Amazon's Culture | In Practise

Amazon's Culture

Former CFO at Deliveroo & Finance Director, EMEA, Amazon

Learning outcomes

  • The mechanisms by which Amazon’s culture is continually ingrained in employee behavior as the business has scaled
  • Ways in which Amazon’s culture supports risk-taking behavior
  • A perspective on Amazon's interview process for new hires
  • How Amazon sets incentives and executive compensation in ways that encourage long-term behavior
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Executive Bio

Philip Green

Former CFO at Deliveroo & Finance Director, EMEA, Amazon

Philip Green spent almost eight years at Amazon, culminating with the role of Finance Director of EU operations. He then took on the role of CFO at Groupon, followed by the role of CFO of Deliveroo. He currently is Director and CFO of theatre and entertainment producer Jamie Hendry Productions, as well as CFO of robotics and AR gaming business Reach Robotics, and advisor to several high-tech digital start-ups. Read more

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Can we start by walking through your career trajectory?

Where to start? My first job coming out of university, where I studied finance and accountancy, was with a company called ICI. It was very much an accounts payable/ accounts receivable type role, so certainly very general. It was my first job training as an accountant. After a couple of years, I then had the pleasure of moving over to my first founder-lead company, Iceland stores in the UK. That really changed my career a lot because I got into a very, very strong commercial finance role and it was also where I started to learn how to code, mostly in SQL.

I worked for 4 years with those guys and then decided to leave the UK. I went to Germany with the British military and got my first experience of living outside of the UK. That then took me over to Munich, where I got into a beer company, Scottish and Newcastle, a really large organization working today in Germany and Austria. Then, on the back of that, I was very fortunate to land a job at Amazon. This would have been the end of 2007, early 2008. I joined the Munich business. At that point, Amazon was still relatively unknown within the German market. I spent pretty much the next 8 years working with Amazon, the first 4 years in Germany and the latter 4 years over in Luxembourg, working for the European business there. I had an absolutely great time and learned a bunch whilst I was Amazon. But, after 8 years and probably the hardest decision to go and move away from Amazon, I joined Groupon and spent six months running their EMEA Business on the finance side.

Then, I decided to go even smaller and earlier stage, so I joined a UK startup called Deliveroo, which turned out to be a fantastically successful business. I spent 2 years there as CFO. After that, I felt that what I wanted to do was give back and now I work with a number of early stage companies. I work very closely with about 8 different early-stage companies, in terms of helping the teams go on their own journey and try and scale those companies. I’m having an absolute blast.

To get into a little history, what was Amazon like when you joined?

I think if I take a huge step back, I don't think that the Amazon culture changed significantly from those early days, compared to where it is today. The things that really jumped out at me when I joined Amazon, which I would say were most different to other organizations, was that there was an incredible sense of teamwork and a real sense of ownership. Having worked in many organizations where you would have people who would turn up to a meeting but wouldn't take responsibility, Amazon had an incredibly strong culture of people taking ownership of things. I was reconciling why that would be the case in this company versus others. I think that the atmosphere at Amazon was: “If I try something and it doesn't work out, I'm supported by the organization, because I'm trying things.” It wasn't a culture where if you tried something and it didn't work out, you would lose your job.

People at Amazon had the incredible confidence to say, “This is my responsibility, I'm going to take this on,” in the knowledge that they would do their best and they would feel supported. I think that was quite unique, because very quickly you had people who were highly engaged and taking ownership of things, which of course is one of Amazon's leadership principles. For me, it was just surprising that things could be run this way, where people say, “That's my responsibility. That's my job,” as opposed to sitting back and waiting to be told they had to do things.

Beyond that, the other thing that really resonated with me was how close to the business the senior leaders still were and how hands-on they were. It wasn't a question of guys sitting in offices. The leadership team was still highly connected to the business, and truly understood the business in as much detail as anybody else, if not more. That was really encouraging, that the guys that had been there a really long time absolutely knew the business in incredible detail. So that was very, very rewarding.

Would that have been people like Allan Lyall?

