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CHAPTER 16

Hard-Won Scars from Amazon’s Busiest Period

Amazon is focused like a laser on customers. Instead of starting with an idea for a product and trying to convince executives that customers will “love the idea,” Amazon works from the perspective of the customer to come up with ideas that will legitimately generate value. For example, Prime was created because it was understood within Amazon that customers wanted to buy quality products for less money, and customers wantedto receive productsas fast as possible.
~ Brittain Ladd, Forbes contributor, former Amazon employee


The ability to get better after experiencing difficulty and adversity is like building muscle. Muscles are built from damage. When the muscle is strained or torn, the body assumes that the area will be stressed again. So, it builds extra protection (muscle) in the damaged area to ensure it can withstand future damage. The more you are tested and challenged, the better you are at using the strength you have gained through those difficult experiences. The strain and stress at Amazon are never more pronounced than at the end of each year.

Amazon’s Peak is the name for a series of tests, compulsory events, and customer-driven requirements that start the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), go through Cyber Monday, and do not end until Christmas Eve.

During these periods, shopping can increase many times over. So Amazon put systems in place to ensure that holiday shopping is as rewarding for its customers as any other day of the year.

Peak is Amazon’s all-in commitment to customer obsession and the fulfillment of a billion worldwide orders. A drop in excellent customer service, low prices, and fast shipping during this time can sink consumer trust for the rest of the year. To say that Peak is a “no-fail” prospect is an understatement. Do you know those two Aces in the Big Blind that we discussed earlier? Yeah, sometimes you just have to go all in. Peak is one of those times.

The military utilizes comparable tests of organizational effort that are universally understood as grueling examinations of those fortunate enough to participate in Capstone or Crucible events. The sheer prospect of a scheduled Capstone or Crucible exercise consumes formations for months as people prepare to go through the trials and emerge successfully.

For Marines, the Crucible exercise is a 54-hour endurance test involving carrying heavy logs with a crew, hiking long distances, and loading backpacks with limited food and sleep.

Peaks at Amazon are such an indelible part of the company that employees more often measure their time at Amazon by the number of Peaks that they have experienced rather than their years of employment. Peak is simply a digital inferno where everyone, from the most senior manager to the most junior associate, is expected to execute and deliver the results that Amazon is famous for, regardless of the required hours, facility strain, and breathtaking volume.

Amazon does not have a lock on working hard through the holiday season. There are thousands of deployed Service Members, countless retail establishments, and numerous other holiday service providers— not to mention medical personnel, police personnel, and firefighters who devote extra time and effort during these peak seasons.

Amazon, more than any other company or organization that does what it does, is absolutely expected to deliver the Christmas spirit on time. The pressure of Peaks is borne of this responsibility.

The first lesson of this “peak” time for all associates is that they should never stow, pick, or pack anything to be shipped to a customer they would not want their sons or daughters to unwrap. Amazon associates are ever mindful that a toy or gift they pulled off the shelf could be the only present that a parent could afford, and they trust Amazon to convey it to their family. I saw this type of outright customer obsession play out countless times as an exhausted stower or tired picker made split-second decisions that would secure Christmas for someone. The pride I felt was not much different than when one of my Soldiers shot a perfect score or maxed out their physical fitness test. Like many transitioning leaders, I truly think that excellence should be rewarded and admired regardless of job or profession.

Although productivity requirements increase substantially during Peak, it’s only a single data point on the broad spectrum of challenges Amazon associates tackle each day to deliver on the promises the company makes.

Personally, sustaining an engaged “switched-on” demeanor in light of exhaustion and an unrelenting work schedule is elevated as an essential lesson. For me, each year after the long weeks of Peak have ended, I feel much like the eerie calm after a wartime battle in the streets of a foreign theater. I can honestly feel, well after the season has passed, that I am still recovering from the sheer physical and mental effort required to excel as a manager after Christmas. That is the trade-off. I get to work for a stellar organization, and that company requires my optimal performance.

As with many organizations, where the manager goes, so go the employees and associates that that manager charges. A slow morning, sluggish start, or “bad day” will often translate to poor associate performance, putting production objectives at risk. We have already covered the power of association and how deeply we are affected by the people we choose to spend time with. Our workday might be one of the more important examples of that phenomenon since we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families.

Approaching each day as if it were Day 1 with all the vigor and energy that comes with kicking the tires of a new car is what is required and rightfully expected to ensure that our customer promise is never broken. That is the gift I give to my associates. I bring my best self every day, whether I feel like it or not. Sometimes, my best self is a jovial and enterprising spirit that jumps out of bed before I do and is waiting for me in the car, eager to get to the office and start the day. Some days, I must drag my enthusiasm along with my sheer will and decide to show up as all I know I can be. In either case, my company and my team deserve my consistent best.

That is no more pronounced a reality than during Peak, when there is not a second where it is safe to drop the ball. The customer obsession Amazon advocates is an attitude that teaches us to put a person on the other end of every package. We can’t let up, so we don’t.

Another vital lesson from Peak that I will share is that recognition and taking the time to say thank you can go much farther than you can imagine. I guess I intuitively knew that, considering my military career and the pride and appreciation that Service Members show for a tiny piece of ribbon that they can display on their uniform. Associates at Amazon are much the same and simply want to be recognized for exhibiting excellence in their path. I saw highly creative ways to reward exceptional performance and was in awe at the dedication of fellow managers and process assistants to ensure that associates on their teams remained motivated with both simple and complex incentives.

It has been said that people work for money but will die for recognition. I have found that to be true in my life and work. A well-placed and timely thank you goes a long way toward making people feel that their efforts are worth the blood, sweat, and tears. Yes, they get a paycheck, but studies show that, if given a choice, people would choose to be in an environment where they are appreciated over a pay raise. It’s quite remarkable. But it makes sense when you consider that humans are wired to acknowledge and be acknowledged by others.

Billionaire entrepreneur, talk-show host, and OWN network founder Oprah Winfrey once remarked on a curious phenomenon that occurred during her decades of hosting the Oprah Winfrey Show. At the end of every interview, regardless of who the guest was, they would invariably turn to her and say, “How did I do? Was that okay?” She said it was true of celebrities and heads of state just as it was true of mass murderers and Klan members. Each one would turn and ask for her seal of approval. Why? People are designed to thrive on the appreciation of others.

Amazon understands that, as do their management teams. It is a lesson I learned in the military and honed on the floor of our distribution centers. Patting folks on the back reminds them that you see them and they matter. And during Peak periods, that pat on the back can be the juice a tired associate needs to push through another hour and give a little more.

In the end, Peaks have made me better. I became a better and more patient leader for my team. I grew exponentially with the company that has made a place for this old Soldier, and I hope that I contributed to countless happy Christmases for the millions of families whose gifts ran through our sites.

Being tested, challenged, and retested is a significant part of experiencing and working through an Amazon Peak Season. To become more efficient for and add value to the customers that mean so much to the company was easily the best lesson of all.

Make no mistake; any great test comes with battle scars. Even when you win the battle, you go home with proof that you were in the fight. Good shoes, and possibly even great shoes (if there is such a thing), are a must. The miles!! My feet are killing me just writing about it!


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