My goal here is to collect examples of amazing leadership cultures and present them. I want to dive into what makes good companies and what sort of kills them off.
Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things. - Hard thing about hard things
The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself toward performance and contribution, that is, toward effectiveness.
Most discussions of the executive’s task start with the advice to plan one’s work. This sounds eminently plausible. The only thing wrong with it is that it rarely works. The plans always remain on paper, always remain good intentions. They seldom turn into achievement. Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. - Effective Executive
- Create a religious experience
- Every member working effectively as a singular unit to achieve something greater than any single people can do.
- Have a method of keeping track of mistakes that were made so you can improve upon them. Punish people for not telling you about mistakes not for making them.
- Principles: Long Term Thinking, Free Cash Flow, Customer Obsessiveness
- “customer obsession rather than competitor focus, heartfelt passion for invention, commitment to operational excellence, and a willingness to think long-term.”
- Long Term Thinking: Described it in the first letter
- This was their core principle that they did not waver from ever.
- “Long-term thinking is both a requirement and an outcome of true ownership.”
- “Long-term thinking levers our existing abilities and lets us do new things we couldn’t otherwise contemplate.”
- “More fundamentally, I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”
- Kill Projects that don’t bring long term benefits, but experiment widely
- “a big part of the challenge for us will lie not in finding new ways to expand our business, but in prioritizing our investments.”
- “We must be committed to constant improvement, experimentation, and innovation in every initiative.”
- “Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out.”
- Maximize Cashflow
- “Why focus on cash flows? Because a share of stock is a share of a company's future cash flows, and, as a result, cash flows more than any other single variable seem to do the best job of explaining a company's stock price over the long term.”
- Cost Conscious Culture / Work Lean
- Scaling and reinvest profits on growth
- Customer Obsessiveness
- “Listen to customers, but don’t just listen to customers – also invent on their behalf.”
- “Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.”
- “One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’. I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before. It may be because customers have such easy access to more information than ever before – in only a few seconds and with a couple taps on their phones, customers can read reviews, compare prices from multiple retailers, see whether something’s in stock, find out how fast it will ship or be available for pick-up, and more. These examples are from retail, but I sense that the same customer empowerment phenomenon is happening broadly across everything we do at Amazon and most other industries as well. You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.”
- High Bar in Hiring
- “Will you admire this person?”
- “Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?”
- “Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?”
- “I believe high standards are teachable. In fact, people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread. And though exposure works well to teach high standards, I believe you can accelerate that rate of learning by articulating a few core principles of high standards, which I hope to share in this letter.”
- “Another important question is whether high standards are universal or domain specific. In other words, if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest. When I started Amazon, I had high standards on inventing, on customer care, and (thankfully) on hiring. But I didn’t have high standards on operational process: how to keep fixed problems fixed, how to eliminate defects at the root, how to inspect processes, and much more. I had to learn and develop high standards on all of that (my colleagues were my tutors).”
- “What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope.”
- “Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.”
- “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
- “Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.
- “So, the four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope. For us, these work at all levels of detail. Everything from writing memos to whole new, clean-sheet business initiatives. We hope they help you too.
- Operation Excellence ⎯ “To us, operational excellence implies two things: delivering continuous improvement in customer experience and driving productivity, margin, efficiency, and asset velocity across all our businesses.”
- Partnerships with the caveat that the partner has to have the same values as your company
- Don’t add new goals into your culture until you have standardized on the existing goals
- “Many of the important decisions we make at Amazon.com can be made with data. There is a right answer or a wrong answer, a better answer or a worse answer, and math tells us which is which.”
- “Our judgment is that relentlessly returning efficiency improvements and scale economies to customers in the form of lower prices creates a virtuous cycle that leads over the long term to a much larger dollar amount of free cash flow, and thereby to a much more valuable Amazon.com.”
- Focus on Differentiation that allows you to have a Blue Ocean to yourself
- “In some large companies, it might be difficult to grow new businesses from tiny seeds because of the patience and nurturing required. In my view, Amazon’s culture is unusually supportive of small businesses with big potential, and I believe that’s a source of competitive advantage.”
- “We humans co-evolve with our tools. We change our tools, and then our tools change us.”
- “We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools. I realize my tone here tends toward the missionary, and I can assure you it’s heartfelt. It’s also not unique to me but is shared by a large group of folks here. I’m glad about that because missionaries build better products.”
- “Everywhere we look (and we all look), we find what experienced Japanese manufacturers would call “muda” or waste.2 I find this incredibly energizing. I see it as potential – years and years of variable and fixed productivity gains and more efficient, higher velocity, more flexible capital expenditures.”
- “At a fulfillment center recently, one of our Kaizen experts asked me, “I’m in favor of a clean fulfillment center, but why are you cleaning? Why don’t you eliminate the source of dirt?” I felt like the Karate Kid.”
- “Through our Kaizen program, named for the Japanese term “change for the better,” employees work in small teams to streamline processes and reduce defects and waste.”
- “The most radical and transformative of inventions are often those that empower others to unleash their creativity – to pursue their dreams.”
- “Nothing gives us more pleasure at Amazon than “reinventing normal” – creating inventions that customers love and resetting their expectations for what normal should be.”
- “A dreamy business offering has at least four characteristics. Customers love it, it can grow to very large size, it has strong returns on capital, and it’s durable in time – with the potential to endure for decades. When you find one of these, don’t just swipe right, get married.”
- Goal Setting
- “Our annual goal setting process begins in the fall, and concludes early in the new year after we’ve completed our peak holiday quarter. Our goal setting sessions are lengthy, spirited, and detail- oriented. We have a high bar for the experience our customers deserve and a sense of urgency to improve that experience.”
- “We’ve been using this same annual process for many years. For 2010, we have 452 detailed goals with owners, deliverables, and targeted completion dates. These are not the only goals our teams set for themselves, but they are the ones we feel are most important to monitor. None of these goals are easy and many will not be achieved without invention. We review the status of each of these goals several times per year among our senior leadership team and add, remove, and modify goals as we proceed.”
- “A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove. The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one – just that it’s ours – and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful.”
- “One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.”
- Decision Making
- “Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.”
- “As organizations get larger, there seems to be a tendency to use the heavy-weight Type 1 decision-making process on most decisions, including many Type 2 decisions. The end result of this is slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.1 We’ll have to figure out how to fight that tendency.”
- “The opposite situation is less interesting and there is undoubtedly some survivorship bias. Any companies that habitually use the light-weight Type 2 decision-making process to make Type 1 decisions go extinct before they get large.”
- “Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations. The senior team at Amazon is determined to keep our decision-making velocity high. Speed matters in business – plus a high-velocity decision making environment is more fun too. We don’t know all the answers, but here are some thoughts.”
- “First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong? I wrote about this in more detail in last year’s letter.”
- “Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”
- “Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.”
- “Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.”
- A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.”
Principles by Ray Dalio
- Have a system for collecting mistakes. Review them. Punish for not filing not making the mistake
- Replacing yourself. Find someone capable and have a system for replacing them if need be.
- Have to have others do stuff that you aren’t good At to be successful.