CEOs are facilitators, than they’re visionaries.
Take a look at Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google. Zuckerberg, Bezos, Cook, Nadella and Pichai merely bring the ideas of their employees to life rather than their own. Their job as a leader is to build an environment in which information can flow freely, mistakes can be highlighted and ideas can be transformed into reality.
Amazon & Bezos – The Culture of Invention
Day 1 is everywhere at Amazon.
You can find it in the name of their key building, blog and Bezos’s annual letters to shareholders. The day 1 mentality essentially boils down to adopting the start-up mindset. In Day 1, every customer matters, every penny counts and every innovation makes a difference.
Amazon is obsessed with inventions.
All potential inventions in Amazon have to survive their famous six-page memos. Set in the future, these memos describe what the idea is and what the product will look like before anyone has a chance to work on it. Everyone including Bezos is required to walk through the memos at the start of the meeting so they have an in-depth understanding of the idea.
Amazon strives for automation.
The cooperation between man and machine is something to behold. Robots have already replaced humans to a large degree in Amazon’s warehouse and fulfillment centers. And it’s growing at an accelerated pace.
Amazon knows what’s coming and helps their employees prepare for the disruption of automation. Amazon opens technical training to everyone working inside the FCs through instruction, hands-on work and exams. Employees can also take any outside training (as long as the skill is in demand) and Amazon will subsidize 95% of the tuition fees.
For example, many vendor managers have now transitioned into new roles such as product manager and program manager within Amazon, following the disruption of Amazon’s automation in vendor management.
Amazon insists on the highest standards.
Bezos and his lieutenants set the highest expectations for anyone. One ex-employee said “Daddy’s going to war” when he accepted the job at Amazon. And he ended up giving up Thanksgiving dinners in the pursuit of excellence. At Amazon, if you turn water into wine, the first question is “Well, why wasn’t that champagne?”
Facebook & Zuckerberg – The Culture of Feedback
There is no wrong time for feedback at Facebook.
Everyone is not only allowed, also encouraged to pull someone over and say “Hey I have some feedback for you…”. Their feedback method is simple.
- State a fact (what they did)
- Share the story (how you feel because of the action/behavior)
- Make an ask (question to get a resolution)
To stay alive, Facebook must keep listening and inventing.
“Facebook is seriously at risk. People don’t need it” – Mark Cuban
Zuckerberg has a well-known reputation for being open to ideas. Not only that, Zuckerberg has also setup a feedback culture, expecting everyone to bring him ideas even if they challenge his own thinking and status quo.
The feedback culture ultimately saved the company from disaster. For example, Zuckerberg came around quickly when presented with a crucial fact that more and more users are moving onto mobile. Zuckerberg required all his product managers to shift their focus from the desktop to mobile. If any of them brings a desktop mock-up alone, they’d be kicked out of his office. His openness to ideas and facts ended up as a turning point for Facebook. The company’s mobile experience has improved dramatically over the years and today more than 90% of Facebook’s revenue comes from mobile.
Facebook is known as the China of Silicon Valley.
Facebook isn’t a stranger to copying and reinventing the ideas of others. Facebook famously copied Stories from Snapchat, iterated and improved. Today Facebook Stories are considered better than Snapchat’s. In fact, it became so good that Snapchat has even copied them back.
Facebook’s machine-learning is making progress, but far from perfect.
To address hate-speech spreading in Myanmar, Facebook enlisted the help of machine-learning engineers to build a system that can pick up he hateful language. But by the time the system was in effect, the damage was already done. Needless to say, Facebook is now learning from the past and accelerating its machine-learning algorithms to prevent potential crises in other countries.
Google & Pichai – The Culture of Collaboration
Google has made collaboration across different functions effortless.
Googlers, for instance, can ask questions via Dory (Q&A software named after Dory from finding Nemo). Dory in the film suffers from short-term memory loss and asks lots of questions. Googlers vote on questions they want answered during Q&As and can do so without seeing each other’s votes, so the crowd opinions won’t influence them.
Bezos channels up Ideas. Zuckerberg clears path for Feedback. Pichai breaks down the Silos.
Pichai makes sure ideas flow horizontally, from function to function and department to department. For the product like Google Assistant to fulfill its potential, an array of Google’s products (Maps, Gmail, Calendar, Photos, Search, YouTube…) must work together seamlessly.
Without its openness and transparency, Google wouldn’t be a verb as it is today.
For Google, Googlers are their own pilots.
Pichai for example never forces his employees to use Chrome. For him it was “Could we win over our employees just on the merits of the product itself?” Even today, many of Googlers are still using Firefox.
