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.

Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian (Part 2 of 6)

This is part 2 in a series of posts comparing Amazon leadership principles with Scripture. Today is about Ownership and Invent & Simplify. The previous post was about Customer Obsession and you can see the full list here.


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”.

What does it mean to be an owner?

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!’ (Matthew 25:23)

You share in the long term risks and rewards of the things under your ownership.

How is ownership different than stewardship?

Although they are different, a good steward always acts in the best interests of their owner, so that the actual behavior is similar.  We had an interesting segue into the history of English trust law.

We also cited John 10:11-13 where Jesus distinguishes himself as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep vis a vis hired hands who don’t inherently care for the sheep.

Can you act like an owner even when you don’t feel like one?

There are all sorts of reasons for not feeling like an owner:

  1. You may not be an owner, or you may not have the influence to affect change and benefit from the outcome of your decision.
  2. Selfish ambition, where we use what we have to get ahead in the short term instead of doing what is right in the long term for others. For example, designing a system for the short term, expecting to get promoted and switching to another team so that we don’t have to deal with the consequences.
  3. Conflict with authority where we don’t feel like benefitting those above us because they aren’t looking out for our best interests
  4. Disagreement with authority where we feel disempowered, having to only take on the consequences and responsibilities of ownership without having the freedom and rewards of it.

As Christians, even though we may be hired hands, God is the master. He has entrusted a stewardship to us and our reward is guaranteed by him (Colossians 3:23-24), even if we cannot trace out the connection between the responsibilities we fulfill today with the rewards that come in the future.

God is in fact the owner of all things (Psalm 24:1) 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)


Food for thought:

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?

Invent and SimplifyinventAndSimplify

Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here”. As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

How have you seen Invent and Simplify exemplified in Amazon?

Since Day 1, Amazon has been about innovating on behalf of customers. We see it everywhere from building the kindle to deliver a simpler experience for acquiring and consuming content to inventing new ways for sellers to put things for sale on our site.

Are there limits to Invent & Simplify?

Sometimes we make the mistake of reinventing the wheel. We shouldn’t invent for the sake of inventing. Amazon is full of smart people, so it often times seems simpler to solve a problem oneself instead of collaborating and doing the higher level work that can produce simpler and more general solutions. Without invention though, we would lose our edge and also a lot of the fun we have creating (which is very satisfying since God made us to be sub creators).

How has being a Christian required you to accept being misunderstood for long periods of time?

In general any initiative to change the status quo requires being misunderstood for long periods of time.

Jesus was misunderstood for long periods of time by his contemporaries, both opponents (Luke 7:34-35) and disciples (John 13:6-7). If you’re willing to stretch things, one could even say that he “invented & simplified” the way of salvation by solving the problem of sin through his death in our place and introducing righteousness by faith. As believers we may endure prolonged seasons of persecution or being misunderstood before the gospel impacts someone’s life.

Food for thought:

How can we apply “Invent & Simplify” to gospel goals?

Consider these words from Johann Gutenberg describing his vision for the invention of the printing press (1455):

God suffers in the multitude of souls whom His word can not reach. Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spread that public treasure. Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, and multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.

Inspired? Please leave a comment below! Check out the next post on Are Right, A lot; Hire and Develop the Best; Insist on the Highest Standards.

Succeeding at Amazon as a Christian (Part 1 of 6)

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.

We started with customer obsession because it was the first on the list and because it really is the central principle at Amazon.

What is Amazon’s mission?

To be earth’s most customer centric company.

What does customer obsession look like?

We gave various examples like AWS refunding customers who had passed the trial period without realizing it.

What are the limits of customer obsession? Can the customer ever be wrong?

We debated giving customers what they want versus what they need. One example is the scandal when a book on pedophilia was self-published and after some back and forth Amazon ended up choosing to listen to the customers who were offended by it. Our discussion concluded that it’s about doing what’s right for customers.

What are some relevant Scriptures?

We only got to examine two. The first was Proverbs 20:14:

“It’s no good, it’s no good!” says the buyer—then goes off and boasts about the purchase.”

We can’t always take what customers say at face value, but we can commit to loving our customers and doing what is right for them. I don’t remember the second passage, but the essence of our discussion was about how Christians represent the Lord in their actions and likewise represent Amazon in their deeds.

What happens when we lose customer obsession?