Yes. Ralf Kleber was running the German business when I arrived. He actually still is. Even along those lines, you've got leaders who have been with the business for a very long time. When I joined, Ralf had already been with the business for 9 years. He's now been with the business about 20 years. So you've got senior leaders who stay with the organization for an incredibly long time. That gives you a sense that it is a great place to work, because if your people are staying with your company for so long, then clearly there’s something that they are connected to. What I found that it almost felt like the senior guys were friends with each other. They'd worked together for so long; they knew each other and there was a huge respect of people's capabilities and how they worked together. Allan Lyall was one of the guys who I'd include in that group.

Amazon’s list of leadership principles is fairly long. Which principles stood out to you the most in your experience at the company? Is there an essence you could distill?

During the Amazon recruitment process, your first engagement with the company is competency-based interviews targeted around the leadership principles. I was interviewing, and I was doing it a lot because of the rate at which we were scaling.

Initially, I felt like this was a huge straitjacket. I wondered how was I ever going to be able to do a competent interview based on only two of the leadership principles. But, when I think about that, the first thing it does is it forces you to have a good knowledge of the competencies and the company values. It also shows when you're interviewing that you're really part of a team. You have to trust that your colleagues are measuring on the competencies as well.

As you’re scaling and you're doing competency-based interviews, it’s a reminder of what those competencies are. Assessing the kind of examples you see that are outside of Amazon demonstrates the competencies that you could bring into the company from the people you're interviewing. It forces you to get very close to what the competencies actually are.

Beyond that, every single day, every single meeting is a reminder of the competencies and behaviors. So we would express things in language derived from the competencies, for example, “We need to do a deep dive on that.” ‘Deep dive’ being one of our core competencies. Another example is: “I'm just going to disagree and commit.” That was a great way of saying, “I don't agree with this, but I'm going to make my point and then I'm going to shut up and get on board and do what the organization thinks is the right decision. I'm not going to get stuck and disagree.”

I think when you take all of the leadership principles together there are some tensions between them. The key thing is really understanding how those behaviors and pieces of language really help people to say, “This is what it’s like to work here and these are the behaviors that I should demonstrate. And there are mechanisms that actually allow me to remind people that I am behaving in this particular way because I am aligned to this leadership principle.”

Could you describe in some more detail the mechanisms by which these principles are brought to life and cemented in people's minds on a day to day basis?

I'll probably go back to Ralf and a story that certainly has stuck with me. Like many, many retail businesses and Amazon being no different, every week you have a 100+ page metrics deck. Firstly, on the front of that metrics deck is the Amazon flywheel, as a reminder of why we do things and how things work. Then, you get into the hour-long weekly business review, affectionately known as the WBR. We would sit in that meeting and diligently go through the metrics. After my very first metrics review meeting, I leave that meeting and I'm standing in the lift with Ralf and he asks me, “What did you make of the WBR?” As a good diligent finance person, I gave my feedback around the metrics and who seemed to be on top of their numbers, who didn't, maybe how we could make the metrics better, which bits I didn't quite understand. So I gave this great elevator pitch on the stuff from the meeting and my assessment of it. What was brilliant is that I had completely missed the point of that metrics meeting.

Ralf then gave me immediate feedback, which, of course, is an Amazon principle, in terms of that directness and honest feedback. He turned to me and said, “There's really two reasons why we do this meeting every week. The first one is to audit the business and [the second is to] make sure that people are staying close to the details of the business. It's not really about the metrics, it's to make sure that people stay connected to the business and that they're on top of the metrics of the business.” This reinforces my other point of why the leaders are so close, because they invest time to continually audit, to make sure that everyone is still doing the right things, that everyone is still managing the right inputs. So that's diving into the details and staying connected every single week and that was a mechanism for doing that.

The second thing that he said is that it is to keep people reminded of the behaviors of the company: “We’re teaching them every single week about the behaviors, about the way of working.” That was it: it was an hour-long training session on culture and auditing a business. That's all it was. The reality is that from one week to the next week, you don’t significantly change your business. All you're doing is you're getting your most senior guys back and saying, “This is what it's like to behave here, this is how you should be thinking about things.” So it's a weekly training session and a reminder of culture. That's the best way of looking at it.

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Amazon's Culture

March 2, 2020

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