Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Amazon still in a State of Denial: A Response to Jay Carney....

It took Amazon more than two months, but here it is: Amazon's official substantive response to the New York Times' August 15, 2015 investigative article that was highly critical of Amazon's employee culture, not just in the warehouse, but also in the white collar halls and offices of Seattle and elsewhere.

In the response, Amazon's official spokesperson, Jay Carney (previously White House spokesman for President  Obama), counters the story by questioning the integrity of both the New York Times and that of many of the ex-Amazon employees cited in the story.  For instance, Mr. Carney criticizes former Amazonian Bo Olson, who was quoted in the piece as saying, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk." In response, Mr. Carney writes, "his brief tenure at Amazon ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately."  Mr. Carney then, seeking to strike two birds with one stone -- discrediting both messengers, Olson and the New York Times -- asks: "Why weren’t readers given that information?"

Such a maneuver is called in Mr. Carney's business a "non-denial denial," for, even if what Mr. Carney was saying were true (and Mr. Olson disputes Mr. Carney's accusations), it does nothing to counter Mr. Olson's statement on the merits.  People may very well be crying out of frustration, and Mr. Olson may very well have witnessed such crying, and attempting to discredit someone for saying that they have witnessed people crying is foolish and a display in intellectual dishonesty.

Mr. Carney then proceeds to challenge Elizabeth Willet, who complained about Amazon's anonymous Anytime Feedback Tool, by taking exception to her use of the word "strafed" to characterize the misuse of the tool against her.  Picking his words carefully, Mr. Carney writes, "All three [feedbacks] included positive feedback on strengths as well as thoughts on areas of improvement."  Anyone who knows how things work at Amazon will tell you that what makes the tool such a corrosive device has to do with the reality that managers have full discretion in how to use the feedback they obtain in any way that they choose.  They can pick and select whatever snippets of feedback they wish so that they can construct the case that they want to construct and appear that they are doing so based on "data."  If they want to portray the employee as problematic, then they can assemble all the negative feedback, quote the pieces as they please, and ignore the rest.  If they wish to do the opposite, prop up an employee they like, they can easily do that as well.  Either way, the tool is worse than useless: it can easily be manipulated by unscrupulous managers to serve their own political agenda -- for instance, keeping in the team those who are obedient and getting rid of those who are more independently minded.

And yes, the Anytime Feedback Tool is indeed anonymous, to the contrary of Mr. Carney's obfuscation, and anonymous in the most crucial sense: the subject of the feedback knows neither the identity of the person providing the feedback nor the content of that feedback, nor even that feedback was provided.  In other words, imagine working with people who can send, or may have sent, "feedback" about you to your boss, and you wouldn't even know it, and that such a "feedback" would be there, on the record, for your manager to see, and for future managers to see.  

The case of Chris Brucia, to which Mr. Carney also refers (not clear why), vividly illustrates the point that it is up to managers to do as they please, regardless of the feedback or the performance of employees.  The way Mr. Brucia was promoted (after a dress down) is a classic show of authority that Amazonian managers excel at: I, the manager, could have gone either way -- I had grounds to fire you, deny your promotion, or promote you, and let me show you how I could have fired you, so that when I promote you, you will be relieved, thankful, but most importantly, you will absorb the basic fact that I am boss, and I do as I please.

Next, Mr. Carney quotes former employee Dina Vaccari, who had said that she didn’t sleep for four days straight on one occasion while working at Amazon, writing in her own response to the article: "The hours I put in at Amazon were my choice..... I chose it and it sucked at the time but in no way was I asked or forced by management to do this.”

What Mr. Carney fails to point out, however, is that Ms. Vaccari continues in that same piece with the following paragraph: "I’ve now evolved into a woman who doesn’t tie my confidence or sense of self worth to external factors or the current conditions of my work or personal life."  Which was the main point of the New York Times article: Amazon has no scruples reducing its workers to one dimensional, and, crucially, obedient working machines, who will do as the bosses demands.  Those who don't obediently play along are ushered out through various tools and techniques at the disposal of management, while those who do, will do so without being overtly "asked or forced by management" to do what they need to do to stay in the good graces of those who decide their fate.

As a current Amazonian, I am disappointed to see that Amazon is still in denial about the condition of its workforce.  Jeff's letter of August 17, 2015 had all the hallmarks of either a leader not aware of how bad things were with his workers, or one who had chosen to pretend that all was well.  Sentences like, "I don't recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either," and "I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay,"  were understood by employees, I assure you, as cues to think like the Leader or leave, if one didn't share the Leader's view of where things stood.

Amazon has a choice: sober up, face reality, dig deep, and get down to the business of fixing what is broken with its employee culture, or keep denying basic reality.

