Lessons from Amazon: How Strong Leadership Principles and a Bias for Action Drive Success

Photo of Selda Schretzmann
Selda Schretzmann
Photo of Sohrab Salimi
Sohrab Salimi
7 min. reading time

At Agile Academy, we are always on the lookout for insights and lessons from companies that have achieved remarkable success and growth. Amazon is undoubtedly one of those companies. With its customer-centric approach, constant innovation, and strong leadership principles, Amazon has grown from an online bookstore to a global powerhouse in just a few decades.

To dive deeper into Amazon's culture and leadership approach, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Ethan Evans, a former Amazon Vice President, as part of our Agile Insights Conversation series hosted by Sohrab Salimi. Ethan spent 15 years at Amazon, joining when the company had 14,000 employees and leaving when it had grown to an astonishing 1.4 million.

In this fascinating conversation, Ethan shared his firsthand experiences of how Amazon's leadership principles evolved and were deeply integrated into every aspect of the company's operations. He provided unique insights into how these principles created a shared language and drove efficient decision-making, even in a rapidly scaling organization.

Ethan also delved into Amazon's approach to calculated risk-taking and decentralized decision-making, sharing powerful examples of how this bias for action enabled the company to move quickly and innovate. He discussed the importance of mechanisms like "disagree and commit" in keeping the organization aligned even when there were differences of opinion, and in which case the concept failed.

In this blog post, we'll explore some key insights and lessons from Ethan's Agile Insights Conversation, diving into topics like:

  • The power of leadership principles to drive culture and alignment

  • Enabling speed through decentralized decision-making

  • Bringing Amazon's mental models to other organizations

Whether you're a leader at a startup looking to scale or an executive at an established company seeking to reinvigorate your culture, there are powerful lessons to be learned from Amazon's approach. So let's dive in and explore these insights from Ethan's unique perspective.

The Power of Leadership Principles to drive culture and alignment

Having clearly defined leadership principles can be incredibly effective in creating a cohesive culture and driving alignment, especially during rapid growth. At Amazon, the leadership principles were central to shaping the company's culture.

When Ethan joined Amazon in 2005, the company's principles were scattered across three lists. Amazon quickly consolidated them into one cohesive set, not just for tidiness but to strengthen the values guiding its decisions. Ethan played a key role by adding just six words to the "Ownership" principle, showing Amazon's openness to employee input in shaping its ethos. This emphasized that every Amazon employee is responsible for contributing to the company's success. Today, these ideals are captured in 16 principles reflecting Amazon's refined philosophy.

Amazon then deeply integrated these principles into every stage of the employee lifecycle - hiring, performance evaluations, promotions. Each interviewer would probe candidates on specific principles. Feedback and promotion decisions were framed around them. This transformed the principles into a shared language and value system.

This systematic reinforcement led to remarkable alignment around what was expected of Amazon's leaders. The principles became a cultural glue, enabling efficient communication and decision-making. Phrases like "bias for action" or "disagree and commit" conveyed rich meaning that everyone understood.

Of course, such a strong culture isn't for everyone. Some viewed Amazon's uncompromising adherence to the principles as almost cult-like. Many who disagreed with the principles left. But those who stayed were united and highly effective.

It's important to note that the principles can be misused if oversimplified or weaponized to win arguments. An overzealous application of frugality can lead to "frupidity" - frugality plus stupidity. The key is to apply the principles thoughtfully, not robotically.

The lesson is that codifying and reinforcing leadership principles is a powerful way to shape culture and alignment, especially when scaling rapidly. But the principles must be authentically lived every day, not just posters on the wall. When done well, they create a shared language that enables efficient communication and decision-making. But it's critical to apply them judiciously and recognize that not everyone will thrive in such an intense culture.

Enabling speed through decentralized decision-making

Another key aspect of Amazon's culture was its emphasis on moving fast and empowering employees to make autonomous decisions. Amazon optimized for speed by pushing decision-making down in the organization.

