Succeeding as a Christian at Amazon and in the Marketplace

Are marketplace values compatible with God’s Kingdom?

Does succeeding according to corporate values and principles help us grow into the likeness of Christ?

Does following Jesus faithfully enable us to succeed in the corporate world?

In this talk (audio below), we’ll see one example of comparing Scripture with Amazon’s leadership principles to thoughtfully answer these questions. Chris will walk through a method for examining the values of your workplace and finding the alignments with the Kingdom of God and he will close with some thoughts on the recent press Amazon has received for its work culture.

Outline

Manuscript

Good morning friends, it’s a pleasure to join you today. My name is Chris Lim and as a former Amazon engineer for 3.5 years, let me be the first to admit that:

Work is Hard.

I know what it’s like to stay in the office past 11pm on Halloween in order to clean up a workflow database for the next day. I know what it’s like to see people burn out from slavish pressure and poor management. I’ve seen politics kill good products, ruin careers and frustrate entire organizations.

But for all these problems let me also be the first to say that:

Work is Fun.

I love the thrill of seeing customers light up with joy the first time they use my product. I love the relief of getting to the bottom of a ridiculously complicated problem that was stressing out my team for weeks and solving it once and for all. I enjoy the pleasure of mastering new technologies and getting better and better at what I do. I also appreciate the good-natured whining that happened while hanging out with my team past 11pm on Halloween to get a job done since nobody really wanted to go home anyway.

I open with these anecdotes because I realize that my goal this morning is not to teach you something you don’t already know. Rather, my goal is to encourage you by giving a perspective on how God may be using the pressures and values of the marketplace to make you like Jesus. I hope that coming out of this talk you will feel gratitude for the way God has united our marketplace work and the work of his kingdom. And I pray that you will be unleashed to do good with the grace God has given you by making the most of everything you have to give the world a foretaste of God’s Kingdom.

As Al Erisman, founding board member of Kiros likes to say, “You can serve God wherever he has placed you. You don’t have to be a pastor to serve God. God has a great purpose for work in a secular environment.” And today I want to show you an example of one way this plays out in the marketplace.

I’m going to share with you three Amazon leadership principles, compare them with Scripture and close with some practical steps you can follow to proclaim God’s Kingdom in your context.

When I started at Amazon, I was a young, naive, insecure software engineer. I knew how to program, but I didn’t know how to engineer production quality software that could serve millions of customers. I didn’t know all the tools I needed to use, much less why I needed to use them. And although I knew how to get good grades in school and finish projects, work was a completely different game. Setting SMART goals and writing up peer reviews and waiting for the results of an opaque performance review process always left me questioning if I was doing well or just a waiting to be exposed as a disappointment.

In the software world, we often follow a project management process called scrum. A part of this is something called the “Daily stand-up”. At the appointed time, everyone on the team gathers around a whiteboard that shows what needs to be done in order of priority and progress. Each member shares what they did yesterday, what they’re working on today and anything they need help with. Once everyone has given an update, the meeting is over. These daily stand-up meetings were a simple, but powerful tool for accountability.

It was after one of these stand-ups that a senior engineer on my team pulled me aside and asked me if I knew Amazon’s leadership principles. I remembered hearing about them during my new hire orientation, but I hadn’t paid very close attention. He told me:

Chris these leadership principles are very important. I know other companies might just put them on posters, but at Amazon they go into your performance reviews. It really defines what it means to be a leader at Amazon. You should memorize them.

I immediately looked up the principles, printed them out, went to a whiteboard and spent the rest of my day memorizing all 14:

  • Customer Obsession
  • Ownership
  • Invent & Simplify
  • Bias for Action
  • Dive Deep
  • Hire and Develop the Best
  • Frugality
  • Vocally Self-Critical
  • Are Right A Lot
  • Insists on Highest Standards
  • Think Big
  • Has Backbone; Disagree & Commit
  • Earns Trust of Others
  • Delivers Results.

I felt like my colleague had given me the secret playbook to succeeding at Amazon and I was going to make the most of it. Before I wasn’t sure of how well I was doing, but now I felt like I knew how to play to win.

And to a small degree, I did win.

In my second year I received an Outstanding performance review rating and a Role Model leadership rating–these are the highest marks a person can receive. I was honored with an “Above and Beyond Award” in my organization for driving the adoption of the product my team built within the company–this required taking on the responsibilities of a technical program manager while still fulfilling my role as a software engineer.

I share this not to boast–I believe everything is grace; every achievement is a sheer gift from my heavenly Father–but I share this to highlight my discovery of the power of the performance review system and the leadership principles.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You get what you pay for”.

I would like to add a new, but similar saying: “You get more of what you pay for”.

For example, if you reward people for being vocally self-critical, more people will be forthcoming with their mistakes. If on the other hand you punish people for having backbone and standing up for what they believe is right, more people will silently comply.

To put it simply: I realized that the Amazon’s leadership principles and performance review system rewarded me for conforming to Amazon’s image of leadership.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you may hear echoes of Romans 12:2 in what I just said:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Instead of conforming to the world, we know that God’s vision for humanity is to conform us to the image of Jesus as written in Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

As a Christian, as someone who professes a desire to be like Jesus more than anyone else–more than Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg I want to be like Jesus–this led me to ask:

“Does conforming to Amazon’s leadership principles help me conform to the image of Christ?”

If it doesn’t, then I risk being glorified by the world while missing out on the supremely important glory that comes from God. I risk playing the wrong game and losing everything in the end.

If it does then those leadership principles and rewards are actually very powerful tools that God is using to fulfill his promise to make me share the glory of his Son.

