Too many people are making too big a deal about Amazon’s so-called culture problem. I’ve read some posts from academics and reporters who quite frankly don’t have a clue. Jeff Bezos has it right. Amazon doesn’t have a culture problem. However, Amazon does have a hiring problem at least when it comes to hiring and promoting people for management positions.
First off, culture is driven by a number of internal and external factors. Specifically,
- The CEO’s leadership style
- The pace of the organization
- The competitive intensity of the industry
- Whether the company is publicly traded or not
- Internal and external pressure caused by mandated deadlines, business disruptions, the need to meet financial performance targets, lack of resources, reorganizations, project timelines or inadequate planning
I worked with Disney and Mattel in the 80s and 90s and they were as intense as any companies around. This includes Apple under Steve Jobs, Goldman Sachs (up to last year) and most start-ups funded by VCs who don’t invest in companies to make friends. I’ve also personally worked with and for CEOs who were well-known, with big egos, but who were also brilliant, tough-minded and lived a “no excuses” mentality. Amazon meets all of the conditions of this type of hyper-competitive internal and external environment. So don’t blame the culture. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. As someone said, if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.
This is where the hiring of managers problem exists. A challenging environment can be tamed by a great manager and worsened by a poor one. Great managers are confident enough in their ability to insulate their staff from the pressures of rapid pace, changing circumstances, demanding deadlines and high expectations. Weaker ones make matter worse.
The best are well-organized, hire people who can stand the heat, give their people enough coaching and support to better the odds of success, break down barriers to progress, provide extra resources when necessary, ensure their teams meet their commitments, and proactively provide pressure relief when needed.
Weaker managers are reactive, succumb to the pressure, hire the wrong people, become extra demanding and demeaning, blow up when things go wrong and play favoritism when things go right. All of the complaints about Amazon's s0-called "culture problems" I suspect can be attributed to these weaker managers, rather than Amazon’s core intense culture.
I’ve met dozens of people who have worked and still work at Amazon. I haven’t met anyone who isn’t smart. However, I’ve met many who aren’t good managers. Just reading the Glassdoor.com reviews confirms this. However, I've met many of their top managers, too, and they don't have the same cultural problems as the weaker managers. So it's not a big leap to conclude the root cause of the problem is hiring or promoting the wrong people into management positions.
It a nutshell, great managers don’t have to be brilliant technically, they have to be brilliantly organizationally. As most of you know when I interview candidates I ask them to describe their most significant accomplishments in excruciating detail. Without prompting I expect the best managers to tell me about their most significant management accomplishments. The caution flag is raised very high if they choose mostly individual accomplishments. For those that describe a management project I then ask a bunch of fact-finding questions like the following to determine their management effectiveness:
- Describe the organization and team involved.
- Describe the environment including the pace, competitive pressures, level of sophistication, speed in which change is implemented and whether they thrive in this situation or are just surviving.
- Rank the people on the team and describe how they built and developed the team.
- Describe the planning process from conception to final execution and whether the plan was met or not.
- Describe the scope, scale, support systems used, budget, impact and who the position or project reported to.
- How did they get the assignment and why were they chosen?
- Did they rehire anyone from previous roles?
- Describe how they support, coach and develop their strongest and weakest team members.
- Describe how they delegate work and follow up.
- Find out if they manage managers, directors or VPs differently than manage direct staff.
Then I ask similar questions for different management roles to better understand their growth in span of control, scope and scale over time. Based on all of this I can then make some judgment whether the person is able to handle the open management role.
It’s quite evident that Jeff Bezos is brilliant strategically. What’s not so evident is if he’s a brilliant manager like Tim Cook at Apple. If not, that could be the reason he doesn’t have his organization focus on hiring and developing brilliant managers. If he did, no one would be making such a brouhaha about Amazon’s culture. Instead they’d say it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, or more likely, they wouldn’t say anything. That’s what happens when you hire great managers who know how to hire great people.