One of Amazon's core principles is "bias for action" - the belief that speed matters in business and many decisions can be made without extensive analysis. Employees are encouraged to take smart risks, even if some fail. Amazon prioritized being fast and 80% over being slow and 100% right.

Early in his career, Ethan pushed for a partnership with TiVo (a part of Xperi)  that his SVP advised against. Ethan respectfully disagreed and said he would proceed unless explicitly told not to. His SVP replied, "It's your decision" - and the partnership was highly successful, even cited in Ethan's promotion.

In another case, a VP wanted to acquire a small company that Jeff Bezos doubted. The VP said he would "bet his badge" on it. Bezos disagreed with the acquisition but respected the VP's conviction and let him proceed, with the understanding that the VP was staking his reputation on it.

These examples illustrate Amazon's belief that it's better to decide quickly, even if a few fail, than to get paralyzed seeking consensus. Waiting for certainty means missing opportunities.

Of course, for decentralized decisions to work, teams must align once a decision is made. That's where Amazon's "disagree and commit" principle comes in - once a decision is made, everyone must get behind it.

Ethan argued against launching the Fire Phone, but once Bezos decided to proceed, he gave it his all. The phone failed, but the team shipped it. Disagreeing but committing enables organizations to stay aligned while moving fast.

Click on the picture to see the YouTube short!

The lesson is that in fast-moving environments, there are significant benefits to optimizing for speed over perfect accuracy. Decentralizing decisions and empowering employees to take smart risks helps organizations move faster. But this must be balanced with mechanisms to drive alignment once decisions are made. Striking this balance between autonomy and alignment is key to effective decentralized decision-making.

Bringing Amazon's mental models to other organizations

Since leaving Amazon, Ethan has helped many companies adopt its ways of working. While the specific leadership principles may not translate, the underlying mental models often do.

Ethan coaches leaders to always start with the customer, work backwards from their needs, think about scale from day one, and decide quickly to test hypotheses. He stresses codifying and reinforcing a company's core principles through hiring, reviews, and promotions.

One of the most powerful mental models Ethan brings from Amazon is that speed and calculated risk-taking are essential today. He helps leaders see that a decision with 80% confidence made quickly is often better than waiting for 100% certainty. Moving too slowly can be costlier than a few missteps along the way.

Importantly, this doesn't mean making reckless gambles or abandoning strategy. Risks should be carefully weighed and contained. Failure should be mined for lessons. And once decided, everyone must fully commit to the path forward.

The key lesson is that while Amazon's specific practices may not directly translate elsewhere, the underlying mental models - customer obsession, bias for action, thinking big - often do. The challenge lies in adapting these principles to the specific context and culture of a different organization. It's about capturing the essence of the principles in a way that makes sense for that particular company.

You would like to learn more about Amazon's unique culture, then watch our interview with Colin Bryar.

Putting the Lessons into Practice

To truly benefit from Amazon's experience, organizations must focus on driving behavioral change. As management expert Tom Peters aptly puts it, "Culture is the next 5 minutes" - it's how we do things daily, not just what we say we do.

To effectively transform culture, organizations should concentrate on five key areas:

  1. Leadership

  2. Strategy

  3. Organizational Design

  4. Team Development

  5. Technical Excellence

These elements are the primary drivers of behavior and, consequently, culture. By integrating strong leadership principles into these areas, companies can create a shared language and mindset that prioritizes action, embraces calculated risk, and aligns everyone towards common goals.

The challenge lies in consistently reinforcing these principles through hiring, performance evaluations, and decision-making processes. When done effectively, this approach can lead to remarkable alignment and efficiency, even in rapidly scaling organizations.

Remember, the goal isn't to replicate Amazon's specific practices, but to adapt the underlying mental models to your unique context. By doing so, you can foster a culture that drives innovation, agility, and sustainable growth.

