Every business has a set of principles that codify how it thinks, works, and interacts with the world around it. These principles can be implicit - part of the culture - or they may be explicit, in the form of stated company values and/or mission statement.
Amazon's Leadership Principles are one of the better-known examples. I have pretty mixed feedback for Amazon overall as a business, I'd say, but I did personally find a lot of value in the Leadership Principles.
Amazon uses these principles throughout its business functions: analyzing candidates in interviews, in day-to-day execution of projects, and in performance management.
In this article I'm going to give my take on each of the Leadership Principles, and talk about why I think having something like this is important - even if your principles may vary.
To begin, let's assume by axiom that we aim to have the most diverse and equitable staff we can reasonably obtain. To achieve this, we will first need to work to eliminate unconscious bias in our hiring pipeline. To do so, we need a guiding set of principles against which we can evaluate candidates - separate from our own internal character judgments.
To lay it clear, you can call me a Social Justice Warrior (SJW). I'd be happy to see the institutions of injustice dismantled and smoldering in flames, if we could rebuild a fair and equitable society atop their rubble. This is one of my own guiding principles.
But, let's suppose you're just a plain business guy, and don't care about all of that hootenanny. The fact is that diverse teams create better business outcomes, and that's something we can agree has value, I think. This is particularly true of businesses which must interface with the general public, that must create products and services that are attractive to a wide range of customers. You need enough diversity at your company to understand the diversity of needs and desires of the customers you hope to sell to. Capitalism 101, really.
Evaluating candidates against a clear, immutable set of principles leads towards hiring employees that share values alignment with your company, even if they might be of a very different background and identity.
But setting aside DE&I even more, let's assume you only seek to hire one type of person: redheaded dudes named Jameson. (Talk about a "pipeline issue," right?) But anyway, even in that group, you'll want to differentiate redheaded Jamesons who share your business' values with those redheaded Jameson who don't.
Alright. Let's try a tour-de-force of analysis by wading through Amazon's principles.
Firstly, Amazon has arguably too many principles. Some are better than others. But, we can probably all find a handful that we may like to take inspiration from.
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
Running a business requires managing a wide range of competing constraints - staffing, profit and loss, regulatory environment, competitive landscape -- man. But, Amazon's first (and in my opinion, most useful) leadership principle is about cutting through all of that, building a connection to the customer, and addressing their needs directly.
To deliver on this principle, you must first identify who your customer is - and then meet them in the place where its easy for them to provide feedback. If you work in consumer products, your customer is probably the general public, and they have lots of feedback. You need to analyze and study this feedback and use it to guide your investments.
Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job."
To understand Ownership, I like to use an analogy. Let's say you and I setup a lemonade stand - yup, just you and me. To start, we're making all of the decisions, buying and making everything. We don't take shortcuts that'll come back to bite, since we're the ones who'll get bitten.
Most aspects of a business can be viewed as that lemonade stand. Even large successful corporations are made up of many such lemonade stands, working under one name. Eventually you get Juice Extraction Engineers, Northeast Beverage Sales Marketing Directors, etc. -- but the same entrepreneurial commitment to the business can grow each of these functions just as it did our little stand.
Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here." As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.
At it's surface, this one is blind chest-puffing about being creative. Yes, we'll try to be more creative, and thank you.
But as an Engineer, I read this one as a statement of "build vs. buy," mostly. As a small company, you almost always buy, since the cost of building anything robust is prohibitive. At a medium-sized company, you occasionally build custom solutions to unique problems in your businesses domain, that might be exploitable for business reasons. But at a large company like Amazon, they have entire teams building truly frivolous shit. The default is "we'll build it, because we're great." That arrogance has lead to the death of many huge corporations over time, though. As I note in my discussion of Frugality, it is better to view your individual team as a small business existing inside of a corporation. You may "buy" tools from internal tools teams, but you almost certainly don't want to build your own.
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
Along with Frugality (below), this is an oft-misunderstood principle. In order be effective at Amazon, you have to be right a lot. There are essentially two ways you can be right a lot: (1) by being hot shit; (2) by sourcing really good information.
Now, the problem comes about in that you're only one person. As the scope and complexity of problems you work on grows, (2) becomes more important. You may be a domain expert in a particular area, but you can't be in 10, 20, 30 areas all at the same time. As you work on bigger and bigger things, you become right a lot by identifying experts and synthesizing their inputs. The Senior Principal engineers I met at Amazon essentially spend all day doing this - like technical judges or referees, you might say.
