How I (sort of) applied Amazon’s leadership principles in my previous job

In the past few weeks, I got a chance to learn more about Amazon’s leadership principles. While digging deeper, I realized how well these principles resonate with my work ethics and experience in my previous job at Unmetric.

By reading a couple of books, an article on Medium, and talking to a few people at Amazon, I learned that the leadership principles are the mind and soul of how things get down at Amazon. These 14 leadership principles are shared across the biggest startup where each team and individual have the freedom to choose and follow their path to deliver results.

Let me share each of these principles and how I practiced them without ever knowing about them in my previous role:

1. Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backward. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Being the sole UX designer at Unmetric from day 1, I insisted on starting with our customers. I encouraged our team to focus on understanding customer’s needs, challenges, workflows, and goals. We shipped Discover and Sports religiously following this practice. The former product was a success while the latter was a failure.

After joining Unmetric full-time in 2013, my primary goal was to make user research an integral part of our product development process. I read a lot and evangelized about user research day in, day out. I talked to Alan Klement to explore how I can incorporate jobs-to-be-done based user research first in 2014, and then again in 2016. My efforts were successful when our CEO formed an internal team dedicated to conducting user research using the jobs-to-be-done framework proactively.

Throughout the ten years, we always focused on the customer and never copied our competitors. We launched a few innovative features that our competitors copied, though.

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.”

At Unmetric, I not only owned the design but also brought in Objectives and Key Results for team alignment, suggested HealthKard for building customers profile to detect churn in advance, introduced Slack, Trello, and Intercom for improving collaboration and communication throughout the company.

When my teammate reported an issue about miscommunication and lack of accountability, I invented the “Release Checklist” to allow everyone on the project to understand the tasks and steps involved along with people who are responsible and accountable. This helped everyone to quickly learn about the project progress and get clarity on what needs to be done and by whom.

I also led efforts to ship features with long term gains for our customers even when they asked to build a small functionality like the ability to tag, fix a usability issue in the date-picker, and make it easier to find profiles to analyze. I always focused on delivering more than asked and expected.

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.

I always did hands-on work on all four Unmetric products while suggesting and implementing innovative ways to improve user experience. I led the major homepage and navigation redesign to offer users a simple way to perform the most common tasks on the Unmetric platform.

I also led cross-functional efforts on an innovative approach to getting insights (Insights by Xia), introduced a simple way to run projects smoothly (Release Checklist), suggested a creative way to detect churn (HealthKard), implemented a framework for focus and team alignment (OKRs), and many other small but impactful UX improvements.

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.

I love feedback, especially negative feedback. Most of us know our strengths. Knowing and realizing weaknesses is what helps us become better and push us to keep improving. Asking for feedback on my work and way of working is my habit.

I would continuously bug others to provide input on my designs. For every single feature, I would either reach out to my fellow product designer, front-end designer, head of accounts/user research, head of product, and even our CEO.

I often relied on my instincts (like redesigning navigation and homepage, splitting date-picker into two separate components, etc.). On countless occasions, feedback from others helped me come up with better designs.

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.

I have an insatiable level of curiosity that pushes me to keep learning forever, encourages me to keep looking around and find the best tools, techniques, and practices. I love to try new processes and tools to see how I can improve my work and way of working. BTW, I just secured my email at hey.com.

I kickstarted my career by reaching out to Klaus Komenda — a Yahoo developer then — who fortunately shared books and blogs of Jeffery Zeldman, Cameron Moll, Andy Budd, and Andy Clarke, when I started in 2007. Reading and following these talented folks has helped me set and follow the highest standards from day one.

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.

I didn’t do much of hiring; however, I made sure we have the best team with whatever resources we have. Our two front-end designers, whom I mentored, never stopped learning, and always surprised me with their talent and output. The senior product designer, whom I hired, is one of the best and brought some processes and tools to help us align better and improve.

On multiple occasions design team pushed boundaries by regularly participating in QA, helping the marketing team with content strategy, introducing tools and processes for improving team alignment, and sharing best practices with the whole company.

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.

This one is so true about how I worked on a daily basis. Our development team knew how relentless I was on providing the best user experience by shipping customer-focused features.

I would regularly review our production app to find and report even the smallest of the inconsistencies. I worked closely with our graphics designer to make sure our branding is consistent across mediums, and also pushed our front-end designers to write code as poetry.

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.

For every idea or feature I worked on, the end goal was to help our customers get their jobs done and make progress in their work life. Isn’t that the reason why product companies exist?

I used data to design an innovative months-view for our date-picker, which offered a 1-click selection of months, quarters, and years. When customers asked for the ability to tag content, I went above and beyond to learn more about why they want this feature and then shipped a feature that allowed them to compare their content performance based on those tags, which improved their workflow.

