Four Core Values That Made Amazon A Success
When Andy Jassy takes over as CEO of Amazon, founder Jeff Bezos can be confident that Jassy has internalized the company’s core values. After all, Bezos has been consistently communicating Amazon’s four core principles since the day the company launched in 1995.
A successful company has a strong corporate culture. Effective leaders like Bezos communicate the values that make up that culture each and every day.
I recently spoke to former Amazon executives, Bill Carr and Colin Bryar, co-authors of the new book Working Backwards. Carr and Bryar have spent a combined 27 years at the company. Bryar was a member of Amazon’s senior leadership team and spent two years as Bezos’s Chief of Staff—his ‘shadow’ for nine hours a day. As vice president of Digital Media, Carr helped launch Amazon Music, Prime Video, and Amazon Studios.
They say that the secret sauce that makes up Amazon’s culture is made up of four ingredients: customer obsession, long-term thinking, eagerness to invent, and taking pride in operational excellence.
“Amazon has never wavered in its commitment to these four core principles,” according to Carr and Bryar. “And they are in large part the reason that in 2015 Amazon became the company that reached $100 billion in annual sales faster than any other in the world.”
Carr gave me a detailed description of each of the four core values, according to how Bezos communicated the principles each and every day.
Bezos doesn’t just tell employees to pay attention to the customer; he reminds them to obsess over them. And he’s been doing so since his first shareholder letter in 1997.
“A lot of companies talk about being customer-centric. It’s easy to say but hard to do,” says Carr.
Obsessing over customers is difficult for many organizations because leaders, managers, and employees rarely hear from customers directly. They hear from their peers and partners, who all have their own needs and goals. But a great company is built by a leader who keeps the customer front and center. They remind teams to start with the customer’s needs and ‘work backward.’
Bezos reminds Amazonians to pay attention to competitors but to obsess over customers.
Bezos has consistently articulated that one of Amazon’s core values is to think longer-term than most companies.
Carr says that Amazon Prime Video, which has more than 100 million viewers, was the result of a decade of research, development, and content acquisition.
“Having that long time horizon is critical if you want to build something big and enduring,” Carr says.
Many companies will give up on an idea if it doesn’t produce returns in a quarter or a year, but “Amazon will stick with an initiative for five, six, seven years—all the while keeping the investment manageable, constantly learning and improving—until it gains momentum and acceptance.”
Eagerness to invent
According to Carr, taking risks means accepting that ideas or projects will fail. But not all organizations cultivate a culture where it’s okay to try and fail.
“You have to take pro-active steps to create a culture where people don’t have that fear to fail,” says Carr.
A pioneering mentality doesn’t just happen within an organization. A leader has to inspire a team to strive to accomplish something different and unique.
Pride in operational excellence
In his 1998 letter, Bezos defined operational excellence as a core company value. According to Bezos, “Operational excellence implies two things. Delivering continuous improvement in customer experience and driving productivity, margin, efficiency, and asset velocity across all our businesses.”
In a 2018 interview, Bezos was still reminding employees that the company values excellence in the behind-the-scenes efforts that most consumers will never see—but they’ll see the results like on-time delivery.
“People will never see 90 percent of what you do,” Bezos said. “The only thing that makes you have high standards on that work that nobody ever sees is your own professional pride in operational excellence.”
“Do not assume that simply stating your values and displaying them will have any significant effect,” says Carr. At Amazon, the four pillars of the company’s corporate culture are built into every process and discussion. And it all starts at the top.
Every company has a different set of ingredients that make up its secret sauce, but those values mean little if your teams fail to internalize them. Keep your company’s values front and center.
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