Make Your Work Matter: A Lesson From Apple and Amazon

Long ago, I read Harvard professor Michael Porter's work on corporate strategy and competitive advantage. It helped me become a better recruiter by tying each job to my client's business strategy. For a candidate, this was an essential component of any career move--doing work that matters. So when I read about Amazon leasing 20 767 airplanes to reduce the cost of shipping, it brought Porter's work back to mind.

Based on my crude interpretation of Porter's work, I came up with the four major corporate strategies described below. For attracting the best people, it is important that the open job ties in some way to one of these strategies. For job seekers, it is important they select jobs that make a strategic impact on the company. That's how you make work matter. Here's some background on how to get started.

Embed the four corporate strategies into your recruiting efforts.

Operational excellence: Speed, efficiency, low cost, and high volumes

This defines Amazon and why it purchased the 767s--to reduce cost and increase efficiency. This strategy is also the core at Costco and most non-high-end retail operations and every commodity manufacturer in the world.

Product innovation: State-of-the art products and design sold at premium prices

Think Tiffany & Co. and Lamborghini (its new entry-level car goes for $250,000) to start, and, of course, Apple. While Apple combines all of the strategies, this one dominates, and the company's stock price takes a hit when it fails to deliver.

The customer is king: Create, grow, and maintain market share

When the products are pretty much the same (banks, insurance, retail), the customer experience matters and so does the advertising and the people doing the selling. Review the crop of Super Bowl advertisers for specific examples of companies driven by this strategy.

Financial maximization: Drive the stock price higher

Include all of the VC-backed companies in this group, although they need at least one of the other strategies to play the game. Just like Apple, they underperform when one of the other strategies falters.

Mapping the strategy to the job starts when opening the requisition. In this case, the hiring manager needs to ask this question, "What's the most important thing the person in this role needs to do to help achieve our dominant business strategy?" Next, review the laundry list of skills, traits, and experiences and select the three or four most important ones. For each one, ask, "How is this skill or competency actually used on the job and how does this impact our business?"

Summarize these performance objectives into bullet points and prepare job postings and email messages in the following format:

  • Compelling title or subject line "Job Title--Big Impact." For example, for a financial analyst at an operational excellence company, it would be, "Our Financial Analysts Drive Our Profitability."
  • First line Explain the compelling title by describing more clearly how the role impacts your business strategy.
  • Body of message Insert the performance objectives in priority order.
  • Call to action "Don't apply. Instead send an email to with a link to your LinkedIn profile and a one paragraph summary of something you've accomplished most related to what we need done."

Here's an example of this type of email and the legal justification for keeping your messages short, non-boring, and more objective.

Use the four strategies to develop a career strategy.

The principle job hunters should follow is to find work where their strengths and motivation map closely to the company's business strategy. Making a business impact is how a person can accelerate his/her career growth.

To work at an Amazon-like company with an operational efficiency focus, you should be dreaming about how you can implement six sigma process improvements. Prove it to get an interview. To survive in any VC-backed company you need to think scale, scale, scale, and you'd better sizzle any place where the product or service needs to sizzle. If you can build, design, launch, or sell premium products at premium prices, why not put together a portfolio or study as a conversation starter? And if optimizing the customer experience is your goal, you need to do just that to get the interview, the job and the promotion.

Long ago, I met a remarkable packaging engineer from Michigan State working at a company that didn't value his services. He quickly got discouraged, put in minimal effort and received mediocre performance reviews. A few years later he excitedly told me he found a job doing state-of-the-art packaging design for a company (it wasn't Apple, but it could have been) that created remarkable customer experiences starting with how their products were packaged.

This is a common story. When a person's work matters, it makes all the difference in the world.

Make your work matter.