About Ethan Evans

Ethan Evans is a retired Amazon Vice President and current executive coach, course creator, and writer. During his 15-year tenure at Amazon from 2005 to 2020, Ethan played a key role in developing and launching major products and services including Prime Video, Amazon Appstore, Prime Gaming (formerly Twitch Prime), and Twitch Commerce.

VHe led global teams of over 800 people and holds more than 70 patents. Prior to Amazon, Ethan spent 12 years in technical leadership roles at several East Coast startups. He was instrumental in shaping Amazon's leadership principles and culture, including advocating for the "Ownership" principle.

Since retiring from Amazon, Ethan has focused on helping others advance in their careers through executive coaching, online courses, and his "Level Up" newsletter. He specializes in career development, leadership skills, and helping professionals succeed in senior roles. Ethan is known for his candid career advice and insights drawn from his extensive experience in the tech industry. www.ethanevans.com


Sohrab Salimi (00:03.905) Oh, recording was already progress, perfect. All right, welcome everyone to our next episode of the Agile Insights Conversation. Today, I'm being joined by E...

Sohrab Salimi (00:03.905)
Oh, recording was already progress, perfect. All right, welcome everyone to our next episode
of the Agile Insights Conversation. Today, I'm being joined by Ethan Evans, who is, as far as
I know, not an author of a book yet, but he has created some amazing e-learning around
how to be a very effective leader within an organization. And contrary to the many interviews
that are run with authors of the books behind me, this will be a conversation that I lead with a
practitioner. So someone...
who has been in the trenches, who has done the work and can report from that. Now, Ethan,
welcome to the show. I'm so grateful that despite the two of us not knowing each other, you
agreed to do this interview with me. Thank you for being here.
Ethan Evans (00:48.846)
It's really my pleasure. I enjoy talking to people about what I do and sharing my coaching
approach. The book will come, it's in progress, but no set date yet.
Sohrab Salimi (01:00.781)
Yeah, probably we'll run another conversation once the book is out. Now, as most of the
people listening to these conversations don't know you yet, right? Would you mind giving us
a brief introduction about who you are, what your personal journey has been, and what you
currently do?
Ethan Evans (01:04.123)
Ethan Evans (01:21.986)
Sure. So my name is Ethan and I started as an engineer and then spent 12 years in
startups. So I actually worked all for small companies the first dozen years of my career.
Very quickly, I switched to management. The first company I was at had a vacuum in
management and I stepped into that role with no intention of being a professional manager.
It just, it was what was needed. And I found I loved it.
So I rose to the vice president level pretty quickly in a startup context. So in that context,
managing teams of 10 to 30. Then I was recruited by Amazon and I joined Amazon. My title
went downwards. I became a senior manager, but my scope went upwards. And so I spent
15 years at Amazon. The most well-known product I worked on was I was the first engineer
working on Prime Video.
which almost everyone knows. I spent 17 years, I'm sorry, 15 years at Amazon. I rose to vice
president there, leading teams of up to 800. And along the way I discovered that I really