Apple & Cook – The Culture of Command
At Apple, designers dictate everything.
Apple designers are first line of employees receiving executives’ orders. While engineers are royalty inside Amazon, Facebook and Google, designers are seen as gods at Apple. Designers dictate how a product will look and feel. It’s then up to the engineers and product managers to bring it to life, no matter how far-fetched it might be to pull off.
While employees of Amazon, Facebook and Google have stories of everyday encounter with their CEOs, Tim Cook sits on the other side of the coin.
“I bumped into Cook and it wasn’t exactly a warm interaction.” one former employee said. “I crossed him in a hallway and said good morning. He looked at me, deciding if he was going to give me any attention. He crossed me and said ‘See you’. Not good morning or have a great day buddy or anything.”
Cook also isn’t half as visionary as Jobs.
“Cook is a very nice guy, very good at a lot of things, specifically at execution because of his operations background. But he has zero vision in terms of product.”, said one founding member of Siri. He added “They believed one team could do everything by itself. It’s stupid. Collaboration is the only thing that you should have, especially when you’re doing a product that uses a lot of information coming from different places.”
Apple takes secrecy to the extremes.
At Apple, employees are often kept in the dark. Their own product developments take place in extreme secrecy. When employees want to speak with each other what they’re working on, they must first attain permission from the officials before they open a word.
While Googlers know everything that’s going on in their company, Apple employees know about one and one thing only – what they are hired to do.
Apple aims for the element of surprise.
Its obsession with secrecy hooks media and their own fans attention. If any of their employees ever leak the inside news, they can expect to be fired straightaway.
Apple co-founder Wozniak himself agrees Apple’s party has come to a halt.
“Look at cars. For hundreds of years a car kind of had four wheels, about the size that would fit people inside, and headlights. And so cars haven’t changed that much. They reached a form that’s right. And the smartphone has reached a form that fits the hand, all sizes of hands.”
For years, Apple focused on iterating and improving Job’s ideas to a state of near perfection. The iPhone is becoming slimmer and bigger and faster. But as Woz said, the marginal return is getting thinner. On top of that, competitors are catching up with better cameras and features.
“Let the lower-level managers make the decisions.” Woz concluded. “More responsibility to the lower levels.”
Had Apple leadership listened to their engineers more, Siri and HomePod wouldn’t have failed.
From the outset of HomePod and Siri projects, Apple cut off the teams developing it. Some didn’t even know what they were working on. “On top of the engineering challenges, you add these design challenges that make it almost impossible.”, said one of the engineers. “Engineers obviously don’t have much say on the design. They were forced to work around it.”
“If you couldn’t make the speaker smart enough, how could you make the car smart?” said the first engineer who worked on Apple’s electric car project.
Microsoft & Nadella – The Culture of Learning
Microsoft’s lost decade could serve as a business-school case study.
Today under the reign of their humble leader Satya Nadella, Microsoft is striving once again to revive what was lost.
Microsoft kept Internet Explorer slow and Office off-line.
While Google Chrome took off with momentum, Microsoft was stripping away its resources in Explorer, essentially leaving the browser in ‘maintenance mode’. While Google released Docs and Sheets, Microsoft was keeping their Office product line off-line. Few years later, Microsoft did put a limited version of Office on the web and made it available for Windows-based mobile devices. Even then, it was far from hitting the headlines. In fact, it was so quiet that its own employees weren’t even aware of the go live.
The new Microsoft is moving onto the cloud.
As soon as Nadella took control of Microsoft, the company began shifting their focus from offline to online. “Our industry doesn’t respect tradition – it only respects innovation. Our job is to ensure that Microsoft thrives in a mobile and cloud-first world.”, wrote Nadella in his first email to employees.
Microsoft leap from refinement to innovation eventually helped the company thrive again and reclaim what was once lost for more than a decade.
The new Microsoft got rid of hierarchy and reinforced collaboration
After witnessing the state of autocracy, Nadella addressed his frustration in his book Hit Refresh. “Our culture had even rigid. Hierarchy and pecking order had taken control, and spontaneity and creativity suffered as a result.”
Nadella developed a system radically different from his predecessor, Steve Ballmer. Individual impact today at Microsoft only counts for one-third of performance evaluation. The large part of the evaluation looks at how an individual helps others succeed and what they’ve done that builds on other’s work.
Lots of companies can play Lazarus, if they learn from their failures.
The spectacular return of Microsoft proves that any company can reinvent itself before going under. Nadella and Microsoft did this by getting back to ‘growth mindset’, democratizing people and ideas, putting in the hard work, inspiring collaboration and above all, learning to innovate once again.