And basic reality is this: Median tenure at Amazon is 12 months -- the worst among tech companies.  Given the very high bar that Amazon holds when hiring (Amazon is ranked third after Google and Facebook in interview difficulty), and that the majority of the departures are voluntary (I have seen dozens of colleagues leave just the last few months, and the vast majority have been leaving because they can't take the morally squalid office environment),  clearly, the problem is not with worker quality but with culture quality -- and more precisely, with Management quality, starting with Jeff Bezos and down.

Mr. Carney concludes his piece by warning readers: "The next time you see a sensationalistic quote in the Times.... you might wonder whether there’s a crucial piece of context or backstory missing."

What seems to escape Mr. Carney is that readers of the Times are smart and sophisticated and that they will smell a rat, if there is one to smell, in a story that is more than 5,000 words long.  And from the 5,858 comments posted on the story (the most that a New York Times piece has received), the overwhelming majority of readers seem to believe that the story is a solid piece of investigative journalism, that it hangs well together, and, most refreshingly, that it is one that goes beyond the usual shabby, timid writing that offends no one and presents matters as if both sides were equally to blame.

We, Amazonians, and authors of the Amazonian Manifesto, still hope that Amazon will take the right next steps of accepting reality, digging into the data, understanding the core of the problem, and then, taking the appropriate actions to set our company on the right path.  The smart, hardworking Amazonians, deserve no less, as they toil to serve their customers the best that they can.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Seven Amazonian Leadership Principles

We, the authors of The Amazonian Manifesto, submit the following seven principles of leadership as the embodiment of what it truly means to be an Amazonian. These principles are inspired by, and based on, the current official Amazon leadership principles, but they also articulate new dimensions and important values whose absence from the current principles has created an unhealthy and unsustainable working environment.

#1: Obsess about the Customer

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.

#2: Obsess about the Employee

Leaders understand that customer obsession doesn't just happen.  Leaders know that ensuring that an employee loves coming to work every day is the BEST guarantee that customer obsession will happen, and happen every day. It is employees who obsess about customers, not cold processes or tyrannical executives.  If an employee decides not to obsess about a customer, no matter how elaborate the processes or how severe and scrutinizing management, customer obsession will not happen. 

#3: Obsess about the Partner

Leaders understand that Amazon's backbone for growth is its ecosystem of partners.  Without its partners, Amazon would deliver a feeble shadow of the value it delivers today.  Leaders understand that partners are customers too and therefore deserve as much care and solicitude as any end customer does.

#4: 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. That is why leaders do their best to ensure the success of their reports and consider it a professional failure on their part when they fail to do so.

#5: Own and Fix

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". And above all, they own their failures and work hard to correct them.  Leaders are loathe to hide behind thick concepts such as "cultural fit" or "peculiar ways".  Leaders want to get to the bottom of what is not working and they make it their priority to fix and learn, not obfuscate, blame and move on.

#6 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.

#7 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.   They Think Big, Insist on the Highest Standards, are Biased for Action, and love to Dive Deep.  They have a solid Back Bone and they are not afraid to disagree.  They point out what doesn't work, advocate for what they believe is right, are not easily cowed by the titled and the powerful.  They believe in the strength of their principles and the integrity of their data and their thinking and back down only when they have been convinced that theirs isn't the better way.  But as soon as they realize that they are wrong, they will admit their error and are Vocally Self Critical.   Because of their intellectual courage and principled commitment to the best, they are Right a Lot and thereby Own the Trust of Others.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Amazonian Manifesto

We, Amazonians, love our company.

We, Amazonians, believe in our company's mission.

We, Amazonians, believe in obsessively serving our customers.

We, Amazonians, believe in working hard and delivering to our customers the best service and the best product that we can deliver.

And we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of fulfilling that mission every single day.

We are willing to sacrifice our physical comfort by working long and hard hours.

We are willing to sacrifice time with our loved ones by not always being there when they need us.

And we are willing, always, to go the extra mile for the sake of making our customers happy.

We Amazonians are willing to do all of that and more, and we HAVE done all of that and more.

And we will continue being who we are and doing what we do best, for the sake of our customers.

But these we will NOT do.

We will NOT tolerate a working environment that treats us as expendable entities, as replaceable and interchangeable as the frugal desks where we work.

We will NOT tolerate management that behaves as though the basic rules of human decency are optional niceties.

We will NOT tolerate a system that insidiously pits worker against worker, colleague against colleague.

We will NOT tolerate a system that breeds a culture of cynicism by proclaiming lofty principles in words but systematically flouting those same principles in action.

We believe that the following behavior SHOULD NEVER be tolerated, from and by anyone at Amazon, from Jeff Bezos to the lowliest intern at Amazon:

Behavior that is exploitative and that cares only about squeezing the most out of a worker.

Behavior that is demeaning to another worker and that impugns their dignity.

Behavior that is uncaring and that does not treat a worker as a whole human being.

Behavior that is aggressive, impolite, humiliating and disrespectful.

We believe that in Amazon, managers and executives are granted powers that they rarely know how to wield responsibly.