loved helping people grow in their careers, mentoring others. So after 15 years at Amazon, I
realized I was in a position to leave Amazon and pursue whatever I wanted. I did and now...
I'm semi-retired. I teach, coach and write mostly on LinkedIn, uh, with a focus on helping
leaders take their careers to the next level and helping everyone find satisfaction in their jobs
because so many people don't like their work or feel frustrated with their work. And I feel like
that's a tragedy to spend a huge part of your life unhappy with a major part of your life. So.
I try to cure that.
Sohrab Salimi (03:20.545)
Yeah, I think that's a very valuable mission. I don't know to what extent you looked into my
background, but I initially studied medicine. So I'm a medical doctor by education. And then I
moved into this world of business just out of curiosity, also because I could not agree or
decide on which specialty I wanted to do. And then I fell, similar to you falling in love with
management, I fell in love with this world of business, but I always had the same feeling that
you just described.
it's so sad that so many people don't love what they do. And being a medical doctor, I also
know that this has incredible health costs, right? And those costs of course have been to be
taken on by society, but even on an individual level, people getting sick, people burning out,
all of that, that's not a nice thing. So I've dedicated my life to making workplaces more
enjoyable, more fun.
Ethan Evans (04:01.879)
Sohrab Salimi (04:18.909)
but also more productive because if we are productive, it's good for the individual, it's good
for the organization and the organizations can have a longer life and health span, which then
again results in a lot of benefits for the individual. So I think we share some common values,
which is great. Now, Ethan, thanks for that introduction. And some of these things I knew, I
didn't know that you spent so many years prior to joining Amazon.
Ethan Evans (04:48.846)
Sohrab Salimi (04:49.049)
at startups and you mentioned that you started out as an engineer and because there was a
vacuum in management, you took over that role and you loved it. What did you love about it?
What was it? Because for many engineers making that transition is difficult as they love
engineering so much.
Ethan Evans (05:10.275)
Yeah. So I always express it as I found solving human puzzles was more challenging and
satisfying than solving technical puzzles. I love technical puzzles. It's fun to make a piece of
code work. Um, but people aren't programmable. You can only influence them.

Sohrab Salimi (05:18.417)
That's a good one.
Ethan Evans (05:32.322)
And what made it fascinating is you get a human system working today, and tomorrow the
person comes to work and they've had an argument with their significant other or a sick child
or who knows what's happened in their life. And the same system that was working
yesterday is broken today. And so I found that fascinating. And how do I take these?
that aren't always the same every day and lose their motivation or get frustrated or can't talk
to each other, and how do I make a really strong team? How do I bring everyone together?
And the other thing of course is how do you improve the people? How do you show them a
path where, of course I have like a goal of I want you to be stronger on my team, but you
have to be a part of that goal. You have to want it too.
And so I found that whole process just endlessly fascinating. And that's kind of what I loved
about it. Yeah.
Sohrab Salimi (06:34.421)
I like the way that you phrase it, like a technical puzzle versus the human puzzle. And one
being controllable using the circles of control, the other one only being influenceable, which
is so true. I never thought about it this way, but it really is so true. And maybe that's also one
of the reasons. I mean, I always loved medicine because it was the application of all
sciences into one system, the human body.
Ethan Evans (06:39.007)
Ethan Evans (06:47.821)
Ethan Evans (07:02.41)
Sohrab Salimi (07:03.653)
And when I made the switch to consulting and then later mainly working with organizations
on how to redesign, I always come back to the medical analogy, right? Now I have this huge
system, which is made out of humans, not organs. And it is my job to figure out how I can
cure the diseases that this organization has, and it seems that you have found based on
your background, a similar path into the space of management and then coaching leaders to
more enjoyable places to work. Now, go ahead.
Ethan Evans (07:35.41)
I often think, by the way, that you can almost always apply the analogies from your base
education to leadership. So you're taking analogies to the human body and medical system
and applying them to organizations. And I did the same just viewing the organization as an

