I’ve seen an uptick in exposure recently to government anecdotes covering all sorts of fun things like open gross incompetence with no consequence, extensive waste of human resources, budget stuffing to ensure renewal, and the belief that the government will be able to attract top talent without paying market rate.
I spent a few years working inside Amazon Web Services and I learned a lot of things that are are very applicable outside of their original context. In this post, I’m going to outline the Amazon Leadership Principles and how I think they should be applied in public service to better govern and care for the citizens of the world.
I’m writing this post from the perspective of the U.S. Federal Government, but I believe the concepts apply at all levels, so feel free to replace “country” with “state”, “county”, “district”, “school”, or whatever other collection of fine folks you serve as you read along.
- Customer Obsession
- Invent and Simplify
- Are Right, A Lot
- Learn and Be Curious
- Hire and Develop the Best
- Insist on the Highest Standards
- Think Big
- Bias for Action
- Earn Trust
- Dive Deep
- Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
- Deliver Results
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
As a public servant, the citizens you serve are your customer. Every action you take (or opt not to take) should be aimed towards earning and keeping their trust. It is your duty to fight their best interest. Your decision making processes and outcomes should be as open and transparent as possible so your citizen customers can observe for themselves how you are serving them.
“Competitors” is an interesting concept in public service. You may see other branches of your government as competitors, but in my opinion, that’s more an example of inefficiency / opportunity for consolidation. The way I see it, the better comparison is other countries, both allies and enemies. Public servants should pay attention and be aware of what is happening around the world, but you cannot make decisions based primarily on what others are doing. Your obsession must be over the well-being and happiness of your citizen customers no matter what the larger environment looks like.
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”.
The oversimplification here is that we need to get the politics out of politics. As a public servant, you should be focused on the long-term benefits for the citizens you serve, not on your or your sponsor’s reelection. Every action you take should be for the benefit of your country, not just your state / district / division / donors / etc. Doing right by the citizens you serve is everyone’s job and you should be proud to do that work, no matter what it entails.
Invent and Simplify
Leader 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.
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.
It’s easy for folks to overindex on this one. It does not say “Is always right”. The idea of being right, a lot, leaves room for leaders to be fallible. Because leaders are fallible, we should all strive to find those places that we are imperfect. We should challenge our beliefs by seeking conversation and community with those we disagree with as opposed to limiting ourselves to echo chambers of like-minded peers.
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.
Like legacy industry, it’s easy to become complacent in many government jobs. “Good enough for government work” used to be high praise, but now represents the bare minimum amount of effort necessary to not have to do the work over. Government leaders need to break away from this stereotype and stay vigilant towards self improvement. As above, we must acknowledge our flaws, but this LP requires that we also constantly strive to learn more and be better.
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.
If I could pick one leadership principle here that is the most important, this is it. If you hire and develop the best, everything else will come together naturally. Let’s start with the pragmatics of what “raising the performance bar with every hire” means. The long and short of it is that every new hire has to be better than half of your existing team. If you can’t defend that hypothesis, you don’t make the hire.
Next, as a leader, you must grow the individuals on your team. This could mean either helping folks become better managers – leaders of people – or better individual contributors – leaders of their fields. Either way, it means providing opportunity, shielding from distractions, and publicly sharing recognition.
One natural outcome of growing leaders is that they move on in their careers. Don’t look at this as a bad thing. Look at “positive attrition” as your opportunity to grow your network of allies in organizations outside of your own.
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.
I’m going to pull out “good enough for government work” again. Public service. Should services rendered for the public not be at the highest possible standard? I don’t know if it’s apathy, the fog of bureaucracy, malice, greed, or some combination of the above, but “good enough for government work” is now a parody of itself. Decisions should not be made based on the lowest cost to get the bare minimum done, but rather by the value provided for every public dollar spent. If we focus on high quality outcomes, we improve our working lives as well as the lives of the citizens we serve.
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.
It’s easy to get lost in huge governmental organizations and just keep doing the little things that seem to work. That said, there is no more powerful institution to truly change peoples’ lives for the better at massive scale. Dream big, think big, and lead big. Failure is always an option – fail quickly and learn from it. Where the mind goes, the body follows. Keep a vision board of where you want to be and study it every morning before you start your work and every evening before retiring for the day.
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. John F. Kennedy - September 12, 1962
Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.
In my opinion, the largest hurdle here is the concept that in order to get budget next year, you have to spend all of this year’s budget and then some. This leads to anecdotes around end-of-year junkets and designer briefcases for everyone in a department.
To the contrary, budgets should be doled out based on efficiency of delivery. Divisions with the highest ratio of results delivered to monies spent should be rewarded with additional funding in order to maximize the value of public dollars spent.
Divisions and projects with little result for monies spent should be scaled back or cut completely with an open, honest, and public explanation showing where and why funding was routed for more efficient use.
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.
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.
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.
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.