This week an Inc. article about how Jeff Bezos will often forward a customer complaint to an appropriate department head with a single keystroke added to the end of it. A question mark.
That’s it. One keystroke. But it’s a keystroke from The Man.
The article points out how when these leaders get such an email they’ll drop everything. Professionally. Personally. The mad scramble begins to think through a solution to prevent that complaint from happening again. Bezos is fanatical about customer experience and has created the most customer friendly company in the world. His question mark tactic positively reinforces how serious he is about it. That propels the leadership team to maintain the focus on the customers, not the competitors. It could easily be argued that’s how Amazon buries competitors. All of them.
As the article points out, there may be some big downsides to the question mark, too. Professional pursuits to amplify customer experience may be shoved to a back burner to remedy the concerns of The Man. Personal pursuits (life/work balance) get crushed in the wake of the team’s fear-driven efforts to make The Man happy.
I have no insights about these, or any other inner workings, at Amazon. Or how Jeff Bezos leads and manages. Remember, we lead people. We manage the work.
This article cites an interview with an Amazon executive per Business Insider. Bezos has opening confessed that he does this, by the way. That’s not up for dispute. I don’t even think the response of the executives is up for much debate. I’m rather certain they scramble like roaches when the light is turned on. What may be up for some debate is the positive and negative impact it has when The Man (now we’re going to talk about YOU, not Jeff Bezos) causes chaos.
What’s the intent?
Look at your tactics and strategies. Think about the things that are fanatically important to you. For Bezos, it’s the customer experience. What is it for you?
Knowing yourself is a major component of managing the chaos you create – whether you intend to or not. Here’s a test. If I spent some time with you and your leadership team I’d find out in short order what you really care about. You’d tell me whatever you wanted. Maybe you’d front something to make yourself look good. Maybe not. But you’d tell me the things that you care about, the things that keep you awake at night and the things you wish a superhero could come to solve for you. Your leadership team – perhaps your entire company – might tell me something completely different because in too many cases The Man’s talk and behavior aren’t congruent. That is, too many business owners say one thing, and do something different.
“Our customers are number one,” say many entrepreneurs. But then they wrangle about the smallest details that involve doing the right thing by the customer because there are dollars attached. They may rant about how much money they’re losing if they do the right thing. Thus proving to the company that customers aren’t number one, money is! So it goes inside many, many companies. Talk is cheap. Show me how your company behaves and I’ll quickly show you what matters most.
Bezos is serious about customer experience. His intention may be to create chaos congruent with his fanatism.
Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.
What you preach must match what you do. And what you insist be done.
A big part of my work with top-level leaders is on being congruent. Saying what we mean. Meaning what we say. It’s vital to effective leadership because employees grow increasingly anxious and unhappy because of it.
Would it shock you to learn that many companies are led by somebody the team can’t quite figure out? “I wonder what they mean,” is a question I’ve heard for the past decade in helping leadership teams improve effectiveness. The Man (or Woman) has an executive meeting. They communicate in such a way that creates chaos among the troops – often unintended. And because of their leadership style nobody in the room speaks up to get clarity. The meeting ends and people are left wondering, “What did she mean by that?”
The leadership team then scrambles individually, separately and collectively to figure it out. Working, working, working. But not quite sure if they’re working on what they should.
That scenario happens every single day in too many companies. Partly because lip service doesn’t accurately mirror actual service. We say one thing and do something else.
It also happens because communication is unclear. As entrepreneurs, we live in our heads and are speed freaks. Moving fast. Sometimes furiously. Sometimes it leads us to unclear communication that makes sense in our head, but not to our team. It’s compounded depending on how we lead. Our style and personality have an impact. If we’re hard-charging and rather intimidating to our crew, they may avoid any confrontation, including one necessary so they can know what we most want.
Leveraging chaos for good.
I’m not going to get into a debate about whether Amazon executives have their work/life balance disturbed by the Bezos question mark. Life isn’t perfect. Neither is leadership. Amazon’s success speaks for itself and there’s no evidence that Jeff Bezos isn’t a man of integrity and honesty. I’m not prone to judge him or anybody else. I just observe knowing that my observations are very incomplete. And I’m sure he’s ruffled many feathers because achievement does that. At scale. Accomplish more, more feathers get ruffled.
I don’t think chaos is evil or bad. I think it just needs to be congruent. Consistent with your values and goals.
The Bezos question mark reinforces what he preaches. Whatever chaos that may create inside Amazon is likely a price Bezos is willing to pay. It’s more than an Inc. article. It’s Amazon culture!
Context always matters! The question mark works for Bezos because it scales. We’re talking about a company with 2017 revenues of about $178B. We’re not operating businesses that large so our chaos looks very different. Should you employ the same tactic? Probably not…because you don’t have the same scale. That means you can take a much more personal, communicative approach. You can more fully explain what your concerns are, what you’re thinking and what you want to be done.
Amazon does about 35 transactions every second, averaging $34 million daily. Those 35 transactions every second average $1084. That’s unprecedented scale. So before we throw rocks at the tactic of the Bezos question mark I think we’re better served at understanding the chaos it causes and the results it gets so we can learn. So we can figure some things out to help us grow our leadership and our enterprises.
Growth isn’t always comfortable. It’s often chaotic and filled with making sphincters pucker. It’s not about being a jerk. Or being ill-tempered. It’s about making sure we keep our organization on point, focused on what matters most. As entrepreneurs, we get to decide that for ourselves and our organizations. It’s the value we bring to the world when we make our dreams come alive.
So I’m going to encourage you to create chaos. Just make sure it’s chaos that’s congruent with your true values and purpose.
Be well. Do good. Grow great!