Lessons from Eight Years at Amazon, Inc.

Former CFO at Deliveroo & Finance Director, EMEA, Amazon

Why is this interview interesting?

  • 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 a learning culture
  • Factors that prevent people from ascending to higher levels of management
  • Cultivating self-awareness and learning from failure
  • What gets in the way of learning from failure
  • Lessons from scaling Amazon's European business
  • How Amazon drives long-term oriented behavior through incentives
  • How Amazon maintained culture while scaling operations aggressively

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?

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Lessons from Eight Years at Amazon, Inc.(March 3, 2020)

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