Leadership & Culture: Lessons from Eight Years at Amazon, Inc. | In Practise

Leadership & Culture: Lessons from Eight Years at Amazon, Inc.

Former CFO at Deliveroo & Finance Director, EMEA, Amazon

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Defining excellence in leadership: Service and Humility
  • How Amazon deals with failure and encourages intelligent risk taking (why talking about failure is important, the role of the post-mortem)
  • Principles for creating a learning environment and culture (the role of feedback, the importance of making employees feel safe, the importance of patience in developing people)
  • Factors that prevent people from ascending to higher levels of management
  • The relationship between CEO and CFO: the role of an effective CFO as a hand-brake on excessive risk taking
  • Cultivating self-awareness and learning from failure
  • How ego gets in the way of learning from failure
  • Lessons from scaling Amazon's European business (the mindset of building for scale, Amazon's use of a "Future-backwards" approach to goal setting)
  • How Amazon drives long-term oriented behavior through incentives
  • How to hire for fast-growth companies (hiring for character vs role)
  • How Amazon maintained culture while scaling operations aggressively
  • What drives high performing teams? (The role of diversity, the importance of getting people to play to their strengths)

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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Interview Transcript

In your experience, how would you define excellence in leadership?

The starting point is, “What is leadership?” I had the joy of being on a training course, and they said, “The first thing about being a leader is you need followers.” You can’t force people to follow you, so I think the first thing is people’s free will to follow you. A lot of people get that wrong — that leadership is given to them. It’s something you earn. I guess “greatness” is the fact you can keep it and continue to add to it, so people want to stay around. I’d say that’s the definition — you can inherit a team, but if they don’t want to stay with you, you’re not really a leader because they always want to go and do different things. If they can learn from you, they feel supported by you — it’s the protection, support, continued development, and that people get behind the vision you’re building. They see what you’re trying to achieve and say, “This is the person I want to be behind and build this thing with.”

You talk about books like Good to Great, which I probably misquote so often. You get into a level-five leader, and you start talking about the humility and all the ways it’s not about celebrating your own success but your team’s success — but recognising your own failures.

So, you start getting into the core of the person. “The cause before your own reward,” and all those great things I’ve seen in terms of real, good-quality leadership, most notably at Amazon.

Amazon often gets hurt in the press for its leadership style when there’s actually a lot of very humble people there and genuine, big leaders. You can’t build an organisation to that scale without having many leaders — not just one.

How did [Amazon] look at developing that leadership on a distributed basis? How is the business structured?

It’s a great question. I’d love to say they had this brilliant machine of boot camps and fun stuff. One of the businesses I work with, AND Digital, is renowned for its training programme, boot camps, and all that kind of stuff.

At Amazon, you’re constantly learning how to do this by being surrounded by great people. There’s a quote that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you’re surrounded by brilliant people, it’s very hard not to improve. You’ll self-select. If you can’t keep up, you’ll decide it’s too hard and leave. If you’re always winning, you’ll get bored and decide to go and find a different group to play with. A working environment isn’t so different.

If you’re surrounded by great people, it’s hard not to be great if you stay around long enough. It’s intentional by its design and focus on culture, but it’s not, “Let’s go and sit in a classroom and learn this.” It’s every single meeting you’re in, the interactions you’re watching, the questions people are asking, the way they’re answering the questions. It’s everything — not something you spend 5 per cent of your time on but 100 per cent of your time.

What role did [Amazon’s leadership] principles play in creating [a learning] environment?

I think the deciding point is feedback. Amazon was super-interesting. It was the first interview I’d ever been to where I was interviewed by people who were going to be on my team, which was very surprising for me. I’ve normally gone through interview processes where it was only either your boss or peer-set that was going to be interviewing you. That’s important. People don’t immediately respect you because you got the job; you have to earn that respect. The principle of setting that framework of the right cultures and behaviours, but also, everything then aligned around, “Are those behaviours something you’re doing every single day?” Liverpool FC is having an amazing season — which is crushing me as a [Manchester] United fan. They lost their first game at the weekend, and I was just reading an article where Klopp said he couldn’t go in and be angry at the players because he’d be an idiot. They’ve had a phenomenal season so far, and one game doesn’t mean he doesn’t trust them anymore. They’ve just had an off day.

He said, “It wasn’t me coming out of that meeting feeling better and just shouting at them. It’s me walking out of the meeting, recognising the brilliance they’ve done and the fact I still trust them. You go back to a level-five leader, the humility. It’s not about him; it’s about the team. That article is a great example of leadership. People on your team will have bad days, bad moments, but it’s picking up on those consistent things they’re doing and saying you can course-correct them. Leadership is also patience. You can’t flip somebody’s behaviour in a day, but you can if you continually give them feedback, help them, encourage them, and make them feel safe.

Safety is the first thing. People will do better if they feel safe. That is the first job of a leader.

How did Amazon look at developing a leadership pipeline or talent pool?

I think in the early days, the rigour around recruitment was probably the most important thing. I defined it as a straitjacket when I first arrived; interviewing people on competency and being very focused on, “You have a job to play in this interview, and you’re interviewing on two competencies.” That’s your job, being incredibly focused and saying, “This is what I’m here to do, and if I don’t do it well, I’m letting the entire team down.”

When you’re interviewing somebody, you’re part of a team. That was a real, first sense of commitment. I’ve got to represent the team properly and do a good job on the competencies. I’ll get called out if I haven’t. I’m going to have to sit down and present my feedback on the competencies, and people will question my feedback, why I came to that decision based on the questions I asked.

There’s even a lot of audit mechanisms around that recruitment process. You go back to, “How do I create greatness?” If you’re not doing good interviews, people will stop asking you to interview people. If you’re doing great interviews, you’ll get asked to do more of them.

Having people who are great at interviews doing more of them, they get better, and the people around them will realise what good looks like as well. You’re constantly improving the quality of the organisation, and that should lead you to better recruitment decisions.

Attitude and experience matter, but then you get away from traditional things. People often mislead experience for a CV. Experience is never written on a CV; it’s just where you worked and how long. Experience is through conversation and getting into examples of what people actually did. That’s where we dive into what experiences people have had.

I’m getting the sense this focus on people is the wellspring from which almost everything else emerges?

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Leadership & Culture: Lessons from Eight Years at Amazon, Inc.

March 3, 2020

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