In the book The Everything Store, Brad Stone takes an inside look at the rise of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Bezos is notorious for his belief in the long term, which leads to the company sacrificing short-term profits to help fuel future growth. The company also has a maniacal focus on customer satisfaction, often at the expense of relationships with vendors, clients, and (sometimes) employees.
Stone reveals several anecdotes where these two factors meet to led to some ultra-shrewd business moves by Bezos and his team. Some examples:
When wrangling publishers to offer their books for the Kindle, Amazon purposefully never mentioned price. The publishers found out with the rest of the world at the Kindle launch event. From the book:
Among the gathered publishing execs at the Kindle press conference, there was confusion. Was the $9.99 price a promotional discount for the launch?
Finally the grim reality set in and publishing executives kicked themselves for their own gullibility
[One publishing executive said,] “If I could rewrite history I would have said, ‘Thanks so much, I love the idea of the Kindle, but let’s have an agreement that says you will not sell below the cost.’ I feel like I was asleep at the tiller.”
The new price made digital cheaper than paperback, which made customers buy more books, which made the publishers more dependent on Amazon. The company purposefully capitalized on the publishers lack of understanding about the new medium to provide the best value and make the book industry further reliant on Amazon.
In 2002, Amazon’s contract with UPS was up for renewal and the shipping company was ready to play hardball. Amazon was in a weak negotiating position. It wasn’t using FedEx at all, and the Postal Service was barred from negotiating rates. Six months before negotiating, Amazon moved to improve its positioning:
Over the course of six months [Amazon employee Bruce] Jones traveled to FedEx’s headquarters in Memphis, integrating their systems and quietly ratcheting up the volume of packages. Amazon also increased its shipment injections with the U.S. Postal Service: company employees drove Amazon’s trucks to the post office and inserted packages directly into the flow of federal mail.
Then, when UPS refused to lower their rates, Amazon “flipped the switch” and stopped using UPS cold turkey:
“In twelve hours they went from millions of pieces a day to a couple a day,” says Jones.
UPS execs caved and gave Amazon discounted rates.
In its early days Amazon would partner with various retailers to keep its site stocked with items from markets it didn’t understand or couldn’t fit in its warehouses. One of the company’s earliest partners was Toys “R” Us, and Bezos ratcheted up the theatrics:
The negotiations were, as was often the case when Jeff Bezos was involved, long and, according to Jon Foster, “excruciating.” When both teams met for the first time, Bezos made a big show of keeping once chair open at the conference-room table, “for the customer,” he explained.
They two companies ended up striking a deal after being at an impasse for months.
While Bezos and company weren’t so kind to their negotiating partners, no one can argue with the results. You can buy the book here.
Research has shown that creatives aren’t often given the opportunity to lead because there’s an unconscious bias against them. People associate creativity with nonconformity and unconventionality. And when they think about an effective leader, they think about someone who brings order. Obviously if you believe that a leader’s role is to bring order, you wouldn’t want a creative to lead. (Of course, this has nothing to do with whether creatives actually can lead, it’s just a bias many of us have.)
What’s interesting is that these qualities which have typically biased folks against creatives as leaders — that they’re unconventional, unorthodox, and full of un-tested new ideas about the way things should be done — are actually turning into assets when we look at today’s work and business landscape and how it’s evolving.
Do you think that part of the struggle is that when you become a leader you become more removed from direct ownership of the product?
I don’t think that it’s just ownership. It’s about integrity, and how you’re framing what those different roles mean. If I’m a maker, and you’re not a maker, I’m better than you because I have integrity, and you don’t. You’re just talking. So it’s about a necessary reframing of your “maker” role. You no longer get your hands dirty or clothes messed up as a badge of belonging. As a leader, you are alone—and accountable for the needs of the whole. The whole is the product. And you’re making it. You own it. And you succeed and fail by it.
Does this relentless focus on integrity have an upside when it comes to leading a business?
I think the pursuit of integrity is a good thing, because it isn’t about profit—it’s only about quality. Companies need a very clear sort of compass to succeed, and when profit is the motivation, it isn’t enough. Creatives are driven by passion, by integrity, and by quality. So they know how to focus on product, and how it feels. And that’s a very important strength. Especially right now. It used to be that you would buy a product just because it had good technology. You didn’t care about the design. But that’s not the case anymore.
It seems like, in theory, the ideal leader would be a maker, a manager, and a leader. Do you think that those things all coexist in one person with any kind of frequency?
I don’t know about frequency, but I know about growth and how people evolve. Given the current environment, I think that people are being forced to change. A few decades ago, when things were more stable, we could all just sort of stay in our little roles. But now the pace of change is so rapid, and things are confusing. So we have to just try stuff. And fail. And recover, and try again. If there’s one skill that a leader needs, it’s the attitude espoused by the late, great Nelson Mandela, “Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Creatives know that attitude so well—and manage ambiguity better than anyone else. And combined with the ability to execute, to really get things done, they’re in a great position to lead.
