Last week, after a long period of stupidity from the corporate world, three astonishingly sensible things passed over my screen all at once.
Two of them came from small companies, but the third came from one of the world’s largest – and recently one of the least popular – organizations: Amazon.
The first example was sent to me from a reader in South Africa, who had just landed a new job and had to sign the company’s code of conduct. This read: “DO THE RIGHT THING, AT THE RIGHT TIME, WITHOUT FEARING THE RISKS.” That was it.
Even though the statement is unspecific, it is a big improvement on the usual interminable list of don’ts. Most codes of conduct are so long that the only intelligent thing for an employee to do is tick the box at the end without having read a word (thus disobeying the code before they’ve even started) and forget all about it. A single scary sentence in block capitals is an improvement as at least it conveys the general idea that wrongdoing is not the thing.
The next example came from a small Australian hedge fund looking for a new hire. Instead of spouting the usual nonsense about proactive team players and skillsets, it said it wanted someone “(a) very bright (b) interested in the investment process, and (c) most importantly curious”. It added: “What we really want is a bullshit detector” – for which it specifies an aptitude for maths and science.
It wound up with the warning that “being a small organization you are inevitably “long” us as we will be “long” you. There is career risk. This can be good and bad. If you do well and we do well it might be very good. If either of those things don’t play out this might wind up being a bad career choice.”
This is honest, funny, accurate and helpful. It almost makes me want to apply; if I were any good at science, I just might.
Both examples, from Machi.biz and Bronte Capital respectively, show how big companies could do things better. Yet I fear that if either of these outfits ever gets big, they will forget how to be sensible. Size means compliance and HR departments, which ensure that good sense – let alone personality or sharpness – are eliminated.
Yet then there is Amazon, which this week has become my pin-up for the no-nonsense large organization.
For a couple of years we’ve known (thanks to an article in the FT) that the retailer is mean to its warehouse workers. Now we know it is hard on its office workers, too. Yet as I read the latest article in the New York Times and clicked through to the company’s 14 principles, instead of being repulsed I found myself cheering its good sense.
Principle #9 is frugality, which I’ve never before seen held up like this. Of course leaders should be frugal – it’s not their money they are spending. Another principle reads: “Have backbone; disagree and commit.” I like this one too. In most companies everyone thinks just the same (despite the pretense of diversity) and those who don’t, keep quiet.
Yet the principle that had me throwing my hat in the air said leaders “are right, a lot”.
To anyone not well schooled in corporate nonsense this might seem a bit obvious. But most companies have so fallen for the trendy idea of “fail fast, fail often” they have started to talk as if being wrong were superior to being right.
So what are we to make of the fact that this company, which is so subversively sensible, is so horrid to its workers? I have a nasty feeling the two things are connected. Amazon can afford to be honest because it isn’t trying to pretend to be nice. Founder Jeff Bezos has never had any truck with cuddly: “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense,” he once said. The rest of the corporate world has built a business model that rests on the idea of happy workers.
Because this is partly a lie – all corporations must extract their pound of flesh to turn a profit – they are restricted in what they can say. Hence the empty guff about passion and fun.
The lesson from Amazon blows away one of the biggest lies of management. The stakeholder model pretends you can have it all – customers, shareholders and employees can all do well at the same time.
Amazon is a throwback to the old style of capitalism, in which there was a trade-off. As I read the NYT article last week it was late at night and I was sitting up in bed ordering weird lightbulbs and irregular screws, knowing they would arrive, at a discounted price, before lunch the next day.
At Amazon, the customer wins – and the employee does not. The company may not have chosen the most morally acceptable trade-off. But it has laid bare this fact of economic life: when some win, others lose.
By Lucy Kellaway
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