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Amazon's Biggest Challenge

Amazon’s high-pressure business model should make us think, not just about the directions the retail world may be taking, but about our personal lives and how we choose to live them. A controversial New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld is sharply critical of the high-stress culture that drives Amazon. According to the authors, Amazon is super successful--the world's largest retailer--not just because its leadership is smart and tough but because the pace at Amazon is unrelenting, the workload extreme and the competition for promotions cutthroat. Performance feedback is continuous, unforgiving and frequently public. “Amazon,” conclude the authors, “offers no pretense that catering to employees is a priority.”

How does Amazon get away with pushing people this hard? In responses to the NYT piece, many Amazon defenders say that it’s a privilege to work for an organization whose goals are clear, lofty and uncompromising. That it’s satisfying to be forced to stretch yourself beyond anything you may have thought possible, and, in that process, to learn pathbreaking new ways of handling risk and stress. To these Amazonians, working 60-70 high-stress hours a week for a company that’s changing the world is worth some pain.

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I'm all for being all-in. We should care deeply about the work we do, should want to be pushed to operate at our best possible level. But to what end?

What’s amazing to me is not that so many people are attracted by Amazon’s drastic standards, but how few of them seem to question their goal.

The company is very clear about that goal--to be the most successful marketing company the planet has ever seen. Amazon is about drastically cutting the time it takes to get the lawn mower you ordered to your front door. That’s it. As far as I can tell, that’s what’s behind the Oz curtain at Amazon, and tens of thousands of people are willing to reshape their lives to make that happen.

Well, if I were 23, youthful enthusiasm might draw me for a year or two to the adventure that is Amazon, and in my time there I might learn a lot about business management--both good and bad. But unless I were soul-dead, I hope I'd reflect pretty quickly on the purposes of all this incredible rigor. At a time of my life when my energies and passions are peaking, do I really want to spend my rising levels of skill and commitment on figuring out how to make a drone drop a package on your porch? Aren’t there more meaningful challenges?

I’m no wide-eyed lefty. I understand and appreciate the for-profit model. And I have to say that Amazon’s innovations have made my life easier and more pleasurable. It’s seductively wonderful to hit One Click and get the goods in hours. But there are costs beyond what appears on our credit card bills, especially if/when Amazon’s supercharged, single-focus model becomes the norm for our work environments.

It’s about lost opportunities—for workers, for companies, and for the world.

If we accept that work now requires a relentlessly exclusive focus on work goals, then we lose the opportunities to find and serve deeper, more-meaningful purposes for our lives.

At 73, I know that there’s nothing more important than that our lives be meaningful—that what we do and how we do it be in sync with the priorities at the core of our beings. Probe deeply enough and most of us find that kind of satisfaction in giving back—in making life better for other people, in helping solve significant public problems. We know we’re not just workers (and not just consumers). We’re citizens and social beings, responsible not just for making and buying stuff, but for the broader welfare of the communities, nations and planet where we live.

The current Amazon model makes all this much more difficult.

I doesn’t have to. Corporations like Amazon can have it all-–if they widen their focus and learn to think Big. Really big.

Why can’t Amazon offer some of its passionate and energetic employees the chance—at the company’s expense—to apply their imagination, skills, and hard work in a few new Amazon subsidiaries dedicated to revolutionizing farm-to-market systems in the developing world, cutting the costs of alternative energy sources by half, or creating a viable global system for taking care of war refugees?

Yes, doing anything like this would cost Amazon some money. So let them charge us a little more for our lawnmowers and coffee filters, or get stuff to us a few hours later. I’d be more than willing to pay more to be a partner in their good work and in setting a fine example for how American corporations can do business.

If Amazon did that, they’d have my business forever. They’d also build the trust, morale and allegiance of their own workforce, which would stabilize--fewer burn-outs and less turn-over. And I’d still get my lawnmower in time.

Everybody would win.

So congratulations, Jeff Bezos. You’ve already won the world series of Double A ball. Now you can do something in the Big Leagues. Something that actually matters. Something that will inspire other CEOs to follow your lead. Something that really would change the world in ways that actually matter.

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All content © 2015 John A. Graham. All rights reserved.