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
Most companies have some notion of continuous improvement, or evolving to meet a new set of constraints. This LP is probably one of the least specific to Amazon, but it is nevertheless important for their business that folks be adaptable to changing business constraints, new projects, new technical possibilities, etc.
Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.
Honestly, shout out to the Career Choice team for getting a straight-up plug in a company-wide LP. That's next-level leverage. I never saw that tool in my 5 years at Amazon, which makes it even more impressive (and, also why you probably need to update/iterate on your principles over time.)
By default, your good employees will go to "better" companies, and your bad employees will stick around. Amazon realized this early on, and tried to create a mechanism to combat it, in that every new hire has to be better than 50% of the people doing that same job at the same level. So in order to just maintain the competencies of your current staff, you have to constantly be replacing the high-performers, from the top of the candidate pool. Another easy way to get good people in senior positions is through promotion - cheaper, easier, less disruptive than training up new staff.
Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.
Particularly in large, complex software systems, quality is a slippery slope. You skip an interface, add a feature in a convenient but incorrect location - eventually you've got a mountain of tech debt and your business has ground to a halt. It takes active work to avoid this situation, and it takes confidence and a quality-minded philosophy to power it.
Note: the LP mixes in a bit of Ownership, too. I'd probably include something like this in my own business principles if I were starting from scratch.
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.
Humans are creatures of comfort. It's easy enough to set some KPIs, start grinding towards goals, and spend the next few years marching down that line. All the while, the world has been changing around you, and there are massive opportunities that you've been missing. Here, I'm talking about opportunity cost.
But more than that, the first step to actually doing amazing things is believing that it's possible to do amazing things. More than a few times at Amazon, I saw small teams of 5-6 people deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of business value, build products used by millions of people, get plastered all over the news. Having seen it, it is amazing how fast things can change for a small hard-working team. At first, it's quiet. The future is uncertain. Then, things start happening. The team is still tiny, but the result is big. The team's working style doesn't change even though the results have.
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
One of my managers at Amazon used to call me "Mr. Bias for Action," and it probably is one of my favorites. It absolutely does not mean to just do stuff without consideration of the consequences, cowboy-style. But, it means that many things can be done that way. The key skill you need to flex in order have a bias towards action is to be able to identify risk.
Stuff that's low risk? Just do it now. Stuff that's more subtle? Put on the breaks, bring people in, bias towards Are Right A Lot, instead.
Amazon also talks about "one way doors." Frequently in design docs, PRFAQs, etc., you'll see a list of one-way decisions - decisions which can't be undone - listed. As a basic litmus test, you should move fast when a decision is reversible, and you should move slow and calculatedly when it is not. And may God grant you the serenity to know the difference.
In that they all deal with execution, Bias for Action is a lot like Deliver Results or Ownership. But whereas Deliver Results discusses an outcome, Bias for Action is more like Are Right a Lot in that it gives a framework for making decisions that lead to results.
But frankly, most people I've worked with at small companies are already biasing for action. This LP is more important at an aging juggernaut like Amazon, to reiterate that being big and slow is a death sentence for them.
Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.
Frugality is one of the most misunderstood leadership principles at Amazon. At first glance, it appears to be a statement about cost-cutting and maximizing profits. Paradoxically, Amazon doesn't operate like that: it makes bold investments for long-term growth, and rarely cuts corners on dumb stuff.
When I was in my early twenties, I spent 6 weeks bumming around Nepal. It was a beautiful, wonderful experience - but it was one of the first times I'd seen poverty of that level and scale. However, as anyone who has spent time in these environments can tell you, necessity is the mother of invention. If your gas-powered electric generator isn't working, you can't just go buy a new one - you learn how to fix your generator. When it happens again, you do it fast. Soon enough, you can assemble one from parts. Meanwhile, the rich kids are hooked on buying new ones: what waste.
In my opinion, this is really what Frugality is about at a place like Amazon: "constraints breed resourcefulness." Applying dollar-stinginess to your staff or core parts of your business is something different, and will likely yield bad results.
Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.
Earn Trust is one of the most weaponized principles at Amazon, because it is so subjective. If someone doesn't like you or something you've done, they'll say you failed to "earn trust" with them.
On its surface, Earn Trust is about how members of a business treat one another, respond to feedback, and set goals. But in practice, it is also about how cohesive you are with those around you. For example, you could be a huge arse-hole - to the point where people could trust you'll be an asshole whenever they deal with you - but you would have failed to earn trust.