In order to explore this question, I decided to compare the Amazon leadership principles with Scripture and I invited the christians-interest mailing list at Amazon to join me. Together we spent several weeks over lunch carefully studying and discussing each principle.

So without further ado, let’s dive into three of the fourteen principles and see what the Bible has to say about them. For each principle, we’re going to:

  1. Define the principle
  2. Ask a few clarifying questions and
  3. Find answers from relevant scriptures.

It’s a really simple method that I hope you can take with you and apply to your own companies.

Principle #1: Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.

Question number 1: “What does it mean to be an owner?”

Can anyone think of a relevant scripture?

The one we discussed is from Matthew 25:23:

His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

This verse implies that as an owner, you share in the long term risks and rewards of the things that belong to you.

Now this verse refers to a servant-master relationships, which led to the next question: “How is ownership different than stewardship?”

Any thoughts?

Although they are different, a good steward always acts in the best interests of the owner, so that the actual behavior is similar.

In John 10:11-14 Jesus describes the degenerate case where the behavior is different:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,

Jesus distinguishes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep versus hired hands who don’t really care for the sheep and run away when endangered. They are unfaithful stewards exactly because they are not acting like owners. Their long term well-being is not aligned with the well-being of the sheep.

Tying this back to the workplace, we then asked the difficult question: “Can you act like an owner even when you don’t feel like one? What are some reasons why you may not feel like an owner?”

Any thoughts?

These are some reasons why it can be hard to act like an owner:

One, you really may not be an owner, or you may not have the influence to affect change and benefit from the outcome of your decision.

Two, you may be driven by selfish ambition, using what you have to get ahead in the short term instead of doing what is right in the long term for others. For example, as an engineer you may design a system for the short term, expecting to get promoted and switching to another team so that you don’t have to deal with the long-term consequences.

Three, you may not want to benefit your bosses because you feel like they aren’t looking out for your best interests. You may have disagreements with those in authority that make you feel disempowered because you have to take on the consequences and responsibilities of ownership without having the freedom and rewards of it.

Now, despite these difficult situations, as Christians we believe that God is the ultimate owner. He has entrusted a stewardship to us and our reward is guaranteed by him, even if we cannot trace out the connection between the responsibilities we fulfill today and the rewards that will come in the future.

In Psalm 24:1 it is written, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;”

God is in fact the owner of all things and his incredible promise is that we are not merely stewards, but also heirs (owners!) of all things in Christ:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:16-17)

So to summarize: God owns everything and will one day give everything to us. This means that growing in ownership actually prepares us to receive the kingdom of God. Growing as an Amazonian means growing as a Christian. And the reverse is also true, growing as a Christian means being the kind of leader Amazon values.

As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

So to adapt Amazon’s definition:

Christians are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire Kingdom of God, beyond just their immediate interests. They never say “that’s not my job”.

How does that sound?

How does realizing that God owns everything and that we will one day inherit all things affect how we approach our work and our life?

Let’s go to the next principle

Principle #2: Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Question number 1: Why is it difficult to have a bias for action?

Any thoughts?

I think it’s tempting to delay decisions until they are made for us because it’s scary to take responsibility for an unknown outcome.

But let me ask, what story from the Bible comes to mind when you think of bias for action?

I think of the time shortly after Saul was anointed king.

He was supposed to attack the Philistines, but instead faithlessly cowered with his 600 men. His son Jonathan on the other hand demonstrated a bias for action that achieved a great victory for Israel. Let me read a snippet from 1 Samuel 14:

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

“Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” …

Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre. (see full story at 1 Samuel 14:1-14)

How is that for bias for action?

And what was the secret to Jonathan’s bias for action?

I think it was simply, faith in God. And growing in faith is exactly growing in Christ.

Question number 2: How does a bias for action fit with waiting on the Lord?

This is a very deep and tricky theological topic and in our discussions at Amazon it was hard to come to a conclusive summary. We ended up discussing what a bias for action and waiting for the Lord are not.

For example, we should not confuse procrastination or avoiding responsibility with waiting on the Lord—sometimes we already know what God wants us to do, but haven’t accepted his answer. Like the faithless Israelites who refused to enter Canaan when the Lord told them to go and then tried to invade when he told them “no” (Deuteronomy 1).

On the other hand, many Scriptures that speak of waiting on the Lord connote a stillness while he acts on our behalf:

Psalm 40 begins with “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.”

Psalm 37:5-7 says:

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

So it seems that biblically speaking there is a place for action and stillness, but at the root of both of them is complete trust in the Lord.

Let’s make decisions, act and take calculated risks by faith in God instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis or anxious toil. Growing as a person of faith and courage will result in a bias for action as well as the wisdom to know when to wait on the Lord.

And now we come to Amazon’s first and foremost leadership principle: Customer Obsession.

Principle #3: Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Do any of you know Amazon’s mission statement?

It’s “To be earth’s most customer centric company.”

Many companies start with business goals and what they already have and work forward to figure out how to capture the market and profit. Amazon wants to begin with customers–their values, needs, desires–and work backwards to invent things that will benefit them.

I’m going to share shortly how this one principle changed my whole perspective on business, but first let’s ask some clarifying questions:

What are the limits of customer obsession?

Can the customer ever be wrong?

What is the difference between giving the customer what they want versus what they need or ought to want?

I think it’s funny that lines like this are in the Bible–Proverbs 20:14 says, “It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—then goes off and boasts about the purchase.”

Have you ever experienced that? Maybe after buying a car?

We can’t always take what customers say at face value, can we?

But what we can do is commit to loving our customers and doing what is right for them.