engineering system, not being overly cold or pedantic about it, but you view each person as
some sort of component.
and you view each goal as some sort of desired output. And there's an engineering analogy.
All analogies are imperfect, but they allow you to apply all the things you studied to the
problem you face. So when I coach leaders, I often find myself saying, okay, you're a
salesperson. This is how you would use what you know about sales to run an organization,
or you're a product person, or you're a lawyer. This is how what you already know gives you
Sohrab Salimi (08:17.481)
Ethan Evans (08:33.662)
a model for what it is you're trying to do.
Sohrab Salimi (08:37.317)
I think that's important, right? Building bridges to the known in order to face the unknown.
And that usually makes it easier for people to also then embark on that journey. Now, you
spent several years at startups, primarily in management positions, and then you make that
shift to Amazon. At what year? Maybe I didn't pay attention. I know you stayed there for 15
Ethan Evans (08:52.673)
Ethan Evans (09:00.274)
No, I didn't give a year. In 2005 is when I changed from startups, my last startup to Amazon.
Sohrab Salimi (09:04.019)
Peace out.
Sohrab Salimi (09:08.001)
Okay, so 2005, that was still long before Amazon was the behemoth that they are today, way
before that. Now, what did you find when you joined Amazon? What kind of a company was
it? Because there's so many stories around that company, around Jeff, around some of the
other leaders. I have working backwards behind me, many copies. I've spoken to Colin
Breyer several times. Now,
Ethan Evans (09:15.861)
Sohrab Salimi (09:34.865)
What did you find as someone joining that company at that point in time?
Ethan Evans (09:38.974)
Yeah, so, um, so many things to say there. Uh, first, the other author of working backwards
was one of my early managers. So I worked for bill Carr and I appear in that book, although

not in a very flattering light. Um, it was a big disaster of a demo that went terribly wrong early
in our career. Um, but, uh, what I found, I, I was very worried about joining Amazon.
Sohrab Salimi (09:49.021)
Ethan Evans (10:07.51)
because at that time it was only a retailer. And I worried, am I joining the IT department of a
bookstore? Like, is that the trade-off I'm making? You know, but the startup I was at was not
doing very well and Amazon was offering me a good salary and they had come out of the
dot-com bust, so they were fairly successful. And so I said, well,
let's go see. And it was meant to be a short term move. I was moving from a whole life on
the East Coast of the United States to Seattle. And so very far away from family and friends.
And I kind of had mine like two to four years and I'll move back. What I found was a
company that to my eyes was huge, but to the current scope of Amazon was tiny.
Amazon at that time was about 14,000 employees. And when I left, it was about 1.4 million.
So 100 times larger. So 14,000 though, the biggest company I had ever worked at was a
startup that I joined when it was about 140 people and it grew to be about 1,400. So this was
10 times as big as anything I'd ever seen. And I thought it was enormous. And so,
It was big, but I was very lucky. I joined the company not knowing what product I would work
on. I joined under, you know, like a secret deal where they're like, we need you to work on
something, but we can't tell you what it is. But here's a good offer. Will you come? And I
accepted blind and it turned out what I ended up building was Prime Video. So I spent my
first four years starting what has now become the massive Prime Video Empire.
And so I really lucked out to be super honest. I joined a company where Amazon web
services was being worked on, but wasn't public where the Amazon Kindle was being
worked on, but wasn't public. And of course, where prime video was being worked on and
wasn't public. And I got to be there through all of those sort of transformative reveals.
Sohrab Salimi (12:24.129)
So, I mean, all of those things, it was, you mentioned they were being worked on, but they
weren't public, but they also were far away from a sure bet. Right? I mean, we saw other
things that Amazon worked on and they didn't work out like the Fire Phone. Right? And
nobody could have known that either of the things that you mentioned would work out and
make it the company that it is today. Now, the scale that you mentioned.
Ethan Evans (12:34.92)
Oh, for sure.
Sohrab Salimi (12:51.229)
You joined when they were 14,000 people and when you left 1.4 million, so 100x, that's
huge, right? To go through that journey, I think very few people in their lives or maybe in all
of humanity will have had a similar experience in that sense other than fellow Amazonians

