As I read the stories of “work hard” at Amazon, I am filled with a familiar feeling that I had back when I was working for Raytheon Company in the 90’s. Coming up in the ranks of a successful commercial company with over 60,000 employees was stressful, hard, included long hours and working for demanding people with big expectations. But the feeling I was having while reading a New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld about Jeff Bezos (CEO) and Amazon was not conjuring negative feelings, rather very positive ones. I recall that time in my professional life as the most exhilarating time in my career. Let me try and describe it a little.
I was part of a team and had a presentation with Corporate Headquarters on a government contract on Friday morning. My staff and I had worked straight out for the past two weeks preparing, including weekends and even through the night. I mean, we pulled an all-nighter – going out for pizza, coming back, preparing slides, practicing and thinking through all the variables. We were invested heavily. It was not always easy. Someone of senior rank would walk in and give us a new variable, people were always direct and there was little time to even think about calling home to tell our families we would be late. We presented to the President that Friday, only to be told that we needed to take another approach. At that a point, our Team Leader walked out of the conference room with us, looked at all of us for a moment and walked right back in and told the President we would be back on Tuesday rather than Monday, so we would not have to work the weekend again.
The culture that was described, for the most part, in this article is one of a high performance culture, plain and simple. There is no excuse if Amazon has no compassion for sick people, of course, and this might be the edge that needs to improve at Amazon, but the culture has produced results. I can also tell stories of the high performing culture not being for everyone. When my team was pulling all-nighters, it was truthfully what we signed up for. We wanted the opportunity to work on these projects and learn from senior people that could share their knowledge with us. Just getting to present to the President of the company was enough of a career incentive to do it. Bezos, like Steve Jobs and many other CEO with high expectations will not go away with the shift in social culture we are experiencing. The role of a leader is not to ensure an easy time of it or make sure everyone is comfortable in their roles. It is their job to make people better by allowing them to stretch and grow and be put into positions that are uncomfortable. Their job is to push and create a culture that pushes.
Having said all this, I also know that a CEO’s role is to be a good corporate steward of a healthly culture, not just a productive one. Balancing these two priorities is difficult. When I was at Raytheon, I sometimes became overwhelmed with the demand and expectation and after a while I left partially because I was burnt out. Probably not Raytheon’s intention, but the time came that my ROI for long hours, unlimited travel and never seeing my family was not there, and that’s the bargain Raytheon makes too. If high performing companies can figure out how to balance the great values of hard work with the great values of well being, their results may be longer lasting, and I think that is the overall goal.
Looking back, I am proud of what I experienced at Raytheon and proud of how it shaped me. I think that rather than criticize Amazon and Bezos, I would want to make sure that we are not “drinking the Kool Aid” that assumes that the workplace is always safe, happy and polite. Workplaces can test and challenge and there can be as much delight in that too.
I think where high performance and uncomfortable cultures collide is where learning can take place and Amazon likely has some learning to do. An examination of the past and Amazon’s current example will be seen again in the future, I have no doubt. Someone will push too hard and others will push back and somewhere in the middle is the right approach.