Summary: Working Backwards By Colin Bryar
Summary: Working Backwards By Colin Bryar

Summary: Working Backwards By Colin Bryar

Building Blocks: Leadership Principles and Mechanisms

Amazon has 14 Leadership Principles—notably more than most companies have. They are displayed right on the Amazon website along with this explanation:

“We use our Leadership Principles every day, whether we’re discussing ideas for new projects or deciding on the best approach to solving a problem. It is just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. Invent and Simplify. 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.
  4. Are Right, A Lot. Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
  5. Learn and Be Curious. Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
  6. 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. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.
  7. Insist on the 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Bias for Action. Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.
  10. Frugality. Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.
  11. Earn Trust. Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.
  12. Dive Deep. Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdotes differ. No task is beneath them.
  13. Have 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.
  14. Deliver 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

Far from being mere catchphrases on a poster or screensaver, Amazon’s Leadership Principles are the company’s living, breathing constitution.

There’s no magic number of principles and mechanisms that every company will need. The magic lives in the moments when the principles are put into practice. You’ll develop the number that’s right for you, provided that you focus on how these principles will give clarity to your company’s vision and drive the right behaviors to create meaningful value for your shareholders and stakeholders over the long term—even when the CEO is not in the room..


Hiring: Amazon’s Unique Bar Raiser Process

Many traditional interviewing techniques rely on the “gut feel” of interviewers working in an informal structure, allowing bias to creep in. It is true that an excellent interviewer will have a keen instinct for who might make a great hire, as well as the ability to ignore biases that arise during the interview process. But the problem with relying on a few gifted interviewers is that it doesn’t scale and it’s hard to teach.

Amazon’s Bar Raiser process was designed to provide that framework, minimize the variability of ad hoc hiring processes, and improve results. “Bar Raiser” is the name of both a larger process and the group of individuals—Bar Raisers—central to that process.

Amazon Bar Raisers receive special training in the process. One participates in every interview loop. The name was intended to signal to everyone involved in the hiring process that every new hire should “raise the bar,” that is, be better in one important way (or more) than the other members of the team they join.

There are eight steps in the Bar Raiser hiring process:

  1. Job Description
  2. Résumé Review
  3. Phone Screen
  4. In-House Interview
  5. Written Feedback
  6. Debrief/Hiring Meeting
  7. Reference Check
  8. Offer Through Onboarding

Job Description: At Amazon, it is the hiring manager’s responsibility to write the description, which the Bar Raiser can review for clarity. A good job description must be specific and focused.

Resume Review: The recruiter selects the most worthy candidates based on how their résumés fulfill the job requirements as defined in the JD. If the candidates the recruiter selects meet the hiring manager’s expectations, that’s a sign that the JD is clearly written and specific.

Phone Screen: During the phone screen, the hiring manager describes the position to the candidate in detail and seeks to establish some rapport with them by describing their own background, and why they chose to join Amazon.

In-House Interview: There are two distinctive features in an Amazon in-house interview loop: behavioral interviewing and Bar Raiser.

First, the interviewer wants the candidate to provide detailed examples of what they personally contributed to solving hard problems or how they performed in work situations like the ones they will experience at Amazon. Second, the interviewer wants to learn how the candidate accomplished their goals and whether their methods align with the Amazon Leadership Principles.

General, open-ended questions such as “Tell me about your career” or “Walk me through your résumé” are usually a waste of time and will not produce the kind of specific information you’re after. When asked such questions, most candidates will take the opportunity to deliver a positive, perhaps slightly glorified narrative of their career.

The method that Amazon interviewers use for drilling down goes by the acronym STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result):

  1. “What was the situation?”
  2. “What were you tasked with?”
  3. “What actions did you take?”
  4. “What was the result?”

A good interviewer continues to ask questions until they feel they have a good understanding of what the interviewee personally accomplished versus what the team did. Questions that can reveal this information include “If you were assigned to work on a different project instead of Project X, what would have changed about Project X?” and “What was the toughest call on Project X, and who made it?”

Bar Raiser is involved in every interview loop, and ensures the process is followed and bad hiring decisions are avoided. They are also there to set a good example for other interviewers. In addition to conducting one of the interviews, the Bar Raiser coaches others on interviewing techniques, asks probing questions in the debrief, makes sure that personal biases do not affect the hiring decision, and determines whether the candidate meets or exceeds the hiring bar set by the previous.

Written Feedback: Written feedback is expected to be specific, detailed, and filled with examples from the interview to address the Leadership Principles assigned to the interviewer. The feedback should be written shortly after the interview is complete to ensure that nothing of value is forgotten.

The written feedback includes the interviewer’s vote on the candidate. There are only four options:

  1. strongly inclined to hire
  2. inclined to hire
  3. not inclined to hire
  4. strongly not inclined to hire. 

here is no “undecided” option.

Debrief/Hiring Meeting: Once the in-house interviews are complete and the written feedback and votes have been collected, the interviewers get together in person or via video conference to debrief and make the hiring decision.

The meeting begins with everyone reading all the interview feedback. Afterward, the Bar Raiser may kick off the meeting by asking the group, “Now that everyone has had a chance to read all the feedback, would anyone like to change their vote?” The reason for this is that each interviewer submitted their vote based on only the data that they gathered in their interview.

Another method for the Bar Raiser to help get the meeting started is to create a two-column list on a whiteboard of the Leadership Principles where the candidate meets the bar in one column and falls short in the other.

The hiring manager (validated by the Bar Raiser) decides to hire or not hire. If the hiring manager or Bar Raiser feels that they don’t have enough information to make a decision, then there was a failure in the process, for example, one or more of the interviewers failed to properly assess the candidates on one or more of their assigned leadership principles.

Reference Check: The hiring manager, not the recruiter, then calls the references to further explore and confirm the candidate’s skills and past performance. One question that often gets a telling response is, “If given the chance, would you hire this person again?” Another is, “Of the people you have managed or worked with, in what percentile would you place this candidate?”

Offer Through Onboarding: At many companies, the hiring manager has the recruiter make the offer. This is another mistake.

The hiring manager should personally make the offer and sell him/her on the role and company. You may have chosen the candidate, but that doesn’t mean the candidate has chosen you. You must assume that good employees are being actively pursued by other companies, including their current employer. There is always the risk that you could lose the candidate. Nothing is certain until the day they report to the office.

After the offer is made, a team member should check in with the candidate at least once a week until he or she makes a final decision. The contact can be as simple as an email saying how excited you are about the candidate joining the team.

The goal in this final phase is to get to know the candidate better and to figure out what key factors will affect their decision on the offer.

Continue Reading: Working Backwards Summary – Part 2