I’d like to recommend a book that goes into this distinction more thoroughly titled The Gift of Work: Spiritual Disciplines for the Workplace (affiliate link) by Bill Heatley. He writes, “One way of thinking about service is, ‘I love you and I’ll serve you by doing what you want me to do.’ That’s perhaps one of the most common ideas today. The other idea is, ‘I love you and I will serve you by doing what is good for you, whether you want it or not.’”

True customer obsession focuses on what is truly good for customers, not simply satisfying their felt needs and desires.

Question 2: What happens when we lose customer obsession?

If you aren’t obsessed about your customers, who are you obsessed about?

Probably yourself. Or perhaps fearing or envying competitors.

Customer obsession is one way we fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves. It protects us from the perils of envy and worshiping money.

Obsessing over customers is obsessing over God’s second greatest commandment.

And this leads me to the question that changed everything for me.

What if God is the customer?

What would it look like to create earth’s most God-centered company?

Could we empathize with what God values and desires and work backwards to invent products and services that deliver the outcomes he wants?

Could we intentionally align all of our labor to create foretastes of his Kingdom?

This is actually why I left Amazon and started my company TheoTech. I’m testing that hypothesis. I want to see if we can create a prosperous business by explicitly serving the interests of God as our customer. Can we be earth’s most God-centered company?

Now, the truth is, you don’t have to quit your job and do a crazy startup to do this. You can make God your ultimate customer where you are right now. And I think he wants you to.

He wants you to deeply empathize with what he values. He wants you to obsess over his desires. He wants you to work backwards from his Kingdom vision to help others experience the glory of the new creation he promised to everyone that trusts in Jesus Christ.

And not only does God want you to make him your customer, but I believe he is already equipping, growing and discipling you to do so through your marketplace experiences by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned during my time at Amazon was that discipleship doesn’t really happen through church programs–it happens anywhere and everywhere because the Holy Spirit is with me, guiding, correcting, teaching, prodding, encouraging and growing me.

When Scripture is applied by the Spirit in the circumstances God has arranged for my life, everything ends up molding me into the likeness of Jesus. The joys and trials of the workplace, the incentives and values of the marketplace, the successes and the failures, everything converge to grow me as a follower of Jesus. Discipleship happens in place.

What happens when things go wrong?

Now I’d like to briefly address what happens when things go wrong. Amazon may have some good leadership principles that in many ways align with Scripture, but what happens when people don’t live up to those principles? Or what if some of the principles are lacking or simply wrong?

I think the recent New York Times expose on Amazon is an example of this.

The article described the experiences of several former employees who faced hardships like being put on a performance improvement plan after returning from a pregnancy, being brought tears through bruising disagreements and unsustainably long hours.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent an internal e-mail in response to the article, which was published online and some of my friends asked for my opinion on the matter. I wrote a post titled, “Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Fear and Other Thoughts on the NYT’s Amazon Expose”, which you can read on my blog at www.meritandgrace.com, but let me give you the gist of it here.  

At every all hands company meeting I attended, someone would inevitably ask, “What is the biggest risk for Amazon?”

And in every meeting, Jeff would say something to the effect of:

The biggest risk is that we will value social cohesion instead of truth. Truth seeking is exhausting, finding the right answer, compromising with someone is easier…seeking the truth and the right answer is critical, don’t fall victim to the social cohesion mentality to compromise for pragmatic reasons.

In other words, the biggest threat to Amazon is internal politics. Jeff is afraid that the company will succumb to the game of power rather than submitting to the power of the truth. People will get tired of figuring out what is true and choose to do what is convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the terrible stories outlined in the New York Times article seem to be cases where Amazon’s leadership principles were disregarded in favor of corporate politics and bad management.

Instead of using their power to serve those under them as good leaders do, managers and individual contributors can “manage up” by trying to please their bosses for their own protection and advancement. Those bosses in turn are trying to please their bosses and so on and so forth. Rigor, reviews, goals, spreadsheets and data in this political system turn into tools for enforcing social cohesion rather than seeking truth.

For anyone with experience in office politics, this isn’t unique to Amazon. Whether people are being “nice” or “rigorous”, when everyone is looking out only for their own interests, it does “create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

It creates a culture of fear, selfishness and oppression–the exact opposite of the Kingdom of God.

In response to the article, Jeff Bezos invited any employee who witnessed the abuse of power to report it directly to him, saying, “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

However, I know from experience that most people who are undergoing oppression are too shy or afraid to take him up on his invitation. Many victims will prefer leaving to causing a ruckus or fighting those in power over them. Many will belittle problems as minor offenses or personal differences. Many will commiserate with peers, try to give feedback to a skip-level and then give up when nothing changes.

I have seen the HR process work for a friend who spoke up and got transferred to a different team. I have seen the performance improvement process abused by a manager to get rid of a competent developer. I have seen a friend get quickly promoted twice and given a large raise in a short time. I have a seen another friend exhausted and burnt out after several years of poor leadership. I have seen managers make data-driven decisions as well as expedient ones.

My point is that business as usual is not going to work.

I think that Jeff needs to go further to ensure his entire company embodies the culture of joyful invention he experiences everyday. God has given him immense authority and holds him responsible to use it justly and kindly for the good of those under his authority.

With such a large workforce and many layers of management, mismanagement and politics are inevitable. By applying the Dive Deep leadership principle to get at the truth about why these dysfunctions are happening in his company and correcting the errors, he will not only protect his company from the threat of subtly valuing social cohesion over truth, but he would also embody a new principle:

Do What’s Right: Leaders do what is right even when it means sacrificing their own interests. They use their power to serve others instead of using others for their own ends. They commend those who do likewise and correct those who do not.

