Sunday, December 7, 2014

Assumptions that would otherwise be impossible to make

And other pleasant side effects of hiring & developing the best

Disclaimer: This article represents my personal opinions, experiences & learning and is in no way representative of others at or of itself.

14 months ago, when I was offered an opportunity to work at Amazon, I felt good about making it through the interviews. The interviews were insightful, challenging and engaging. Just like any rewarding intellectual discussion should be. At the time I did not understand why the interviews were designed like that and why all of my interviewers kept talking about leadership principles as if they were powerful tenets. Once I started working here, I learned a lot more about the leadership principles. They really are powerful tenets that break down the decision making process to fundamentals of both personal traits and business. They deserve a separate series of articles by themselves so I will not digress. You can read more about those here.
One of the leadership principles at Amazon is to "Hire and Develop the Best" which is best summarized by this definition.
"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."
Interestingly enough I find the spirit of this principle even more strongly represented in the opening text to the leadership principles.
"Whether you are an individual contributor or the manager of a large team, you are an Amazon leader."
When I actually started hiring software engineers, technical program managers and web developers; I learned that the hiring bar was definitely higher than where I thought it was. At first I found that to be ridiculously unreasonable. Eventually it started to make sense. It became so obvious that I felt stupid for not always having approached hiring in this way. Combining a high hiring bar with continuously growing and developing the people that you hire creates very interesting and strong ambient forces at the organization. I must share some of the assumptions that this allows management and peers to make simply because I find this very liberating and exhilarating.
People who meet a high bar of leadership principles are natural ownersSo you look for people who can own problems, solutions and customer experience. People who act in the same way whether you are looking at them or not. People who have very high standards for themselves and others. People who are experts at their jobs. Such people are natural owners and do not require supervision. This allows us to create small teams that can work independently and can be trusted to do the right thing.
When builders build then innovation is natural
If you create small independent teams of builders who can build without supervision then you create bubbles of innovation. Every individual and team starts working in a natural state of self-driven problem solving and innovation. This is fundamentally not very different from what drives start ups to innovate and be creative at a pace that is vastly different from large organizations. The same concepts and practical setup allows Amazon teams to work more like start-ups than like 'departments'.
If you can assume trust, transparency and honesty then productivity soarsLeaders who meet a high bar have to be self-critical, aware of their surroundings, willing to learn fast and be transparent. Once you take any grey areas associated with these traits off the table then nobody has to look over their shoulders. That means people, their managers, their managers' managers to the executive leadership can focus their entire energies on doing the right thing instead of supervising and 'keeping an eye' on other people.
A productive and innovative team drives big thinking and great solutionsSo I have a productive team with builders building innovative solution almost all the time. What happens as a natural outcome of that? Big thinking! You start thinking about solving problems bigger than you can otherwise imagine a team of five engineers to be solving. You start having people building 'one click buying', 'cloud computing' and many such amazing solutions. One of the senior engineers explained this to me beautifully.
"I am not really looking for someone who just knows the technical difference between a list, a map and a set. I am looking for someone who reads a customer feedback about wanting to share shopping ideas with their friends and then goes on to actually build a shared shopping list with a scalable and reliable design"
What he was saying was a blend of thinking big, inventing and timely implementation of ideas.
Great people can be developed quickly by giving them more responsibilityThis structure allows for expecting more from people, giving them more responsibilities and allowing them to succeed or fail fast. Coupled with smart peers and honest feedback this allows rapid development of individuals just like that of software in the same environment. Once you give people more responsibilities, you still don't have to supervise them. You can still continue to assume that they will be owners.
And all of that creates another virtuous cycle...This flow of hiring great people, making them owners, allowing builders to build in innovative teams. These people working in an environment of trust, transparency and honesty drive big thinking to solve important problems. This environment allows people to develop fast and take on more responsibilities while delivering great products and services for our customers. This is yet another virtuous cycle that I see around me and that I am still so excited to be a part of. There is obviously constant room for improvement and making it even better but I would absolutely love to see this approach adopted by other large organizations to create an even larger eco-system of amazing innovation!

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