Ultimately I do not think this is a great leadership principle, because it takes a number of very important soft skills, muddles them together, and then weaponizes them. I'd much rather see this rephrased as "Treat Others With Respect," or something like that, and then put at the top of the list.
Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.
Dive Deep is capturing a few things. In large corporations with many layers of reporting, it is common for employees to delegate tasks. In turn, reports bubble up overly-summarized information which paints a rosy picture of reality. But as a business leader, you need to be able to measure and monitor your business. What happens if someone is out sick? Quits? As a very practical matter, you need to be able to do that work - at least until you can find someone else to do it. It's worth noting that "getting your hands dirty" is an absolutely necessary way to earn trust and respect as a Staff+ engineer (who has at most borrowed authority), as well.
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
Alright, this one is a cluster-fuck, honestly. The TL;DR is "stand up for things that are important, but work as a team when a decision is reached." This is another leadership principle that is frequently weaponized. At a place like Amazon, there are a lot of dedicated, smart people with strong opinions. And people do frequently challenge decisions in a respectful way. It's often moot, though, as Amazon is highly-hierarchical. The Single Threaded Owner concept is also in direct opposition to the notion of Having Backbone-- unless you're the STO.
The Disagree and Commit part is more often how you'll see this one come up. It means "shut up and do the work I'm assigning you."
To be fair, I did interact with some leaders who struck a great balance between these two, but it's rare to find in practice. Maybe it's the most challenging of the LPs to observe and exemplify.
Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.
Deliver Results is sort of a hodge-podge mashup of a few others, TBH. Frankly, Amazon has too many leadership principles, and its missing some really critical, foundational ones. (We'll get to that.)
Dissecting it a bit, it says to focus on key inputs (often informed by Customer Obsession), deliver them with the right quality (Insist on High Standards), and in a timely fashion (Bias for Action). So, if you've got the other three LPs, you're almost sure to end up delivering results, that's why I think it's superfluous.
"Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle." - yea, fine; will do. I get it though: the point of business is ultimately its results, so it makes sense for a company like Amazon to have a banner-level principle around this.
Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what's next? Leaders have a vision for and commitment to their employees' personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.
This LP was added shortly after I left Amazon. And let me tell you: it was sorely missing. Above, I talked about the "weaponization" of various leadership principles. The LPs at Amazon can indeed be toxic. You often hear about how the LPs are in "tension" to one another at times - for example, Deliver Results is about balancing several others in the right quantities. If Amazon will take this new principle seriously, it would create the necessary tension to counter-balance some of this toxicity.
Amazon is well-known as a brutal place to work, and it's exactly because this principle didn't exist - and now that it does, it's close to the bottom. Indeed, as you and I enumerate out our own business principles, let us value the treatment of our own staff highly.
We started in a garage, but we're not there anymore. We are big, we impact the world, and we are far from perfect. We must be humble and thoughtful about even the secondary effects of our actions. Our local communities, planet, and future generations need us to be better every day. We must begin each day with a determination to make better, do better, and be better for our customers, our employees, our partners, and the world at large. And we must end every day knowing we can do even more tomorrow. Leaders create more than they consume and always leave things better than how they found them.
This is another LP that was added after I left, while Amazon was taking a lot of flack for its impact on the communities around it, to small businesses, and to its most vulnerable employees.
This is absolutely an important LP, but again, it's really sad that this never existed to begin with. Only late in the game was it tacked on as the very last LP - seemingly as an after-thought, like a legal disclaimer.
There's a corporate construct called a "B-Corp" or "For-benefit corporation," which exists half-way between a non-profit and a traditional for-profit corporation. Such companies would almost certainly start with some variation of this principle at the top of their charter.
- Having a set of guiding principles is necessary to provide a lexicon for discussing what's important to your business - and attracting the right candidates to lead it;
- Amazon has some really good business principles, but it probably has too many overall, and some of them are weaponized;
- The prioritizes implicit in Amazon's principles are more aligned towards predator-capitalism than they are aligned to my own guiding principles, which is why I don't work there any more.
If you're building out your own guiding principles, I think I'd try to target 5-6 solid principles. Think about the value your business is meant to bring to the world: to your customers, to the people you employ, to the broader society that may be impacted by your product/technology. How do you balance business ethics with a clear statement of value you bring to the world?