On Saturday, a Bay-Area reporter with a penchant for writing about Amazon.com and a Brooklyn journalist who “writes about gender, politics, and other topics” teamed up to target one of the Tech World’s most successful giants, Amazon. Armed with a reported 100+ interviews of current and former Amazon employees, David Streitfeld and Jodi Kantor took aim at one of the world’s largest retailers with their long expose, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”
The short version of the long article is this: according to the anecdotal reports of the named former employees and the unnamed current ones, Amazon’s workplace ethos is one of almost dystopian fantasy. Employees are driven hard and long, encouraged to tear each other down in open and in secret, abandon all sense of life balance and priority in the name of serving the Bezos Machine, whose aim is to vacuum up wealth through the near instantaneous delivery of First World convenience goods while intentionally casting aside most modern concerns about employee well-being and engagement in pursuit of a burn-n-churn employment strategy.
There is, of course, another perspective. It took less than a day for a forceful defense of Amazon to appear, courtesy of Nick Ciubotariu, who lists himself as “Head of Infrastructure Development, Amazon.com Search Experience (SX).” According to this account, the NYT’s piece was based on biased anecdotes relaying stories that were either obsolete due to Amazon’s changes over time or current examples of conduct that falls far short of Amazon’s “Leadership Principles” rather than being an example of their intent and design. From this current insider’s view, the NYT article was a hit-piece armed with an agenda and the power of the world’s most recognizable journalism brand, evidenced by its conflating isolated examples with the generally accepted practice and its failure to do even the most basic level of fact checking.
By the end of the day, Jeff Bezos himself had answered the bell, making clear what Amazon stands for vs what the NYT portrayed.
It’s hard to know which version is most accurate, given the natural biases of the sources and reporters involved (yep, they have them too!). What is worth considering, however, is the importance of the question this battle has raised: what does being a successful Leader mean? If the NYT’s portrayal of Amazon is largely accurate, the picture is that of a company which has produced a long list of technological achievements and innovation and improved the lives of their millions of customers, largely at the expense of their own employee’s mental health and well being. Set aside the alleged Amazon in the NYT’s protrayal, and consider any company or business in the abstract: Is that trade-off worthy of being labeled Successful? Does quantity of impact of the work a company does eclipse the quality of its impact on the people closest to it — its own employees?
Leading with Integrity means leading in a way that the whole experience is in balance — for you as a leader, for the organization you lead, and for your people whom you serve. In his book “Integrity: the Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality,” Dr. Henry Cloud talks about how leaders are remembered for the two-part “wake” they leave behind: their impact on their business through their performance, and their impact on their people through their behavior. Striving for excellence in performance in your organization’s field of endeavor is necessary, obviously. But sacrificing the human concerns of the people in your organization on the alter of high performance is not good business. It isn’t real Success any more than the securing of professional success at the expense of one’s family.
Whether Amazon is guilty of taking this monocular approach to Success remains to be seen. Nevertheless, let it serve as a reminder of the type of Success we’re willing to strive for … and live with.