Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Leaderhship Principles: Before Amazon...There was Dad

Over the past 15 years of my career I have focused on leadership, team building, business acumen, and emotional intelligence. I made this decision after being in primarily technical roles for the previous 15 years. It was spurred by a conversation with a respected peer. The conversation was about how information technology was changing and that soon the "technology generalist" would become obsolete as technology would advance so far that no one could fully grasp every aspect of it. We chatted about how eventually there will be technology workers who support daily operations to "keep the lights on" and IT strategists who support the business by achieving goals and objectives using technology. I've been in the field long enough to remember the days when the "IT Guy" was the go to do it all guy for anything technology related. Need a phone...IT Guy. Need a power strip...IT Guy. Need printer paper...IT Guy. The IT Guy did everything related to just about anything that plugged into the wall. I've held those jobs, and I always loved being the hero. Nothing I liked more than having to solve a tough technical problem and the awesome feeling you get walking out of the office in the wee hours of the morning exhausted, knowing you just saved the day for hundreds if not thousands of people who depend on the systems you support.

My Dad owned his own business and from the time I was old enough to have any recollection, he was grooming me to run his business. I remember being a kid and going with him to work in the summers. I'd stuff envelopes, do filing, get the mail, make coffee, clean coffee mugs, empty the trash, etc. But I'd also be asked to sit in meetings, go to business lunches, and go on sales calls. I learned that PEOPLE are the most valuable asset a business has. Not only the internal staff, but the customers and the relationships you build with them. Dad used to say, "I don't know what I'm going to be selling, but I know who I'm going to be selling it to". He loved his job. He loved his customers. They were like family to him. So when I decided to make the move into IT leadership, I took all those lessons my Dad taught me and carried them with me. It was tough at first. Most companies weren't used to the "IT Guy" talking about customers, business objectives, process improvement, and team leadership. They expected the talk of speeds and feeds, gigabytes, and gigabits.....but leave the business talk to the grown ups please. Over the past decade I've seen a tremendous shift. Even Jack Welch, the well known leader of General Electric once said that GE used to be an appliance company that used technology, but now they were a technology company that also make appliances.

One of the giants in business is Amazon. Recently Amazon announced they were going to have a large presence here in Nashville. Of course, I've been an Amazon customer for many years, and I've been a member of the Nashville IT community for over 30 years. IT in Nashville used to be a pretty tight knit group, and to some extent it still is. I know people who work for big and small companies alike. It's not as close a group as it used to be, but some of the old crew is still around. So when Amazon made its announcement  I was curious how it would impact the IT community in Nashville.

I can't count the number of cassette tapes, seminars, and books my dad gave me or dragged me to including paying for me to attend the Dale Carnegie Course, which was the last thing he ever bought for me before passing away in 1995. I was exposed to people such as Norman Vincent Peale, Zig Ziglar, Charlie "Tremendous" Jones, Lee Iacocca, Brian Tracy, and Napoleon Hill. So when I started doing my due diligence on Amazon, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Amazon's Leadership Principles. While Amazon says these principles make them "peculiar", they are in fact tried and proven techniques which Amazon has leveraged to become a spectacular success and one of the largest companies in the world.

Let's take a look at these principles and apply some of my Dad's teachings to them. Each one of them I read I can hear a Dad telling me a story or teaching me something.

Customer Obsession
As mentioned above, Dad loved his customers. He told me "regardless of what you sell, you're #1 product is yourself. You're always in the relationship business". Most of Dad's customers knew him as "Coach". He's been gone 25 years this year and when I run into any of his customers, they all tell me how much they miss him. He really cherished his relationships.

One of Dad's favorite sayings was, "When you commit to it, you should be tied to it and made do it!". He was a huge advocate of personal responsibility and integrity. If you had the ball on something, it was up to you to deliver on your commitments. This is something so many companies struggle with because they only allow "leadership" to own things. According to Amazon's principles, everyone is expected to be an owner and act accordingly.

Invent and Simplify
Dad never graduated college thanks to the Korean War dragging him away, but he wasn't lacking in common sense and logic. When I was younger, I was in love with technology and always wanted the latest and greatest gizmos. I constantly tried to convince him to buy into the world of technology. Dad managed to get by just fine without a computer, a hand held cell phone, or any technology other than his notebook....which he wrote down ever phone call, every meeting, every idea. Many successes and many more failures were launched from that simple notebook. This proved to me the only think hold me back is my ability to think and cut through the noise. The KISS principle has always been a guiding force for me. If you can't explain your process, simply, then it's probably broken.

Are Right, A Lot
One quote stands out here...Dad used to say, "I'm paid to be right".

Learn and Be Curious
Continual learning was always impressed on me. As mentioned above, Dad continually read books or listened to motivational or training cassettes. One time I asked why and he told me, "You have to keep getting better everyday because your competition is".

Hire and Develop the Best
I could write an entire blog post on just this one point. Dad had a way of breaking you down, and building you up stronger than you were before. He could crush you with a look....never saying a word. He knew how to motivate people. It's one of the reasons people called him "Coach". He did coach basketball for a few years back in the 50's...but he never stopped developing his teams. He always had the heart of a teacher.

Insist on the Highest Standards
Wow..this one. I can hear Dad saying, "Do it right or don't do it". So many times I did "good enough" in my eyes, but to him it was just "getting by". He wanted me to excel and live up to my potential.

Think Big
Dad always had big ideas. Many of them were brilliant, many weren't. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes he didn't, but he never stopped thinking about that next big move.

Bias for Action
Pardon the language, but I can hear Dad saying, "Shit, or get off the pot". Excuses, waiting on ____, etc. were not something he tolerated. "Do what I told you to do son". Just get it done!

Dad was born in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression.  He seldom ever spent loose change. I remember nights as a family rolling coins to take the the bank. He collected them in big coffee cans. Being the son of a sharecropper, my Dad embodied doing more with less.

Dive Deep
As with any small business, Dad had an accountant, lawyer, banker, etc. But he always double checked what they did. Not that he didn't trust them, he just wanted to know what was going on. "Trust but verify" as the Russian proverb (and Ronald Reagan) says. There wasn't a fact or a figure he couldn't spout off without thinking. It was his company. He owned it.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Backbone was something Dad had is spades. He was one of those rare individuals who would own a room when he entered it. He had gravitas. A true presence. When he disagreed with you, you knew it. But there were times when he would tell you, "I don't agree with you, but we can disagree without being disagreeable".

Deliver Results
At the end of the day, results are all that matters. Did you get the job done? Did you meet your goal? There were never excuses, only "why". Why did it happen and how do we fix it. I remember a phrase from some of his marketing material..."Results oriented, service driven".

If Dad were alive today, I don't think he'd think much of the Amazon website. He'd rather keep his business local and do it with a handshake and a smile. But when it comes to running a company, I think he'd enjoy reading about how Amazon does it. He might even read about Jeff Bezos to see if he can learn something.

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