Written by Author Name 1/30/16 | 4 Comments

What can we learn from working culture at Amazon

Many people believe that startups have nothing to learn from large companies. They are too dissimilar in nature and they don't pursue the same goal. Well, that’s not true. Amazon is a huge success story that we all can definitely learn from.

Our speaker Tamuna Papava, senior program manager at Amazon Devices, shared some lessons she learned while working at Amazon for two years.

We all know about Amazon and the first thing that comes to our mind is that Amazon is an online retailer.

However, nowadays that is just one part of Amazon. They do a bunch of other things.

They do an incredible variety of businesses from retail to cloud computing or trying to make drone delivery a reality.


What does working at Amazon Devices mean?


According to Tamuna, one of the especially fun businesses Amazon is in is producing devices (Echos, Kindles, etc).

Tamuna is in the sales and marketing organization in the sense of working with physical retailers who then go and sell Amazon devices.

So think to yourself, if you live in London and you want to go buy an Amazon device like a Kindle, you have one of two ways to go. You can go directly to Amazon’s website and purchase a device and most people do that way.

But then there are other people who want to touch it, understand how big it is and play with them or listen to them.

That second channel, the retail channel is the space Tamuna works in – her job is to launch new devices with their retailer partners.

So that way you can make a purchase in physical stores, like Elit Electronics in Georgia, Best Buy in the US or MediaMarkt in Germany.


The culture of Amazon and the mindset of Amazonians


Amazon has quite a “peculiar” culture in many ways.

Tamuna shared with us what lessons she has learned through that culture. Hopefully, some of those learnings will resonate with you and spark some ideas about how you can apply them to your professional lives =)


Here are a few defining elements of the Amazon culture:

1. Customer obsession - that is the first leadership principle. What is meant by that?

They’re completely and utterly obsessed over their customers.

They ALWAYS start from the customer and work backwards.

Literally, if you work for Amazon and you want to bring a new idea to life, what you do is that you write a document and you demonstrate how it's going to help your customer.

Meaning you explain what problem it would solve for customers - that is pretty much the only way you can start any new initiative at Amazon.


2. In Amazon, they do documents, not slides ever.

The reason for doing documents is because you can't put all the information, all the data in writing.

They write it all out as a narrative and give readers a chance to digest the information in their own time.

They back up everything (almost) with data.


3. The “no BS culture” - People get straight to the point. And go from thinking to doing incredibly fast.



Amazon’s Bible - Its Leadership Principles


Like mentioned above, Amazon has a set of leadership principles and that is something they all live and breathe, it’s in their DNA.

HINT: If you ever want to get a job at Amazon, you’d better learn and demonstrate these principles. You’ll hear people mentioning them in everyday work conversations, use them in personal lives…


Tamuna picked out 3 of those principles in her talk.


#1 - Ownership

“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”.

At Amazon, you are free to suggest and implement ideas on projects that are unrelated to their day-to-day job.

People at Amazon (leaders, bosses and their bosses) expect you to not think in just your role.

Own whatever it is that you do, from start to finish and even think beyond, rather than narrowly focusing on your jobs only. And if you have an idea that does not really comply with what you do, still make it happen.

This same principle is the background of Tamuna’s success story.

As an intern, she got to work on a cutting edge product - figure out a business model for a new service Amazon Logistics wanted to launch, basically building something like DHL or FedEx inside Amazon.

Besides knowing close to nothing about logistics, she didn't act like an intern, she got to truly own it.

It’s interesting what Amazon does to interns.

The employer empowers and trusts them to own an important project that truly matters to the business. That is THE best test for an intern to show they can be a valuable Amazonian.


#2 - Bias For Action

“Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.”

Let’s preface this leadership principle a bit with the reality of Amazon. They are famous for their startup mentality, while as a company they’re definitely no longer a “startup”.

