Mirthless Moguls

Posted by jlubans on August 24, 2015

Caption: Henry, the Mogul, Ford’s Assembly Line. Interchangeable Parts.

The online retailer, Amazon, has come to starkly epitomize the “all work and no play” ethos said to be widely prevalent in the pumped-up Silicone Valley. Ninety-hour workweeks do not make for a Happy Valley. In other words, high tech companies, for all their good pay and perks like free gourmet lunches, personal baristas, free commuter busses, free laundry service – interestingly, none of these, apart from the good pay, are to be found at Amazon - are little more than 21st century “sweatshops”. At least that is what many come away with when reading the NY Times report of numerous interviews with former and current Amazonians. While some readers called it the worst kind of work environment (“I’ll never shop at Amazon”) more than a few saw the Amazon way as the best kind of leadership. “We need more of it.”
Jeff Bezos, the founder – likely embarrassed by these harsh conclusions – issued an e-memo to all 180,000 employees, rejecting the Times depiction of Amazon “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay,” …. “I know I would leave such a company. But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described.” Bezos’ e-mailing rather than having face-to-face closed-door meetings with staff suggests a big piece of what’s wrong at Amazon. Obviously, Mr. Bezos sees it differently.
I have long admired Mr. Bezos; I still do. He did on-line for the antiquated and arthritic book industry, in the late 90s, what no one had been able to do before. He solved the distribution bottleneck. With Amazon, books finally became easy to find and to get. If the library did not have it, you no longer had to write to the publisher or trudge to the bookstore – with its very limited stock – to order the book and then wait two weeks or longer to get it. By investing an estimated 100 million dollars in the front-end software, Bezos made finding and buying books as easy as pushing a button. And, he gave you a discount besides.
But like most moguls, Bezos does appear to lack a sense of humor. If you look at his refreshing and challenging “Our Leadership Principles” – written by Mr. Bezos and delivered unto the work force – the words enjoyment, fun, pleasure, satisfaction, and joy are absent. Not much to smile about.
What does appear is the allusion, nay assertion, that hard work and ever striving to be the best at any cost is the end all. Under the heading, “Insist on the Highest Standards” he declares, “Leaders (presumably all Amazon staff are leaders) have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams ….”
If one is looking for an excuse to be a whip-cracking, ass-kicking boss, that “driving their teams” pretty much opens the door. It’s likely not what Bezos meant – he certainly denies it - but that’s how it plays out according to scores of current and former Amazonians.
Now, when I interviewed CEO Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines, and SWAs President Colleen Barrett for my book “Leading from the Middle”, I glimpsed a culture very opposite to Amazon. Yet, there’s no fear of hard work at SWA. Rather, they practice the “work hard and play hard” ethos. No, I am not talking about the risible “party hearty” and do only enough to stay enrolled as practiced on many, even elite, college campuses. At SWA you have permission, you are expected to enjoy what you do, that you should derive satisfaction from it, and that you should celebrate good work.
But, all the while doing so you are to “Maintain perspective (balance).” There is more to life than working at SWA.
Herb told me that the daughter of one of his senior staff got a job at SWA. It did not go well. “She got the ‘play hard’ part, but skipped over the ‘work hard’ piece.” She no longer works at SWA.
Maybe Mr. Bezos should take a look at the SWA Core Values
statement with its categories of Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUVing Attitude.
There’s a balance to working at SWA that appears absent from working at Amazon. The hard work is tempered with encouragement and events to have fun, to enjoy your work, to celebrate success, and to treat others with respect. And, you cannot miss the meaning of this core value: “Don't take yourself too seriously.” Herb lives it: “I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself seriously”. Now, that might be a hard one for Mr. Bezos to emulate, but it might make all the difference in the Amazonian world.
As an aside, I cannot imagine either Herb or Colleen sending an e-mail to SWA staff after being royally ripped by the NYT. Of course, as one would expect, SWA already has in place the structures and systems for senior staff, including Herb and Colleen pre-retirement, to meet openly with staff more than once a year all over the country. Yes, SWA staff were free to fly from all over to take part in these meetings.
Since everyone is offering Mr. Bezos advice - from imposing mandatory break times, instituting paternity leave, to turning off e-mail after 5PM, to emulating Europe’s laid back work culture - I too have an idea. Like Jupiter, Mr. Bezos should disguise himself and work side by side with some of the “pickers” laboring in the warehouses. Listen. What do staff think of you and of their immediate supervisor? Great guys or despots? Then do something to change the corporate culture or settle for what you have. But, if the latter – however unintentional - we know how far fear can take an organization; not very far.

© John Lubans 2015

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