Defining Company Culture 101 — Amazon Way

What is the most important thing for a company to maintain its dominance for centuries? I think it is the culture.

Every one of us would have read the document describing company values — vision, mission, principals etc. Have we ever felt connected with that? Did those documents ever speak to us? After reading it, did we ever feel that ‘oh boy, this is the sort of culture I would like to be part of’?

Unfortunate answer is — No

Hence, there is some gap here. There is something which all those legacy companies are doing it wrong. The first and foremost requirement for any document which claims to cultivate the culture of the firm is that it should speak to you. I think rather than going into some buzzwords about how a document should be — let us see one document which I got a chance to go through a few days back.

The Leadership Principles by Amazon is a masterpiece. Let me tell you what I really liked about it in the next part of this text.

Simple Language

The most important thing is that what is written should be readable. What this means is that write in the language people usually think and speak. That will appeal the most. There are a lot of company value statements with jargons and long sentences. It just seems like they are applying for the Nobel in Literature.

As Scott Adams said in his blog — The Day You Became A Better Writer:

Learn how brains organize ideas. Readers comprehend “the boy hit the ball” quicker than “the ball was hit by the boy.” Both sentences mean the same, but it’s easier to imagine the object (the boy) before the action (the hitting). All brains work that way. (Notice I didn’t say, “That is the way all brains work”?)

Let’s see one example from Amazon Leadership Principals.

See the above text. This is as simple as it gets. There is no scope for misunderstanding or understanding something which is not there. The sentences have simple words, that can be understood by the reader in the first go.

If the reader has to re-read the sentence, that means the writer has failed.

Brevity

The other most important aspect is Brevity. There are no extra marks for writing long, this is not your university exams. Brevity is the most underrated characteristic of writing. I think as far as brevity is concerned, we got it wrong from the beginning. All those years in formal education, we were told to write long essays, every kid knew that s/he will get the marks for long BS in answers. Hence, no one really understood brevity.

Now, let’s see the following example.

Above is just 2 sentences and 22 words. That’s it. Imagine how much you could have written on learnings, growth, curiosity, etc.

There is always the temptation, but a good writer knows how to resist it.

Being Specific

The third point that I would like to mention is about being specific. If you are not specific, you will leave a lot of things for the reader’s imagination and that can go either way. Leaving things to the reader’s imagination works well in magical realism, but backfires in a business document.

Here, I have Two examples of how specific Amazon is.

Now, they could have chosen to just say that we don’t waste resources, etc. on the same lines. But, if you read the above text, you will realize how specific they are. First they pointed out the objective of frugality. Then, why they want to achieve frugality. In the end, they specifically highlighted the fact that they do not believe in unnecessarily increasing headcounts, budget, expenses, etc.

The last part is what happens in every organization once they become big in size and senior in age. Even lean startups over time start behaving like legacy institutions. Despite there is an increase in operations or not, but there is always demand for more headcount. How is that possible? On the contrary, due to technological advances, per person productivity should go up and demand for headcount should reduce. Over time, the headcount/budget decisions are taken based on some mark-up over last year’s figures — I don’t understand what is the logic.

If you are not as specific as Amazon is about those things, it can become your graveyard.

For earning trust is concerned, Amazon could have just mentioned a couple of virtues that will help create an environment of trust. That sounds enough usually, right?

Here, if you read the above text, Amazon talked about Two things very specifically. One is how they want Leaders to be self-critical, that too vocally, and that too even if it is awkward or embarrassing. Now, this is a very specific ask. The second thing is about how a Leader should not believe without benchmarking against the best that his/her team is great. Now, this exactly conveys the expectation.

The specificity comes from clarity of thought. If you don’t know what you want in the first place, how can you be specific?

Brave

The fourth aspect is about being brave in what you write. Convey as honestly as it is possible. Do not mince words. Let us see the below four examples.

Where does the being brave part come in the above text? It is right there on sentence number three. When you are telling your employees to be innovative, you would also have to tell them that it is okay, if we are misunderstood by the stakeholders — markets, shareholders, suppliers, consumers, etc.

This is what gives the license to innovate.

I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.

— Coco Chanel

If you optimize for speed, what could happen? It may happen that some of your decisions may fail. So, would you stop your bias towards action? How can you promote calculated risk-taking?

Hence, for that, Amazon has boldly mentioned the above point. Also, highlighted the fact that many decisions are reversible — now that is against what the normie corporate wisdom tells you.

Without the above point, rather than taking decisions, people start spending time in the endless bureaucratic loop of email trails and video calls.

Focus on the title — “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”.

Yes, they are not mincing any words. This is as bold as it can get. Not only Amazon is telling people to challenge decisions, but it is obligatory in their culture. Also, the fact that the whole aspect of social cohesion, fake validation is specifically highlighted in the text, and told not to get trapped there.

Every company would have some point or other conveying that they care for employees, right? So, what is so unique here?

Does every company talk about the employee once s/he leaves the organization? Do they always talk about the Alumni?

Here, Amazon clearly mentions that Leaders’ responsibility for the personal success extends even if that means employees being elsewhere than Amazon! Now, this is not something you find in every company. This gives the direction to Leaders that their one role is that of Mentor too, and not just being a Manager or a Leader. I find this to be the bravest point mentioned in this document.

Self-Aware

One thing we can all understand from our discussion so far is that Amazon is self-aware, they know what exactly they want. Still, I would like to highlight one more example which shows this trait.

The above shows the first and foremost thing — self-awareness about Amazon’s own growth. When you are an early-stage startup and when you are a listed global tech company — in both cases your responsibility changes due to scale, influence, impact the company has. Amazon has highlighted exactly the same. Also, they have mentioned that such scale brings in responsibility and humility. It also tells the Leaders to never stop and keep going always.

As Uncle Ben famously said,

With great power comes great responsibility.

A good document that seeks to define the culture of the company is the half-battle won.

Hence, lot of respect for Amazon for doing it right!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Prerak Desai

Prerak Desai

Writes about Startups, Tech, VC | MBA @ MDI Gurgaon | Chartered Accountant | Reads Non-Fiction | Can be Found Drinking Black Coffee | Open Micer