In preparing for this talk, I asked a friend who was with Amazon for three years,  “What would be the most encouraging thing I could say to you if you were still at Amazon?”

She told me, “I’ve spoken with the people at the top and we’re making changes to make things better.”

Now I haven’t actually spoken with Jeff Bezos or his team of senior vice presidents, but I have been speaking with God and listening to his Word and I think that we can safely say, “We’ve spoken with the top and we are making things better.”

This is exactly why we’re here. This is exactly why Christians are in the marketplace. To make things better. To fulfill the mandate from the top.

To proclaim God’s Kingdom and invite people to submit to God’s leadership in every sphere. To show people how good things are when God is in charge.

As Christians, we not only benefit from marketplace values and economics, but we also raise the bar on the marketplace, as salt and light, so that it better reflects the justice, righteousness and peace of the Kingdom of God.

So to summarize: today I walked you through three Amazon leadership principles. For each principle, we compared its definition with relevant Scriptures to see how conforming to that principle helps us conform to Christ.

First, Ownership: Since God will give us a completely renewed creation as our inheritance, taking long term responsibility and growing as an owner prepares us for the day when the Universe will be ours to govern.

Second, Bias for Action: God wants us to act by faith today on the promises he has made for our future. Growing in faith means growing in a bias for action, which is important for success in business as well as advancing God’s purposes.

Third, Customer Obsession: God wants us to obsess over his will and apply all the best we have to offer to fulfill it. This is nothing less than loving God with our entire being and our neighbors as ourselves.

I hope that these examples make it clear that when we excel in these principles, we not only succeed in great companies like Amazon, but we also grow up to maturity in Christ. Our work and conduct become foretastes of God’s Kingdom, an invitation for people to trust in Jesus because they’ve seen for themselves how good his ways really are and that his promises are what they’ve been really hoping for all along. And I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of success that makes my heart smile.

Practical Steps

So here are two practical steps you can take today:

The first is to simply take your company’s values and leadership principles and examine them in light of Scripture. Figure out the points of alignment with God’s Kingdom and your character. Maximize your pursuit of growth in those areas. It’s all win.

The second step is related to something I’m currently working on.

How many of you pray?

How many of you feel like your prayers tend to be self-centered?

What if there was an easy way to remember to pray for others? Not only Christians or your family, but everyone–colleagues, bosses, employees, clients, vendors, etc.?

If this piques your interest, I’d like to invite you to try a smartphone app my team has been working on called Ceaseless. If we want to see lives transformed in the marketplace, I believe it will begin with regular, earnest and personal prayer.

Ceaseless integrates with the address book on your phone and shows you three people to pray for each day. One day it may show you the love of your life and the next it may show you the annoying coworker you wish would quit already.

The point is that God urges us to pray for all people because he wants all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4 ESV). We invented Ceaseless to help people do what God wants them to do and if just 1% of the earth’s population prayed for 3 friends each day, we could theoretically personally pray for everyone on earth in less than a year. You can be a part of this movement. Learn more at www.ceaselessprayer.com

Thank you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe one situation you are facing at work and how God maybe discipling you through it.
  2. What would it look like to deliver foretastes of God’s kingdom in your marketplace milieu?
  3. How does growing in the values/leadership principles of your business help you grow in Christlikeness?

Jeff Bezos’ Biggest Fear and Other Thoughts on the NYT’s Amazon Expose

Several people asked for my thoughts on the recent New York Times’ expose of Amazon Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace as well as Jeff Bezos’ response: Jeff Bezos has responded to a report slamming Amazon’s working conditions.

Some brief background about me: I worked at Amazon for 3.5 years before leaving to start a company. While there, I convened a group of Christians to study the Theology of Technology. We compared the Amazon Leadership Principles with Scripture and some of the notes from our discussions can be found here: Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian.

First Impressions

My first impression after reading the article was a mixture of amusement and compassion. Amusement because I actually have fond memories of working with some of the people quoted in the article. Compassion because although I knew their work was tough, I did not know how bad their experience was.

I found Amazon to be a place with excellent leadership principles, which unfortunately are not always lived up to. The work will absorb your life if you let it and you must set your own work/life boundaries (not balance!) because the company will not set them for you.

When you’ve decided on your boundaries and uphold them, you can enjoy the work instead of being controlled by it–even if it means the politics (and other factors outside of your control) work against you.

Bezos’ Biggest Fear

“What do you think is the biggest risk to Amazon in the next 5 years?”

I heard this question at every all-hands meeting since I started, so I figured that Jeff had it planted every single time. Here is a paraphrase of what I remember to be his response:

That we will value social cohesion instead of truth. Truth seeking is exhausting, finding the right answer, compromising with someone is easier…seeking the truth and the right answer is critical, don’t fall victim to the social cohesion mentality to compromise for pragmatic reasons.

So what does Jeff think is the biggest threat to Amazon? Internal politics. He is afraid that the company will succumb to the game of power rather than submitting to the power of the truth. People will get tired of figuring out what is true and choose to do what is convenient.

Unsurprisingly, the terrible stories outlined in the New York Times article seem less due to Amazon’s data-driven culture and largely due to corporate politics and bad management.

Instead of using their power to serve those under them as good leaders do, managers and individual contributors can “manage up” by trying to please their bosses for their own protection and advancement. Those bosses in turn are trying to please their bosses and so on and so forth. Rigor, reviews, goals, spreadsheets and data in this political system turn into tools for enforcing social cohesion rather than seeking truth.