Power indeed corrupts, and in a system where the powerful are given the power and the tools to easily crush dissent, the result is a system that can easily be manipulated in the service of selfish, narrow, personal political goals.

At Amazon, grown adults quake at the sight of an executive.  That is not how things should be.

At Amazon, contradicting an executive is considered a serious breach of protocol.  That is not how things should be.

At Amazon, decisions are supposed to be driven by data, not by whims and speculation. Decisions are rarely driven by data.  Instead, data is manipulated, suppressed, and massaged, to the extent that it can, to present things in a certain light and as executives wish to see them.  The truth is not Amazon's currency.  Amazon's currency is delivering the result that the boss wants.  That is not how things should be.

We, Amazonians, believe that our great company deserves a better order.

We, Amazonians, believe that our great company deserves an order that can be sustained.

In a world where competition for the best and the brightest talent is continually intensifying, the drip drip against Amazon's reputation as a place to work is worrisome and should be taken seriously.

Let us not wait until the image has hardened of Amazon as a place where "overachievers go to feel bad about themselves," and feel bad about themselves NOT because they are surrounded by talent that pushes them to the limit, but rather because those overachievers are made to feel bad by mediocre management that values obedience first and foremost and above intelligence, hard work, and a commitment to excellence.

The note that Jeff Bezos sent to employees a few days after the hard hitting New York times article was far from re-assuring.

Rather than clearly recognizing that a problem does exist and committing to making it his priority to address that problem head on, Jeff pleaded incredulity and insisted that the "article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day."   "I don’t recognize this Amazon," Jeff added, and then recommended "that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay."  To many, that sounded very much like, "if you don't like it here, leave."

But perhaps what was most disappointing in Jeff's note was the total lack of vocal self criticism, a principle that is regularly preached by Jeff and his managers as an effective method for self improvement.

The most charitable interpretation of Jeff's note is that it reflects a perception that is developed while operating in a highly insulated bubble.  And one may even go one step further and extend the generosity to Jeff's direct reports.

But the proposition that Jeff and his executives are not aware of the state of affairs that plagues the workforce defies common sense.

A median average stay of 1 year is a stunning and damning piece of statistic, and its persistence, year after year, by itself speaks volumes on the state of stubborn denial that Jeff and his team continue to operate in.  That the statistic is not only allowed to persist but is often held as a badge of honor and an indicator that staying at Amazon requires uncommon "toughness," is unsettling and makes one worry for one's company.

There is a reason why Giants fall.  Giants fall when their hubris blinds them to the blaring sirens of danger.

Amazon is loved by millions of people around the world.  And we, Amazonians, among them, love Amazon the most.

It is in that spirit that we plead with its leaders to open their eyes and to engage with reality, soberly, humbly, and with a commitment to fix what is broken, rather than to bluster and ride yet another "passing storm" through.

Here are our concrete recommendations on how Amazon can become better:
  • Abolish the Feedback Tool: this tool is insidious and fosters an unhealthy atmosphere of corrosive mistrust.  It is neither healthy nor normal for a worker to speak ill of a fellow co-worker behind their back, let alone to that co-worker's very boss.  Such practice should not be tolerated as normal or proper.  At Amazon, a whole tool has been erected especially to lull people into accepting such unethical behavior as the new normal.  It really is NOT and should NEVER be accepted as normal or acceptable behavior.
  • Abolish the Levels Systems: the "Levels" system that is used to designate people is demeaning and serves only one purpose: to clearly stratify and establish a rigid and oppressive caste hierarchy.  Let people be defined by what they do and how experienced they are, rather than by one Letter (L) and one number (from 1 to 12, with 9 not used and 12 occupied by Jeff Bezos and only Jeff Bezos).
  • Abolish the "Rank and Yank" System: Amazon should hire the best (and it does) and should invest in nurturing those it hires.  The "Rank and Yank" system is a crude attempt at motivating by fear, and what it leads to often is not workers doing their best to thrive, but workers doing their best to survive by undermining those against whom they are competing.  The result is that those who do not play politics, those who find it distasteful and unsavory to engage in the back-stabbing game, who simply want to work hard and serve the customer -- the "earnest lot" -- end up losing, while the scheming variety prosper.  It is NOT a coincidence that Middle Management -- those who have learned how to play the game and have survived for multiple years -- is widely viewed as manipulative, ruthless with peers and those they deem "dispensable," but breathlessly craven in the presence of higher authority.
Imagine an Amazon with a healthy and happy workforce -- one that delivers the amazing results that today's Amazon delivers, but does so in a sustainable way.

Imagine an Amazon that takes care of its people, nurtures them and patiently invests in their health and happiness.

Imagine an Amazon known as "the greatest place to work."

That, Jeff, should be your TOP project and the legacy you should be aiming to leave behind.  For drones and rockets and electronic gizmos will become common commodities soon, but Amazon the company is something very special, and worthy of your formidable will and attention.