We tend to become profit-obsessed. In this way, customer obsession is one way we fulfill God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves and protects us from the perils of worshiping money.

What about sellers and employees? Are customers benefitted at the expense of our vendors, sellers and employees?

The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him. (Proverbs 20:23)

When Amazon uses its leverage to negotiate better terms for customers, the vendors still have a choice to make. As long as Amazon maintains integrity and does not fudge metrics to get better terms or withhold money that rightfully belongs to the vendors, using its scale to deliver more value to customers seems just and fair.

Food for thought:

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

Please leave a comment and read the next post on Ownership, Invent and Simplify.

Why Captain America leads the Avengers

Why do all the Avengers follow Captain America?
He isn’t the strongest–maybe because he’s the oldest :-)?

(Note: all product links in this post are affiliate links–I just learned the FTC started requiring disclosures on every post since 2009! I’ll try to keep them as unobtrusive as possible.)

This question came up in a conversation with my friend Marco after church one week. I was lamenting how rare it is to experience the camaraderie exemplified in the Avengers in real life. If you’re like me you’ve probably encountered group projects where slackers ride on the coattails of 4.0 GPAddicts, team sports where star players hog the ball, committees where most people seem noncommittal, and teams where everybody is focused on their own deliverables (I admit I’m to blame in many cases!). In fact, I can’t recall the last time I’ve experienced the kind of teamwork where Iron Man blasts at Captain America’s shield while he turns 180 degrees to wipe out a wave of saurian aliens.

Marco said he experienced this frequently.

How? It turns out that he was referring to DOTA, a wildly popular battle arena game (now succeeded by LoL). He explained that the way to win was to know your teammates so well that you could instinctively coordinate attacks as one unit. The initiator of these attacks was typically a “tank” player who had enough health to absorb heavy damage. The rest of the team would follow him into battle and unleash their powers while the opponents were focused on him.

Now you might think that the Hulk is the Avenger’s “tank” because he gets stronger the more damage he takes, but it turns out that Captain America is the one everyone follows despite being one of the weaker characters. Marco thinks (and I agree) that Captain America is the leader because he is the guy who will sacrifice himself for the mission and for the others. They know he always has the mission and their best interests at heart. Iron Man is too self-centered. Thor is too self-absorbed. Hulk is out of control. Hawkeye and Black Widow are best in supporting roles. But together under the Captain’s leadership, they save the world.

Joss Whedon wittily revealed this quality in his screenplay:

Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.

Even though Iron Man won this debate, he and all the other Avengers end up submitting to Captain America’s leadership because sacrifice is more important than strength or skill.

No where do we see this more clearly in real life than in Jesus Christ:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)

What is incredible about Jesus is that having all strength, skill and authority, he exhausts himself on the Cross, giving up all he has to save those under his authority (including rebels who for the longest time refused him). This is why Jesus Christ is leader of everything. How would you like to have a leader like that? One who uses all his powers completely for your good? By believing in him, you can.

My big weakness as a leader has been my overemphasis on strength or skill (merit). I viewed leadership as an achievement, something earned by excelling above one’s peers. My achiever mentality fueled envy towards those in authority who I felt were less meritorious than me. It made me frustrated when others would not follow me despite the skillfulness and wisdom I demonstrated. It also made me anxious and insecure when I held a position of authority that I didn’t think I deserved (e.g. middle school concertmaster). I thought getting people to follow me was as simple as showing them I was worth following–and it made me a very self-centered and self-conscious person.

Now I am learning that leadership is actually grace. God decides who is in charge and he gives and takes away delegated authority as he pleases. You don’t earn the right to lead, you are given the responsibility of leadership and this simply means that you are to use all the merits you have been given to finish your mission and love the people you are leading. When you do, I think people will follow you even if you aren’t the smartest, strongest, or savviest leader–just like Captain America. (And Jesus, except that he is actually the omni-est :-)).

Are you having trouble getting people to follow you? Could it be because your merits aren’t being used for their good?

Do you feel inadequate or unworthy to lead? Isn’t it relieving that it doesn’t depend on your performance, but on God’s grace?

And for those of you who believe the kind of leadership I described is unnecessary for success, I close with the words of Napoleon Bonaparte:

Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I myself have founded great empires; but upon what did these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions will die for Him. (from Jesus Among Other Gods cited here)

If people are following you, are they following you by force or by love?

Please share in the comments!