Breaking Down Amazon's Leadership Principles - Part 1

with an ex-Amazon Bar Raiser

September 12, 2022
Table of Contents

All Amazon employees are guided by 16 Leadership Principles, which generate billions of dollars in revenue every year. This article explores the first 8 of these principles with former Amazon recruiter and bar raiser, Eric Hudson. During his eight years at the company, he hired thousands of people into various roles within the organization. If you're interested in working for Amazon or just want to learn more about its unique culture, this is the article for you. To read part 2, where we unpack the next 8 leadership principles, [click here]. 

Eric shares, “A lot of companies talk about values, different pillars that they have, but they don't live and breathe them like Amazon does. Amazon looks at these 16 principles and they use them in everyday meetings. They use them in how they calculate decisions. For example, if someone's at a meeting and everybody's being too agreeable, someone will say, ‘hey, are we having too much social cohesion here. Feel free to disagree and commit’, and then someone usually will pipe in because they're bringing up leadership principles.”

It goes without saying that understanding and implementing these principles will be a huge focus over the course of your career with Amazon. These principles guide the daily life, innovation and overarching values that make the company so successful. 

So, how do you know which Leadership Principles will come up in your interview? An Amazon Hiring Manager will select the LP’s that are most relevant to the role you are applying for. If you are in Sales, you can bet on Customer Obsession, Earn Trust, and Deliver Results. If you’re applying for a role in recruitment, you can expect Bias for Action, Deliver Results, and Customer Obsession. Regardless of what the job is, Customer Obsession is a given.

Leadership Principle #1: Customer Obsession (The OG)

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.

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon with the goal of creating a culture of excellence that values high-performing employees. To achieve this goal, the customer is seen as the single most important factor influencing the growth of the company.

Takeaway: During an interview, questions on customer obsession don’t necessarily apply to customer service alone. If you’ve worked with a difficult customer or went the extra mile to fulfill a customer's needs, you could elaborate on how you achieved that successful outcome. 

Amazonians pride themselves on something called ‘downstream positivity’. In a nutshell, it's the foundation of every customer interaction and how Amazon delivers results to its customers and shareholders.

Increasing innovation through feedback is another example of how you might interact with customers and use a complaint to create more trust. There are other scenarios, too. A big point of focus is building rapport with stubborn customers. If they are making a mistake, could you have influenced their decision using data, etc.

Leadership Principle #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."

Eric says, “Ownership came from Jeff's childhood when his parents owned a rental property. They had a tenant that was there for a certain amount of time. They left and went into the rental property and they noticed that there was a Christmas tree in the middle of the living room and they thought it was very odd that they left the Christmas tree. And as his dad or stepdad went to throw it away, he realized it was bolted to the floor and obviously that caused a lot of damage to the home. So he wants owners and not renters of the company.”

At Amazon, every employee gets equity. Amazon wants people to be proud of their company and believe in it, so when problems arise, they can say, 'hey, that's my problem too.’

Takeaway: In the interview, there are usually 2 questions that get asked about Ownership. The first question is designed to measure your commitment to internal stakeholders, while the second gives the interviewer an idea of how you have capitalized on previous mistakes. For example:

  1. Tell me about a time when you went outside your areas of responsibility. What happened? What was the outcome?
  2. Tell me about a time when you made a commitment and you were not able to deliver. How were you able to create a successful outcome after the fact, and what did you learn during that process?

Remember to use personal examples that tie your professional experiences to the Amazon Leadership Principle you’re being asked about. In short, can you make big promises and keep them?

Leadership Principle #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.

Eric says, “Invent and Simplify is a major leadership principle. Without it, Amazon wouldn't be where it is today. If you think about Invent and Simplify, first Amazon was a bookstore, and then it turned into an everything store, and then it turned into a primary everything store as a first party seller, and then it turned into a third party seller.” 

Innovation often entails simplifying complex processes into automations that increase efficiency. In an interview, Amazon loves to see examples of automation of manual processes. In the end, everything boils down to innovation and creating a simplified solution.

Essentially, if you’ve ever automated a manual process, they'll love that story because Amazon loves efficiency. Here are some examples that Eric shared:

  1. Tell me about a time when you solved a complex problem with an innovative solution.
  2. Tell me about the most innovative thing you have done in your career.
  3. Tell me about a time you were able to take feedback from a manager and innovate yourself or your skillset.

Takeaway: The ‘tell me about a time’ question is very common in Amazon interviews. Be prepared for variations of the question that might pop up. Generally speaking, the interviewer isn't going to ask you questions that are unrelated to your application. Focus on examples where you challenged the status-quo.

Amazon Leadership Principle #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.