This is what makes Amazon a unique place – on one hand, they move incredibly fast to give the customers what they want

At the same time, Amazon is a 900 billion-dollar company. How do they manage to stay agile and get bigger and bigger?

So on the other hand, that is the top challenge of working at Amazon: moving fast in an often ambiguous environment. And the way to do it is a bias for action.

Let’s review a good student syndrome.

When thinking back to our school days, our brains have been trained to comply with authority (teachers); to obey their rules meaning to perform well, to perfectly know the material. You had all the information you needed to ace the exam right in front of you.

So if you did study it all and if you had the brain to solve a few impromptu problems, you were golden.

And yet here at Amazon workers get paid to challenge the authority, to make decisions and act with 80% of the data, not full or perfect information.

How often have you noticed that the teams you are on or you manage to spend more time talking about how to do something than actually doing?

It can be said that one of the secrets to Amazon’s success is hiring a bunch of doers

At Amazon, you’re expected to make "two-way door" decisions fast even when you are not sure about them. Because chances are when you’ll be sure, it’ll be too late.

Definitely, it’s not easy. In fact, you need to get out of the good student habits to improve on this principle.

Getting out of the good student persona is a journey. And the way to start your journey is by being aware of it.


#3 - Earn Trust

“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 odour smells of perfume.

They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.”

Reading these highlighted bits, you will probably be thinking that it’s obvious. They may sound basic (brilliant things usually do), but it’s so important.

Surely you can think of times at your workplace when people fail to do that. It’s absolutely amazing how much more you can accomplish if you treat people with respect and get them to respect you, to want to help.


Tamuna shared with us some meaningful formal feedback she received, things that she believes define her:

1. Her job requires being a “dictator, diplomat and therapist”. Melding those three is a tough job. Requesting inputs with assertion, but knowing how to frame the requests, and then knowing how to handle the complaints – often people simply want to feel heard…

2. The ability to actually listen. Again, seems like such a simple thing and yet it’s incredible how many of us fail to do it day in and day out.

Think back how often you’ve been in a conversation where you’re literally making a point.

You stop talking only to come up with your next point rather than actively listen to what the other person is telling us. You basically miss out on so many great ideas because even you pretend you’re listening when you are really not.

3. And finally earning trust with “contagious, positive, can-do approach” – we can call it positivity.

At lots of jobs you cannot control the outputs, you can only control the inputs. So every day you have a choice to make – either focus on the outputs and feel like a failure when the outputs fail. Or focus on the inputs, do absolute best and then if the outputs don't turn out the way you wanted them to, not let the negative outputs discourage her.

That’s life – some things are beyond our control.


What value could you get out of written above?


3 things to remember:


>> Ownership. Be a doer. Never say “that’s not my job”.

In today’s fast-moving tech world you can choose: you see an issue; are you going to try and find the right person in the right team with the right skill set to solve it? Or are you going to solve it yourself?

Be a doer. That’s how Amazon succeeded.

Because they are very good at hiring a bunch of doers. If you have an idea that’s beyond your job, go out and do it, they will welcome it as long as they hear it.

And if you're a manager, let them do it, let them make it happen.

>> Bias for Action. Take calculated risks.

Second, is that decision you’re spending so much time on irreversible? Can you make a decision with the 80% of the info? And go back if need be.

Keep moving. It will be ok. Let your employees fail every once in a while. They’ll be better leaders for it. Get out of that good student syndrome or persona that a lot of you have in your heads.

>> Earn Trust. The How matters.

Finally, the How matters. We talk a lot about the meaning, how smart someone is and how much experience they have.

And then there’s the how. That is how do you deliver those smart messages you have, how do you treat your colleague who's new and doesn't know a given topic.

In reality, it’s getting away from that good student persona, playing big.

>>> Solve Problems

Leaving you with a few simple words of wisdom.

When asked what advice senior leaders had for a room full of new Amazonians on how to succeed, they gave a simple answer: solve problems.


So, dear readers, go solve some problems. ☺