Amazon, the world’s second largest retailer — who’s first? Alibaba.com of China — has a list of fourteen leadership values which are said to be used by their employees every day. I’m going to examine them and give my opinions of them.
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.
“Close to the Customer” is one on the principles espoused by the 1982 book “In Search of Excellence”. “Built to Last”, one of my favorite business books, points out that while this is a core value of many great companies, others (for example, Sony) do not hold it, preferring to lead the market (e.g. with products like the Walkman).
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”.
Problem ownership is a part of the concept of “Level 5 Leadership” described in “Good to Great”. Level 5 leaders hold themselves accountable for failures.
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.
Innovation is an attribute that can be hired for and fostered. My favorite example of a company that has built in innovation is 3M.
I really like the second part of this value: simplicity. It is one of the principles of extreme programming (xP). Like scientific hypotheses, programs should be as simple as they can be, but no simpler.
Be Right, A Lot
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
Honing one’s judgement is part of continuous improvement. Experimentation and measurement are the tools of the trade.
Learn and Be Curious
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
For as long as computers have existed, Moore’s law has relentlessly driven the cost of computing down, and therefore the capabilities of computers up. This constant stream of new possibilities continuously changes the landscape, making learning essential.
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. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.
The Good to Great principle of “Get the Right People on the Bus” captures the hiring of great talent. Great people hire more great people. Once you lose discipline in hiring, the downward spiral toward mediocrity has begun.
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 driving 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.
A former manager of mine, Pat Hammack, wanted to make zero defects the standard for our software. We ended up agreeing that all known defects had to be explicitly approved by our product manager before we released our software. This led to excellent software quality.
As a team, on another project, we adopted the standard of 100% code line coverage by tests. We built a mechanism that allowed lines to be opted out, but only if they were clearly annotated. This project delivered the highest quality software I’ve ever seen.
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.
The biggest benefit of thinking big, in my opinion, is its inspirational value. While incremental innovation can deliver incredible results, big hairy audacious goals (like the moon landing) create an incredible amount of motivation and commitment.
Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Analysis paralysis is a waste of time. It’s far better to experiment (or spike, in xP terms). One danger with agile approaches is that the baby (understanding the requirements and creating the design of software) can get thrown out with the bathwater of over-analysis.
Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.
3M are great at starting small. In “Great by Choice”, Jim Collins talks about “firing bullets”, taking small calculated risks that don’t cost too much, before going all in. As he says, “the only mistakes you get to learn from are the ones that don’t kill you”.
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.
Candor is the least valued value. So many companies talk about “openness”, yet on the ground, managers don’t give their people the information they need, or even outright lie to them. Trust is difficult to earn, but easy to burn.
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.
My philosophy of managing has always been that to do it well, I needed to be able to do the job of anyone working for me. Getting involved is critical for keeping the people on your team involved and committed.
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.
Allowing disagreement and discussion is invaluable in the pursuit of excellence. The Dale Carnegie approach of “never criticize, condemn, or complain” leads to a culture of denial, where no one says what they think, and everyone knows it.
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.
Delivering incrementally, early and often, is hard. It requires thinking deeply about how to approach a problem in a way that something that has real end user value can be delivered in every sprint.