaders take pride in seeing their team excel and develop skills that not only help themselves but the organization. Cross-training, process path changes, and new opportunities are always promoted and widely disseminated to ensure associates understand the breadth of potential experiences at Amazon.
A good friend of mine, Major General Johnny K. Davis, put it best when he stated:
“Exceptional leaders are selfless servants who exude humility and empathy among subordinates and superiors. They also invest in their people because they are the future.”
I have found it refreshing that Amazon is keen on expanding associate prospects, which is borne out by the individual and site leadership’s personal commitment to expanding these opportunities for willing associates.
Excellent leaders communicate and do so, believing that the time they take to ensure understanding is an investment in the individual, team, and organization. The fruit of communication is not always tangible. In fact, the simple act of doing so may even be a drag on productivity. Amazon has implemented exceptional systems at the operations level that foster individual, small teams, and facility synchronization.
Similar to the Army’s Three Block War, which illustrates the complexities and spectrum of combat operations, Amazon leaders could find themselves involved in and discussing multifaceted business approaches one minute and dealing with individual associate performance the next. To do both well takes communication skills that are part of the daily cadence at Amazon. Whether it is bridging a volume miss or an associate issue, the requirement to understand the why and communicate that understanding is part of what makes a successful leader. These transitional skills will assist you in succeeding in any company you decide to lend your skills to.
Associate trust is hard-earned at Amazon. Associates, much like Soldiers, look for a leader who is willing to tell them the truth, has integrity, and speaks with candor and transparency. The fact is that if a leader is not honest, nothing else matters. Living by this ideal at Amazon often creates some really tough discussions, but the consequences of not doing so can absolutely create a toxic and feral work environment. The fortitude it takes to discuss with people who are not meeting the standard and who, you know, depend on work to support their families, is unlike any other. The fine line that we all walk is that trust and loyalty, although hard-earned, can absolutely be lost forever and in a blink. But the trust earned from the truthful exchange and the eventual work improvement performance can be extremely rewarding. Truthful conversations are how you get real and lasting results.
Amazon is the most results-oriented organization I have ever been a part of, and as hard as it is to write this given my Ranger, infantry, business, and scholarly exploits, it’s simply true. The one thing that my experiences have in common is that great leaders deliver results in whatever arena they are working in and with whatever they are asked to do. There is no task too mundane or menial. Give a stellar leader any requirement, and they will find no reason why it should not be done well and to the highest standards.
Command Sergeant Major Morris Welch, one of my favorite leaders, always told me that “leaders test mediocrity and deliver winning results.” This echoes in my ear daily as we strive to improve team performance and become better today than we were yesterday. I no longer have the sergeant major whispering in my ear, but I have found many team process assistants and area managers to be just as demanding and equally up to the task. These are the principles great leaders bring to the job and that are enhanced by being in an environment where such principles are highly valued.
I joined Amazon because they, much like the Army, are willing to publicly announce what they stand for through their leadership principles. I have found that occasionally falling short of something aspirational is much better than failing at something that is non- existent in most companies.
There is another stark similarity: an ever-apparent distinction between being in charge versus providing inspired leadership. And the gap between those who do and don’t provide inspired leadership creates a chasm that can only be bridged through development, communication, trust, and results.
A sample of the 16 guiding leadership principles Amazon espouses include:
• Customer obsession
• Invent and simplify
• Earn Trust
• Learn and Be Curious
• Insist on the Highest Standards
• And Hire and Develop the Best.
It’s hard to imagine how a company can lose with such solid principles undergirding its work day to day. And therein lies the key: these must be the driving principles by which all things are measured. If a particular behavior is not aligned with the principles, it is easy to call it out by simply pointing back to the principles. If a particular decision seems askew in the face of those principles, anyone can see it and mention it.
Take the last value: Hire and Develop the Best. Amazon is always on the hunt for top-quality talent. It is their claim to fame to have some of the best and brightest minds working there. But they don’t just look for great people, set them in their offices, and wish them luck. They work to make the best even better. Transitioning service personnel can expect to be challenged and pushed to their limits by team members and managers who flat-out know their business.