How Amazon achieves excellence at scale

Everybody knows that Amazon.com is an amazing business (or collection of businesses): the global leader in online retail; innovator and front-runner in cloud infrastructure; emerging digital advertising juggernaut; and much more besides.

But seen up close — my office is located in the middle of the company’s South Lake Union campus and I interact with current and former Amazon employees every day — Amazon is even more impressive for something its customers rarely see: its professional culture.

I have never encountered an organization that both expects and receives the level of sustained excellence from its people that Jeff Bezos gets from his.

I don’t just mean that Amazon employees work long hours — they all do, from entry-level roles all they way up to the top — but rather that the company has built the most effective and scalable system for recruiting, managing and developing high-performing talent that I’ve ever come across in my 20 years in corporate America.

I was so impressed by this that I started asking Amazon people about exactly how the company has pulled this off, and their answers are surprisingly consistent: everyone — from new hires to long-time employees, as well as folks who have joined through acquisition — cites the seriousness and consistency with which the company applies its stated values (the Amazon Leadership Principles) across hiring, performance reviews and even in everyday decision-making conversations.

As a former AT&T employee I was deeply skeptical when I first heard this — my experience of bigco corporate “values” has always been one of Orwellian absurdity.

But when I actually took the time to read Amazon’s values, and to reflect on what I know about the company and its people, I had to reconsider: these are the most specific, concrete, actionable and authentic set of written values I’ve ever seen. They immediately feel true to the company and its brand. They are challenging — even inspiring — but also exacting in their demands.

I’ve reproduced the list of values below — when you read them, note that most of them refer to the expectation of “Leaders” — and by implication, that every Amazon employee is expected to act and think like a leader.

If you’re building a company of your own — especially if you’re just getting started — it’s worth thinking about what a similar list would look like for your organization.

AMAZON LEADERSHIP PRINCIPLES:

Customer Obsession
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.

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”.

Invent and Simplify
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.

Are Right, A Lot
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts.

Hire and Develop the Best
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.

Insist on the Highest Standards
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.

Think Big
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.

Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Frugality
We try not to spend money on things that don’t matter to customers. Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for headcount, budget size or fixed expense.

Vocally Self Critical
Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. Leaders come forward with problems or information, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Earn Trust of Others
Leaders are sincerely open-minded, genuinely listen, and are willing to examine their strongest convictions with humility.

Dive Deep
Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details and audit frequently. No task is beneath them.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
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.

Deliver Results
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.

  • http://twitter.com/fundingquest Bryan Brewer

    Excellent job at shining a light on these 14 principles, Chris. They reflect some key entrepreneurial character traits: competence, focus, caring, and humility. I look forward to your appearance on the MITEF “Meet the Angels” panel Thursday evening.

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks for the note, Bryan (and looking forward to the panel as well) — what strikes me most about Amazon’s values is not just their written form but how deeply they are internalized + operationalized by leadership at every level — something I’ve never seen before in a company that big.

      • Former Sr Buyer

        I worked at Amazon from 09-12. I can say with certainty that these principles are memorized by everyone and guide every decision, action and behavior of employees. Like most people I got burned out and took a much higher paying job at a competitor (and yes, they attempted to sue me) but I find myself yearning for this type of inspiration and organizational alignment around principles and behaviors that are simply non- existent where I work today.

  • evanjacobs

    The first principle is by far the most important and the others simply fall out as natural extensions. In other words, the other principles are important because they can each ultimately be traced back to doing the best thing for customers.

    • http://www.crashdev.com Chris DeVore

      Thanks for the note, Evan — I get how they are all children of the first principle, but the specificity of the other values makes the entire set actionable and prescriptive in a way that the first alone doesn’t allow.

  • Michael George Hart

    Like China, Amazon is relatively young and run by what I call Technocrats; people with a vision and specific goals for the future success of the company/country. However, history has demonstrated many of these Technocrats gets replaced by politicians and dominate the environments. China, is starting show signs of this, IBM some how has managed get control of internal politics, many old well established banks are driven inefficiently by politics and this will happen to Amazon; the technocrats eventually loose control …