For anyone with experience in office politics, this isn’t unique to Amazon. Whether people are being “nice” or “rigorous”, when everyone is looking out only for their own interests, it does “create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

It sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes 5:9:

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

It’s Time for a Deep Dive

Amazon has a “king committed to cultivated fields,” which unsurprisingly is accompanied by instances of oppression. The company is doing exceptionally well and from his vantage point, Jeff Bezos is, “having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”

He takes the right first step by inviting his employees to report any signs of oppression: “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at [email protected] Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

However, I know from experience that most people who are undergoing oppression are too shy or afraid to take him up on his invitation. Many victims will prefer leaving to causing a ruckus or fighting those in power over them. Many will belittle problems as minor offenses or personal differences. Many will commiserate with peers, try to give feedback to a skip-level and then give up when nothing changes.

I have seen the HR process work for a friend who spoke up and got transferred to a different team. I have seen the performance improvement process abused by a manager to get rid of a competent developer. I have seen a friend get quickly promoted twice and given a large raise in a short time. I have a seen another friend exhausted and burnt out after several years of poor leadership. I have seen managers make data-driven decisions as well as expedient ones.

Practically speaking, if you find a great manager and team at Amazon, I think you will have a blast there. If you want to be a great manager and/or leader by using your power to serve others, I think many smart people will want to work with you.

But at a higher level, I think that Jeff needs to go further to ensure his entire company embodies the culture of joyful invention he experiences everyday. God has given him immense authority and holds him responsible to use it justly and kindly for the good of those under his authority.

With such a large workforce and many layers of management, mismanagement and politics are inevitable. By applying the Dive Deep leadership principle to get at the truth about why these dysfunctions are happening in his company and correcting the errors, he will not only protect his company from the threat of subtly valuing social cohesion over truth, but he would also embody a new principle:

Do What’s Right: Leaders do what is right even when it means sacrificing their own interests. They use their power to serve others instead of using others for their own ends. They commend those who do likewise and correct those who do not.

 

Why I left Amazon – Memoirs of a Venture Calvinist (Part 1 of 3)

In his commencement speech at Princeton renowned entrepreneur Jeff Bezos challenged the graduating students:

  • How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
  • Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
  • Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
  • Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

These were convicting questions after working for three years at Amazon (affiliate link). Before joining, I wanted to start a company based on my research in automatic language translation. I competed in business plan competitions, vigorously working to turn ideas into products that could help people, but as my degree came to a close, so did the doors of opportunity.

Dejected, I submitted resumes to recruiters at career fairs and despite interviews and offers found myself in deep depression. Through my parents’ comfort and counsel I eventually came to terms with the death of my dream and changed my ambition to simply serve God faithfully where ever he sent me.

That place turned out to be Amazon and it was an incredible blessing.

What I learned at Amazon

Working closely with world-class engineers motivated me to become skillful enough to scale up and productionize any idea. I learned that things take time. I learned the importance of figuring out the right thing to build instead of building as an end in itself (balanced with a bias for action). I learned how to recruit and how to work with and lead a team. I gained a treasured community of Christians at Amazon, and organized events to discuss the Theology of Technology and to compare Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. I loved my team and enjoyed a comfortable income with which I could bless others.

But on a lonely May Friday night, everything changed. The dream came back.

The Adventure Begins

Exhausted after working late, I plopped on my bed and tried to take a nap. But instead of dozing off, I felt wide awake and it seemed like the Lord said to me:

“Chris, I want you to leave your job and devote your attention to the purpose to which I have called you and trust me to provide for you”.

I wasn’t sure. So I talked with family and friends who expressed concerns for my welfare, but nothing that led me to doubt the call. It seemed in line with Scripture since it was calling me to trust in God and to holiness.  After a period of discernment, I told my manager of my intention to leave and agreed to stay until the completion of the big project my team was working on.

In the ensuing months, my heart sank like a teabag in an eco cup. Self-doubt, fear of failure, attachment to my team, my salary and my identity as an Amazonian, fear of being alone, of being put to shame and looking crazy for doing this without being “ready” or because “God told me to”, hearing about competition, hearing cautions about making money in the faith+tech space, and innumerable other anxieties plagued me.

The Lingering Question

Some of the hardest conversations were with people who recommended that I do things on the side until I had something solid. It was common sense, but I felt speechless because I believed God called me to leave my job. So during a weekend at Cannon Beach, I pondered the question:

“What can you do after you quit that you could not do before?”

There had to be something more than just giving time and attention to my dream. While praying on the serene shores of the Oregon coast, I arrived at an answer:

“By leaving you can witness to the supreme worth of Jesus Christ”

I could show that He is more valuable than money and more desirable than a life of comfort. I could show that following him is more secure than a successful career. If minimizing regret and the promise of independence, riches, fame, adventure and changing the world are enough to motivate people to entrepreneurship, how much more should God’s call compel me to go? How could I joyfully invite others to trust in my Savior, if I would not trust him in this matter?

And so it was settled. Despite all of the pros and cons, I had to leave Amazon in obedience to God’s call. I wanted to show by my actions that Jesus Christ is more precious than anything else I desire in life. So when the project wound down, I submitted my letter of resignation, celebrated with my colleagues and began a new adventure.

In my next post, I want to get you excited about the vision :).

Call to Action

If you’re a Christian, is God calling you to do something challenging? Does it help to know that this is an opportunity for him to show his trustworthiness in your life?

If you’re not a follower of Jesus, do you believe there is some other person or cause that you can unreservedly devote your passion, affection, intellect and energy to? I believe there is no greater pleasure than giving unmitigated love to Christ because he is worthy of it all. And though I still have far to go, this is the joy I would like to invite you to as well.

Please share your comments below!

Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian (Part 6 of 6)

This is the final post in a series comparing Amazon leadership principles with Scripture and today we are wrapping it up with Has Backbone, Disagree and Commit and Delivers Results. The previous post was on Vocally Self Critical; Earn Trust of Others; Dive Deep and you can see the full list here. I want to thank the many friends who worked through these principles and the Scriptures together with me over the course of 6 weeks back in October/November–it has been a joy and I thank God for you all!


This is the last in our series comparing Amazon leadership principles with Scripture and though there remains room for further study, I hope what I’ve shared has been helpful. The good news is that growing as a leader at Amazon means growing as a Christian and although these principles do not exhaust the fruits of the Spirit or Peter’s list of virtues, let’s thank God that we can excel in following Jesus while succeeding at Amazon.

Has Backbone, Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Why is it difficult to have backbone? Can you share examples of where having backbone resulted in a positive or negative outcome?

In our discussion, we shared about the easy tendency towards passive aggressiveness when we succumb to social cohesion. As Christians, there seems to be a tension between the gentleness we are called to and the apparent aggressiveness of respectfully challenging decisions we disagree with. Sometimes it feels like the most aggressive people in voicing their opinions “win” and the meek are ignored (allusions to Matthew 5:5?). In fact one person received feedback to the effect of, “You need to be more vocal—you’re not here to build relationships, you’re here to get stuff done!”

It seems that at the heart of this tension is a distinction over the substance of the disagreement: Don’t disagree over egos, disagree over data (aka the truth). Having backbone is not contrary to Christian gentleness when we are slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to anger (James 1:19). Forcing your opinion, being aggressive and not listening should not be mistaken for having backbone. Even within Amazon, this principle is balanced by diving deep into the data and being vocally self critical.

Thankfully appealing to data and appealing to customers works much of the time in Amazon. It requires more work to sedulously test assumptions and compile the facts, but doing so often influences decisions and produces results. For example, one TPM had a feature that needed buy-in from many stakeholders who were already deluged with other work. By presenting the data and demonstrating its value to the business and our customers, he was able to get the resources despite the pushback from others who were displeased.

Delivers ResultsDelivers Results

Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

What does it mean to settle?

In Amazon there are so many stakeholders from designers to developers to legal, finance, and other teams that any new initiative is bound to face an intimidating array of challenges. When you get pushback from all sides, you keep striving to overcome them instead of giving up—this principle seems to value perseverance.

Why do leaders focus on the key inputs?

Perhaps because they cannot control the outcomes, but in a sense they have faith that focusing on the right inputs (which they can control) will result in the output they desire.

What happens if you fail to deliver a result?

This probably ties in with being vocally self critical—admit the problem first and don’t blame it on others. Take responsibility, fail fast and recover.

What are relevant Scriptures to this principle?

As you can see from the brevity of the responses to these questions, we didn’t have much time to discuss “Delivers Results”. However, as Christians, we know Jesus expects us to “deliver results” by the grace he supplies, the right input being “remaining in him”:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16)

Paul explains that in ministry, the results are from the Lord and all ministers of the gospel can do is focus on the inputs:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Endurance and perseverance amidst trials and persecutions are also essential to maturity and finishing the race of life:

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:4)

(see also Romans 5)

Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:12)

(see also Hebrews 12)

In all these we know that the end result is praise, glory and honor to God:

If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11)

Food for thought:

How is there room for grace in a corporate environment?

Are “Has Backbone, Disagree and Commit” and “Delivers Results” principles that can and should be applied outside of Amazon to churches for example?

Please leave a comment and like/share/tweet/+1 this series if you’ve found it helpful.

Thanks! Soli Deo Gloria.

 

Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian (Part 5 of 6)

This is part 5 in a series of posts comparing Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. Today’s post is about Vocally Self Critical, Earns Trust of Others, and Dive Deep. The previous post was about Think Big; Bias for Action; Frugality and you can see the full list here.

Today’s leadership principles seem focused on making sure Amazon remains a truth-seeking organization instead of one that succumbs to social cohesion.


Vocally Self Critical


Vocally Self Critical
Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. Leaders come forward with problems or information, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Have you been tempted to cover up mistakes and bad news?

In our theology of technology group, we shared different situations where we’ve faced this difficulty. It’s tempting to give the appearance that you or your team are progressing more quickly than you actually are, especially when reporting to upper management. It’s tempting to remain quiet while others are telling a rosy story or making promises that are nicer than reality. As leaders, we should speak up and make sure the truth is heard even though we risk making our team (or ourselves) look bad.

When you tell the truth despite its social repercussions, you encourage others to give you honest feedback and many times pre-empt the need for others to criticize you (a sort of corollary to Proverbs 27:2). Of course it’s still possible reject critical feedback outside of the ways you are willing to criticize yourself, so this is not a substitute for peer feedback.

As Christians, we have great freedom to be vocally self critical because the truth about our most depraved condition is fully known God and yet he thoroughly loves us and has given us full access to himself through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16). Even though speaking up for the truth can have painful social consequences, we do it because we love the truth and our neighbor (1 Corinthians 13:6). David throughout his Psalms demonstrated a vocally self critical attitude in his confession towards God (Psalm 32) and an opposite would be the hypocritical Pharisees that Jesus condemned (John 8, Matthew 7:1-5).

Earns Trust of Others

Leaders are sincerely open-minded, genuinely listen, and are willing to examine their strongest convictions with humility.

Describe a time when someone in Amazon earned your trust

We began describing two types of trust-earning activities, which seemed to be different than the receptivity described by this leadership principle. The first was a case where a senior developer took the time to teach a junior developer. By explaining his thought process, asking guiding questions, listening and demonstrating the merit of his ways, this developer earned the trust and respect of the junior developer. There are other instances where senior developers may be more pre-occupied with their own work or dogmatic about some point instead of reasoning with and persuading others about their approach. The second way to build trust over time was to under promise and over deliver—basically making and keeping the promises you make over time builds trust.