and maybe people at Apple or Google or some of these companies. So you join with that
team working on Prime Video.
Ethan Evans (13:00.62)
Sohrab Salimi (13:20.377)
At what point in your journey were the leadership principles developed? Because you joined
not as a VP, but as a senior manager, if I recall correctly. But those leadership principles
would also be relevant for someone in your position. At what point did they emerge?
Ethan Evans (13:29.054)
Yep, that's right.
Ethan Evans (13:38.198)
Yeah, it's a great question. So the leadership principles existed in a different form when I
arrived. When I first got there, there were three lists, not one. So there was like a list of core
values and a list of leadership principles and a third list. And shortly after I got there, they
became version two where they said three lists is dumb. Let's call them all leadership
principles and merge them.
They then went through later two more iterations. Today I would call what they are as
Generation Four in my mind. So I arrived at Generation One. I went to Generation Four and
during that time I actually helped write one of the leadership principles. So I'm very proud of
the fact six words, it's not a huge contribution, but six words in the ownership leadership
principle are directly from me.
which is kind of a fun because it's still influencing the million and a half people at Amazon.
So, you know, it might be the highest leverage six words of my life.
Sohrab Salimi (14:47.473)
The best LinkedIn post of your life. But I think it's impacting more than the one and a half
million people at Amazon today because so many other organizations look at those
leadership principles, take inspiration from them, discuss them. I mean, I use them in all of
my leadership courses that I teach, not as something to copy and paste, but as something
that provides clarity.
Ethan Evans (14:50.153)
Sohrab Salimi (15:15.081)
to every leader of what is expected. But then also, and I think this is the wonderful work that
Colin and Bill have done is to demonstrate what Amazon does in terms of structures, et
cetera, to ensure that people follow or live these leadership principles on a daily basis. And I
would be interested in not hearing from those two authors, but from someone who was there
from generation one to generation four, how did you...

experience the things that were done within the company to ensure that leaders like you
were living those leadership principles and keeping them alive.
Ethan Evans (15:57.29)
Yeah, so Amazon has a really great system. You know, all companies, if you dig deep
enough, have a poster somewhere that says what they believe. They've got some slogans.
The difference is Amazon made them real and they really had three ways to do that, I think.
The first way is it was part of how you interviewed. So when you interviewed somebody,
everyone was assigned one or two leadership principles to cover. So when you go to an
maybe if you and I are both interviewing the same person, you'll be assigned to assess their
bias for action and their ownership, and I will be assigned to assess their invent and simplify
and think big and so on. So it's a part of the hiring conversation, both for the interviewers and
for the candidate. Then it's a part of the evaluation conversation. So in the annual review,
you get feedback and that feedback is categorized along the lines of the leadership
principles. So how am I doing at Think Big? How am I doing at Be Right A Lot? Finally, it's
part of the promotion conversation. So every promotion document will discuss where is this
individual strong? Where do they still have opportunities to grow? And it will be categorized.
So this is what Amazon calls
using a mechanism that the only way to get large-scale adoption of something is to create
infrastructure and tooling and a systematic approach that ensures that it's used. And so by
baking the leadership principles into these three processes, which is hiring, evaluation, and
promotion, it ensured that they were widely used. Now the end result, and I'll speak a little bit
to engineers here,
is that these leadership principles became used like code snippets or like shorthand that you
would get from a design pattern, which means I could say, well, I'm worried about our bias
for action here. And that would convey an entire paragraph or several paragraphs of thought,
because the person I'm speaking to says, oh, bias for action, I know what that means here.
Ethan Evans (18:19.25)
are we showing enough of it? Or I could have a conversation of, I need you to own this
project. And own, of course, is an English word, but at Amazon, it's a loaded word with this
big context of ownership. And if someone says, okay, yes, I own it, you've had a whole
conversation without having to repeat it. And it sped things up because of that shared
understanding. Now, outside critics would say that's almost a cult, right? Where, because
working to these same principles, it reduces independent thought because you're speaking
in this sort of inside shorthand. I don't agree with that perspective, but I can see it where they
feel that the leadership principles are so deeply rooted that they're creating people that only
obey the principles that don't really think outside the principles.
We do talk about how the principles can be abused. They can either be overly simplified or
they can be weaponized. So when you weaponize a principle, you're essentially using it as a