Your interviewer will ask you about scenarios where your judgment, intuition, and experience helped you or your team to succeed despite a costly mistake. Eric says, "Amazon recruiters want to see your experience and judgment skills. Examples include, ‘tell me about a time you made a bad decision; where did you go wrong, and what did you do about it?‘"

Takeaway: Often, an interviewee will become flustered when relating a mistake made at work  but the recruiters don't care about that. They want to see how you overcame the adversity of making the wrong decision, and how you turned that uncomfortable situation into a success. 

Amazon Leadership Principle #5: Learn and Be Curious

Leaders are never done learning and consistently seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Eric says, “this comes from Google. In Google's early days, they wanted smart people. And smart people know how to learn quickly. ” With this in mind, think back to a time when you became aware of a gap in your skillset. How did you acquire these new skills and apply them in the context of your current or previous role? 

Common examples include completing an Excel course or learning a new language to communicate with external shareholders. Learning to code is another great example, just be careful that you don’t embellish your skills or strengths

Takeaway: To really stand out from other applicants, you would need to clearly show where the skills you developed outside of work created a lasting impact. Amazon is looking for specific examples where your love of learning translated into clear and tangible results on and off the job.

Amazon Leadership Principle #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. What is Career Choice you might ask?

Eric says, "At Amazon, you own your development, so you can't just depend on your manager to groom and coach you every minute of the day. You are empowered to own your professional development. That is basically Career Choice. The ability to make decisions based on your own career." 

The purpose of effective hiring is to construct teams that maximize the company's strategic advantage. 

If you do apply for a managerial role, your interviewer will want to understand how you choose to invest in the development of your team. Do you help your peers when they might be struggling? Are you a mentor to them? Are you giving them the resources and training that they need? Are you working with them consistently?

Amazon expects its managers to fully document and understand the performance of each individual and their contributions, which is why consistently hiring the right talent is extremely important. 

Takeaway: Amazon is constantly seeking to retain its top talent, so much so, that they measure the effectiveness of a team by the seniority and experience of the manager. Difficult teams often struggle with poor leadership. As a consequence, this leadership principle often pops up when the recruiter needs to understand how you prioritize learning and development. Both your own and of those around you.

Amazon Leadership Principle #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.

In order to understand this LP, you must look at the very first job description Jeff Bezos wrote. 

"I need someone who can do 10x what a normal engineer does and can take requests that some people think are unreasonable and accomplish them in a big way." 

This leadership principle emphasizes the importance of maximizing your talent within the organization. Examples include simplifying long and complex processes, or reducing obstacles that may impede building and growing revenue.

There is always a higher standard that needs to be relentlessly pursued. In order to lead yourself (and possibly your team) effectively, you must constantly ask if you are increasing the standard and quality of the deliverables assigned to you.

Other examples of interview questions could include:

  1. Tell me about a time you challenged the status-quo?
  2. Tell me about a time when you looked at a process and realized it needed improvement? What challenges did you face to make it great?
  3. Tell me about a time when you looked at a process and you realized that it wasn’t good enough? How did you take it from good to great?

Takeaway: As Eric’s favorite Leadership Principle, the emphasis here is quality, not speed. In order to master the intricacies of your role, you must first be accountable to yourself. This means constantly asking yourself if there is a better way to achieve the business objective.

Leadership Principle #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.

Eric Says, “Think Big is another big leadership principle for L7 roles. If you don't have Think Big, it's very unlikely that they will hire you as an L7. They'll probably bring you as an L6 and say you need to work on Think Big. But Think Big is also big for product managers who work on a lot of roadmaps, strategy, vision, that's Think Big.” 

He goes on to point out, "So AWS was such a think big idea, right? They had visions of what cloud computing was going to do, and they knew it. They thought big and they basically saw the future and it came to fruition”. 

He suggests using personal experiences within your own career as material for inspiration when it comes to this Leadership Principle. Focus on the experiences that had a lasting impact on revenue or customer satisfaction.

Summing up these eight principles, a regular question that gets asked is how to anticipate which specific LPs an interviewee may be asked in an Amazon interview. Hudson reiterates, "There are certain principles that you're definitely not going to get unless you're in finance, you're not going to get Frugality. You can go ahead and just knock it off your list. I advise my clients to always ask the recruiter, `Can you tell me what Leadership Principles are going to be in this interview?’” 

Takeaway: If the recruiter isn’t forthcoming, focus on matching 3 key transformational experiences in your career with three Leadership Principles that highlight your strengths, skills and successes. This way you won’t be totally unprepared, bearing in mind that the LPs do tend to change depending on the seniority of the role. 

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