However, the description for this principle seems to lean toward earning trust by listening to others and being open to their feedback and ideas—a kind of continuation of being vocally self critical. This is particularly powerful when exercised by someone in authority because it is moving along the lines of Jesus’ teaching that leaders are not to lord their authority over others (as expressed by authoritarian stubbornness), but to use it to serve others (Luke 22:24-26, 1 Peter 5:2-4). Even so, it can be frustrating dealing with someone who gives the appearance of receptivity, but ultimately is seeking to manipulate the situation to their advantage or confirm what they already desire (see for example Rehoboam who rejected the advice of his father’s counselors). As believers we ought to be truly receptive and likewise forthcoming in speaking the truth to each other (Psalm 32:9, Proverbs 1:7, Ephesians 4:15, 25).

Dive Deep

Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details and audit frequently. No task is beneath them.

What is the difference between diving deep and micromanaging?

Most of the time we’ve seen leaders dive deep at Amazon for the purposes of understanding and accountability rather than in order to directly control every action a team is making. Leaders are willing to dive deep and can quickly get to the heart of a matter, apprising themselves of the true situation. Regularly diving deep creates an atmosphere of accountability because it means that you have to know your stuff when you present and share facts with others.

Why is it tempting to stay high level instead of diving deep?

When we’re under deadlines, it may seem like we don’t have enough time to dive deep and really understand a problem, technology or spreadsheet. There is a balance between knowledge exploration and exploitation, and the intuitions about when to dive deep and when to leave things at an abstract/aggregate level seem to be gained through experience. When you do see a problem, diving deep is a form of taking responsibility since if you choose not to solve it, someone else probably will have to. This is also a way for leaders to earn the trust of others since peers and followers know that you know what is really going on and that you are taking care of it.

How does this relate to Scripture?

My friend Carter pointed out that we are not seeking proof texts in asking this question, but simply trying to reflect on these principles in light of Scripture. Jesus for example did not need to be “vocally self-critical” or “open-minded” in the sense that we do. We didn’t get to really explore this question for Dive Deep, but we know that Christ commanded his disciples to follow his example by serving each other even in the lowliest task of foot washing (John 13). In a sense his mission to seek and save the lost by giving up his own life is God “diving deep” to redeem his entire Creation:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Food for thought:

How can we overcome the tendency towards social cohesion and promote a truth-seeking culture in our families, churches, teams and wider communities?

Please leave a comment and read the next post on Have Backbone, Will Disagree and Commit; Deliver Results.

Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian (Part 4 of 6)

This is part 4 in a series comparing Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. Today’s post is about Think Big, Bias for Action, and Frugality. The previous post was about Are Right, A lot; Hire and Develop the Best; Insist on the Highest Standards and you can see the full list here.

Think Big

Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

How can you think big while remaining realistic?

In Amazon we often test the big ideas with a press release to socialize the idea and gather data followed by a prototype. Oftentimes a big idea may be rejected not because it is flawed, but because the people it is presented to cannot conceive of how it is possible. In such cases a prototype can help people take the idea seriously.

What prevents us from thinking big?

We discussed two types of obstacles: busyness and fear.

It is easy to get trapped in the details of work and lose sight of the bigger picture/possibilities. For developers, the iterative cycle of two week incremental sprints lends itself to forgetting where you are going. To overcome this, some teams schedule brainstorming sessions to take a step back and dream. Using the 5 Why’s can also help uncover bigger ideas.

It is also easy to fear failure or rejection for promoting big and bold directions. Great ideas can be quickly squashed by a desire for social cohesion. In such cases collecting data by experimenting and talking with others can help build up sufficient momentum to overcome these obstacles.

Is it prideful to “Think Big”?

For example, the Psalmist writes:

My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
(Psalm 131:1-2)

Yet, we know God’s plan to save the world and redeem the whole creation is incredibly big thinking:

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelations 7:9)

In his parable of the talents, Jesus in fact condemns the lazy servant who takes no risks and gets no return on investment for his master (Matthew 25:26-27).

So, it seems that although it is possible to “think big” for prideful reasons, it is just as possible to “think small” for selfish reasons.
In Amazon, thinking big is always designed to deliver more value to customers and similarly as Christians, we can always be thinking big for Christ’s purposes.

Bias for Action

Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Why is it difficult to have a bias for action?

It’s tempting to delay decisions until they are made for us because it is scary to take responsibility for an unknown outcome.

For example, Saul faithlessly cowered with his 600 men instead of attacking, while Jonathan by faith exhibited a bias for action and achieved a victory for Israel.

6 Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

7 “Do all that you have in mind,” his armor-bearer said. “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

8 Jonathan said, “Come on, then; we will cross over toward them and let them see us. 9 If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. 10 But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.” … 13 Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. 14 In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre. (see full story at 1 Samuel 14:1-14)

How does a bias for action fit with waiting on the Lord?

We discussed the nuances of waiting on the Lord vis-à-vis acting, but didn’t arrive at a conclusive summary.

We should not confuse procrastination or avoiding responsibility with waiting on the Lord—sometimes we already know what the Lord wants us to do, but haven’t accepted his answer. An example would be the faithlessness of the Israelites who refused to enter Canaan when the Lord told them to go and then went when he told them “no” (Deuteronomy 1).

On the other hand, many Scriptures that speak of waiting on the Lord connote a restful stillness while he acts on our behalf:

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” (Psalm 40:1)

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! (Psalm 37:5-7)

As these various Scriptures illustrate, it seems that there is a place for action and stillness and at the root of both is complete trust in the Lord.