This post is excerpted from 99U’s new book, Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact, which features insights from 21 visionary founders, designers, and entrepreneurs. Learn more.
Small misunderstandings can sometimes morph into larger misconceptions, which can then snowball into full-blow falsehoods that ultimately erode trust, credibility and transparency. A small perception gap can significantly impact performance down the road. The disconnect between what you want to say and what is actually said is what Anne Loehr, author of A Manager’s Guide to Coaching: Simple and Effective Ways to Get the Best from Your Employees, calls as the “Perception Gap.”
- At the beginning of a call or meeting, state: “My intention for this meeting/call is X.” That way, the team or team member can frame the meeting content within the stated intentions.
- At the end of the meeting or call, ask for feedback by saying “My intention for this meeting/call was X. How did I do?” This reiterates your intention to the team, and creates a welcoming environment for clarifying questions.
- Listen carefully to the reply to see if there is a Perception Gap.
Be aware of how you are communicating, and with whom. Get to know your teammates’ communication styles and aim to communicate in a manner that they are more likely to receive accurately and positively. Remember that simple conversations can have a negative impact on not just performance, but on relationships as well.
Have you ever emailed someone who is extremely busy, only to hear back several days (or weeks) later? Or perhaps you didn’t hear back at all? Busy people are difficult to reach via email, because you’re asking them to part with their most valuable resource of all: time.
In a guest post for OkDork, business coach John Corcoran shared how he got the attention of App Sumo founder Noah Kagan via email. The trick to capturing the attention of the busy executive was a sense of urgency:
I said the interview would take only 5-7 minutes of his time. If you’re asking for something, you want to make the commitment so small and the benefit so great, they can’t possibly pass it up. I think Noah probably realized it was likely the interview would run longer than 5-7 minutes, but it’s good to demonstrate your willingness to keep the time demand commitment short out of respect for your recipient’s time. And in fact, when I did interview Noah, I offered multiple times to cut off the interview but he allowed it to go longer.
In a study commissioned by author Dan Pink for his book, To Sell Is Human, workers reported that as part of their job, they spent 40 percent of their time trying to convince someone to part with resources of some kind (what Pink calls “non-sales selling”). And much of that is accomplished using email.
Corcoran says that when you’re writing an email, you want to make the commitment so small and the benefit so great that the recipient finds the offer hard to refuse. So instead of asking for half an hour of someone’s time, ask for a handful minutes. Instead of writing, “I’d love to grab coffee,” say “I could pop by your office for a couple of minutes.”
Almost half the people you’ll run into today are suffering from some level of sleep deprivation. This is largely because we don’t know when (or how) to call it a night. Tethered to our devices, work more often than not spills into the precious time that we need to decompress and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Do a nighttime audit of how you spend your time after work. For one or two evenings, don’t try to change anything—simply log everything that happens from the moment you arrive home until you go to bed. What you may discover is that instead of eliminating activities that you enjoy and are keeping you up late (say, watching television between 10:30 and 11:00), you can start doing them earlier by cutting back on something unproductive that’s eating up your time earlier on (like mindlessly scanning Facebook between 8:30 and 9:00).
As the story goes, Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett at a dinner. Gates’ mother (and dinner host) asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed to be the most important factor in their success. The two moguls gave the same answer: “Focus.”
Focus as a Noun.
When people speak of focus they usually mean having a single goal. It is a static thing, a thing you have. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Roger Bannister relentlessly pursuing his goal of breaking the four-minute mile, John F. Kennedy challenging NASA to put a man on the moon within a decade or, coming back to Bill Gates, a vision of a personal computer on every desk. The upside to this kind of focus is clear and compelling: you pursue a single objective and don’t get distracted along the way; you build momentum as many different people aligned behind achieving this one goal.
Focus as a Verb.
Focus is not just something you have it is also something you do. This type of focus is not static; it is an intense, dynamic, ongoing, iterative process. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Steve Jobs saying to Jony Ive day after day, “This might be crazy, but what if we…” until once in a while the idea took the air out of the room. It’s the constant exploration needed to see what is really going on and what the “noun focus” should be.
Focus is a powerful attribute, especially in a world that is tirelessly trying to compete for your time, energy, and attention. McKeown says that if we want to direct ourselves toward what’s essential, then we need to develop both kinds of focus. It’s the only way to confidently answer the question, “What’s important now?”
Introductions are crucial. As the adage goes, “first impressions are lasting impressions.” Neuroscientists even found that 7 percent of what people think of you is cemented upon meeting you for the first time.
This explains our aversion to name-droppers, ramblers or the people making it rain business cards at networking events – the “dirty” networkers. Bernard Marr, author of Doing More with Less recommends a simple adjustment to our personal introductions to make a good impression:
Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.” Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.
Human beings make snap decisions – our brains are hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism. However we can use this to our advantage by focusing on how we help others, rather than flaunting how well we’ve helped ourselves.