Our CEO and I always shared the idea of how all dashboards should be feeds. To make this idea a reality, we redesigned our homepage and introduced a feed of content and insights. This was a long term idea to help surface important insights on the homepage, so customers don’t have to dig it.

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.

When I left Unmetric, I was pleasantly surprised when one of our engineering leads — with whom I worked for eight years — mentioned that it was always a challenge for the development team to match the design team’s speed.

I took many risks, both big and small, sometimes I failed, and other times I was successful. One thing I never did –no matter the outcome — was to slow down or stop trying. I failed at making Intercom the active customer support channel. I failed at reducing churn with three separate attempts. The onboarding experience I designed with our head of accounts never got shipped.

In terms of risks that turned out to be successful, I redesigned four years old homepage and navigation, skipped UI mockups and designed an entire product (in browser) using front-end, removed trial option and kept only demos even when 70% of the visitors signed up for trials, changed the date-picker design.

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.

Being a sole UX designer at Unmetric, I ran the show while performing most of the acts myself. These included conducting user research, sketching and brainstorming ideas, creating wireframes, prototypes, and UI mockups, coding the UI and building the front-end framework, setting up success metrics, working closely with developers to implement the features to the smallest details, and reaching out to our account managers (who regularly talked to customers) for feedback.

Shipping four products (with a 50% success rate) while working end-to-end is one of my career accomplishments. However, I wished we had dedicated people for user research and data analysis, as there is no replacement for pros.

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.

Since I was remote and only met the team once/twice a year for 1–3 weeks, there was no way I could have survived without building relationships. Apart from the design team, the CEO, Head of Product, Head of Marketing, Head of Accounts, I also had a great relationship with every member of our company. Developers loved working with me. Apart from work, we would play soccer, table-tennis, talk about Game of Thrones, and our kids.

Every time I visited our Chennai office, I made sure to sit with all our marketing and three development teams, share my learning, and openly ask them for feedback, which they always generously shared.

Our head of accounts would compare the design team’s output and standards with Google, which I always knew was an overstatement.

I am proud of Unmetric’s design team, so is our CEO and the CEO of Falcon.io (the company that acquired Unmetric) who even called out the design team’s efforts to design the best products in the social media domain.

Our senior product designer brought in Figma, Retrospectives, one of our front-end designers, refined our front-end development framework, while the other pushed our website performance score to 99%.

I was not a hardcore manager, but I made sure to provide ample space for experimentation, exploration, and learning. Building and being part of such an innovative team is one of my most significant achievements in the last 12 years.

12. Dive Deep

Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

Having a small team allowed me to make sure that I know what’s happening on each of the projects and who’s doing what. Weekly 1-on-1s and monthly catchups helped me stay up to date on what everyone is working on.

Apart from that, I would work closely with our Head of Product in the beginning and front-end designers, developers, and QA. After shipping a feature, I would catch up with our PMs to review success metrics and make further improvements.

When our front-end designers were busy, I quickly coded the designs to keep things moving. When our graphics designer had a family emergency, I delivered on his tasks.

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.

Our CEO told me that there is a running joke in the company that Amrinder is our CEO’s CEO. First, I was confused, but then I realized that its because I would ask a lot of questions to everyone, and our CEO was no exception.

I am grateful to have worked in a company where I knew that I could challenge my CEO’s decision (with respect obviously), and most of the time, things would go in the right direction.

While designing the second (Track) of the four products, I had to give in to our CEO’s decision for the sake of timelines and experimentation and skipped the user research, and we failed. However, I never let that happen again, and our third product (Discover) succeeded because we did in-depth user research. (I covered the gap left by time spent in user research by skipping UI mockups and instead coded the UI.)

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.

While trying to ship Discover on time, I had to compromise with UI and design it in code so we could meet the timelines.

In the end, everything is about delivering the best possible results for the customers and business. I started focusing much more on success metrics and outcomes during my last few years at Unmetric. The output is the means to an end — Outcome.

I introduced OKRs, which helped our marketing team focus on efforts to help achieve the company’s objectives, but it also helped the design team to support the marketing team to reach their key results.

Focusing on Key Results also helped us focus on outcomes that will impact our customers and business instead of just completing tasks and shipping releases.

So this is how I think I practiced Amazon’s leadership principles. However, there is more to each of these principles and Amazon’s expectations from Amazonians practicing them, which frankly, is hard for an outsider to understand and practice.

After spending a few weeks with these fourteen principles and learning more about them online and from Amazonians, I am sure of one thing. If any company practices these same principles even with half of the commitment Amazon has, that company will be better off.

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Amrinder Sandhu

Amrinder Sandhu

Spiritual being > Honest human > Grateful son > Caring husband > Loving father > Generous friend > Avid learner > Inspiring teammate > Passionate designer