So let us take action, make decisions, and calculated risks by faith in God instead of succumbing to analysis paralysis or anxious toil.

Frugality

We try not to spend money on things that don’t matter to customers. Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for headcount, budget size or fixed expense.

How can a person be frugal and generous at the same time?

We didn’t get to examine the effects of frugality like resourcefulness, but we addressed the principle itself. It seems that frugality is a mindset, which strategically arranges its assets towards its aim. In Amazon this aim is customer obsession—delivering more value to our customers (often in the form of lower prices). As Christians, our aim is God’s glory.

Even though God has unlimited resources, one could argue that he is frugal because his unlimited resources are brought to bear on his strategic purposes by lavishing the elect with the riches of his grace, to the maximal praise of his glorious grace:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. (Ephesians 1:3-8a)

We also see Christ commend incredible acts of generosity in others:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:6-13)

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, 2 and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. (Luke 21:1-3)

So, although we did not get to explore all the dimensions of frugality, stinginess and generosity, in the least we saw that it does not mean a generic miserliness. We practice thrift in certain areas so that we can be generous in the areas that matter to God.

Food for thought:

How does faith in Christ empower you to “Think Big”, exhibit a “Bias for Action”, and practice “Frugality” for his strategic purposes?

Please leave a comment and read the next post on being Vocally Self Critical, Earning the Trust of Others and Diving Deep.

Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian (Part 3 of 6)

This is part 3 in a series comparing Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. Today’s post is about Are Right, A Lot, Hire and Develop the Best, and Insists on Highest Standards. The previous post was about Ownership; Invent and Simplify and you can see the full list here.


Are Right, A Lot

Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts

Can leaders make mistakes?

Yes, the freedom to make mistakes is necessary to grow and learn. However, when leaders are wrong a lot, their mission will fail and the team will fall apart.

How does a leader demonstrate humility while being right a lot?

We discussed Amazon’s other leadership principles like Invent and Simplify and Vocally Self-Critical which require a leader to be open to ideas from any where and to forthrightly admit their own mistakes and failures. And of course Jesus is our example of a man who was always right and thoroughly humble (though we did not dive deep into his life).

We know he did not want his disciples to be naïve, telling them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). However, being right a lot is not enough, as we see in examples like Ahithophel who was so smart his word was treated like the Word of God, but who died in ignominy (he ended his own life when his advice was not followed) (2 Samuel 16:15-17:23).

It seems that “being right a lot” is always in the service of love, as taught by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8. He affirmed that the believers who thought all food was acceptable since it was all from God were right, but that their knowledge should not be used to harm other believers by causing them to violate their consciences. Believers in the right should lovingly forgo their own claims to rightness in order to build up their brothers and sisters who were wrong on the matter.

Hire and Develop the Best

Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others.

As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes,
so are sluggards to those who send them. (Proverbs 10:26)

Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings; they will not serve before officials of low rank. (Proverbs 22:29)

What does this principle mean?

We noted that as illustrated by the Proverbs above, it’s normal to look for the best and avoid the worst. Leaders always look for top talent and give them opportunities to grow. They don’t hold people back, but use their influence to maximize the potential of those under their care. It doesn’t mean that Amazon only hires people who have already arrived at eminence in their field, but it does mean that Amazon invests in the people that have the potential to develop into those top performers.

What are the limits to this principle?

It is possible to set too high of a bar so that you can hire no one. Unrealistic expectations can also be frustrating for the people who have already been hired. However when an organization fails to practice this principle, it can stagnate or degenerate in the worst case and the best people will want to leave and go elsewhere.

How does this relate to Scripture?

The notion of developing people, seems very much in line with Jesus’ commandment to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything he commanded (Matthew 28:18-20) and also with Paul’s words to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2). We can see his list of elder qualifications to get an idea for who Paul would have considered “the best”.

Even so, there seems to be an inherent tension in this principle and God’s choice which often seems marked with weakness or hiring and developing “the worst”:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

We had a lengthy, but inconclusive discussion about the differences between God’s kingdom and the corporate world and whether or not the principle of developing virtuous, happy people from “the best” and “the worst” as the measure of true wealth might be a unified endeavor. Leave a comment if you want to know more about this since it was a hot topic, but I can’t summarize it well for this post.

We closed this topic remembering the words of Christ, which sets forth his view of being “the best”:

Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:10-12)

Insists on Highest Standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)insistsOnHighestStandards

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23-24)

How do you balance Insists on Highest Standards with Delivers Results?

We had a very engaging, but rambling discussion on this topic, which makes it hard for me to summarize.

I admitted to my own tendency to lean towards delivering results now over the patient, deliberate, thorough approach necessary for creating products of the highest quality. Through the conversation, I realized that:

  1. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well
  2. Doing things well is really enjoyable (and doing things poorly is not)
  3. Building something that goes unused is really discouraging (and building useful things is rewarding)

This is nothing new, but it firmed up my convictions about quality. So in the future I’d like to try to do this: We don’t want to sacrifice quality, since it is bad for customers and it is bad for developers. We should very very carefully pick the features that do get built since few things are worse than wasted labor and unused products (inventory). Thus, when making tradeoffs, we should always cut features instead of cutting quality or completeness of the features that have already been chosen. We should also set aside time for experimentation, learning, and exploration where the quality of the learning is the aim (the product quality is irrelevant in this case).

Food for Thought:

How ought we as Christians and Amazonians treat those who are not right a lot, who are not considered the best, and who do not meet the highest standards?

Leave a comment and come back tomorrow for the next post on Think Big, Bias for Action and Frugality.