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Being a Day 1 Leader – Lessons From Jeff Bezos of Amazon

One of the smarter blogs that I follow is Fistful of Talent. This blog, written by a collection of super smart HR thought leaders, covers a wide range of interesting topics.

In a recent blog, Kris Dunn wrote an analysis on the recent Amazon shareholder letter written by Jeff Bezos.

The letter spells out Bezos views on how he leads Amazon to continue to innovate and disrupt its way to continued market dominance. He calls it being a Day 1 Leader.

To quote the letter:

I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.

“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

I’m interested in the question, how do you fend off Day 2? What are the techniques and tactics? How do you keep the vitality of Day 1, even inside a large organization?

Such a question can’t have a simple answer. There will be many elements, multiple paths, and many traps. I don’t know the whole answer, but I may know bits of it.

Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense:

  • customer obsession,

  • a skeptical view of proxies,

  • the eager adoption of external trends,

  • high-velocity decision making.

I found this letter to be fascinating because it reveals how Bezos has not become self-satisfied with where Amazon currently stands financially, he still has a constant fear of obsolescence, and he recognizes that the Day 2 can enter discreetly and stay around for a long period of time before you realize that you have some severe organizational challenges.

What are the defenses that Bezos outlines to avoid Day 2 and how do they relate to our businesses?

Customer Obsession – While it seems self-evident that “the customer is king (or queen)” we have to ask ourselves if everything that we do in our organization is directed at making the customer experience outstanding. Are we dismissive when we think don’t know what they are doing or better yet we move our focus from the external customer (who buys our product or service) to an internal customer (our boss who can help our career)?

Skeptical View Of Proxies – this means when the process takes over and becomes the ends rather than the means. We have all seen how organizations can be slowed down by an over-emphasis on process and the resulting bureaucracy. This does not mean that having a process is bad (you need them to be effective) but it cautions all of us to always beware when it becomes king.

Eager Adoption Of External Trends – One of the biggest cripplers of organizations is when it becomes insular and begins to not recognize (or dismiss) external trends that are impacting its business. A vivid memory I have is growing up in Detroit and being at a party that my parents were hosting for all of their work friends who all worked for The Ford Motor Company. I remember my Dad and his friends (after many Manhattans and cigarettes) talking about how the infatuation with Japanese cars was going to stop once Americans came to their senses. We all know how that story ended.

High-Velocity Decision Making – Process and thorough analysis and research are always necessary but speed to market is becoming increasingly critical. I always like to refer to a sign that hangs at the headquarters of Facebook that reads “Done Is Better Than Perfect”.

When I think about Amazon and their success I cannot help but think about Wal*Mart and the current challenges they are currently facing. I spent a lot of years in consumer products selling to Walmart who was the major force in retailing. At the time it seemed that they would forever rule the retail landscape. Today we know differently. Now Amazon and other online disruptors have come on the scene and put Walmart into a defensive position. One could say that they are now on Day 2.

The Amazon letter is a message to us all that complacency has a cost and that we have to always be challenging ourselves to forever improve and innovate.