club. And so a classic example there is we have the principle earn trust, which says if I'm
working with you and you're a peer leader, I'm supposed to work in such a way that I earn
your trust.
Ethan Evans (19:45.666)
that I build a relationship with you, that I'm reliable. Well, if you wanna try and weaponize
that and I'm not doing, I'm disagreeing with you or I'm saying I don't have time for something
because of good reasons, you can weaponize and say, well, you're not earning my trust right
now. And you can try and use it as like a bludgeon of you're supposed to do this thing and
you're not, and I'm gonna hit you with it. And so we had to train people to resist that and
understand like what's an appropriate use and what isn't.
Second, sometimes the leadership principles can be used in an overly simplified way. They
were meant to be applied thoughtfully. But if you take the leadership principle of frugality as
an example, so frugality says, don't waste money, use money only in a way that helps the
customer. We used to joke that people would do something we called frupidity, which is a
mashup of frugal and stupid. And obviously, the easiest way would be
And so, there are, you know, no system is perfect. The leadership principles are incredibly
powerful, but just because they're .. .
Ethan Evans (21:11.03)
well tested doesn't mean you can turn your brain off to use them, you still have to think.
Sohrab Salimi (21:16.337)
Yeah. No, I think, I mean, you provided just a lot of insights that despite looking at this
company for more than a decade, reading everything that's out there about it, talking to other
Amazonians, you provide a few insights that I hadn't heard before and I love that. Thank you
for that. But at the very beginning of what you just mentioned, you brought up the term cult,
right? And when I share the leadership principles at Amazon or one of the
in one of my Agile leadership courses. And I also share Tesla's anti-handbook handbook. I'm
not sure if you have come across that, probably you have. If not, it's a wonderful thing to
read. People always bring up, oh, both of these companies appear to be a cult. And I go and
say, yes, but that's a culture, right? That's a culture. You're very strong in that culture. And if
Ethan Evans (22:08.619)
Ha ha
Sohrab Salimi (22:16.517)
I've had the chance to work with some organizations that are older than 100 years old. One
of them is close, is over 400 years old. What do they have is a strong culture. And it doesn't
mean that you try to go into a certain direction and you don't want any diversity of thought,
etc. But you still want consistency with regards to certain principles. And I think the 14 now
16 leadership principles

laid that out really well, what is expected of a leader and yes, I think they can be overly
simplified, they can be weaponized as you pointed out very clearly, but it's a great thing to
have in order to create a strong culture within an organization. How do you look at that,
Ethan Evans (23:04.202)
Yeah, well, they're absolutely the core of the culture. And I like the fact that you point out that
like, cult and culture is kind of in the eye of the beholder, right? Cold is what we say when we
don't agree with the culture. And when we do, we call it a culture. Um, the
Ethan Evans (23:25.138)
I guess the thing that was great about this and it made it powerful for an organization is
people who didn't like the leadership principles left. And I'm not saying they should have, you
know, that it was great that they left, but it resulted in the remaining people being able to
work together very efficiently with tremendous shared understanding. And so it definitely
sped up the pace of work at the company. It's also true.
You know, you obviously have a great shelf of books back there. You've probably read Built
to Last. And one of the things in Built to Last, which is much more of a like last generation
management classic, is it pointed out how most companies that survive for the long term
have a very strong culture and that culture doesn't need to be one that everyone else agrees
with. They use the example.
Sohrab Salimi (24:00.646)
Ethan Evans (24:21.342)
of the tobacco company RJR Nabisco, and RJ Reynolds is the tobacco side. They've kind of
hidden their name on purpose because tobacco is, big tobacco is like a shunned industry.
But within that industry, they talk about how that company made clear to their employees
that we are a pro-smoking company. Like our business is smoking. And...
If you don't want to be a smoker or at least support smoking, you should leave. Now, I don't
like smoking and I don't believe that was a good culture, but the book takes you through how
by getting everyone that did stay on one page, they then created a company that was
successfully pro smoking. Now this shows that culture can maybe, if you think smoking is
evil, can be used for good or evil.
but I thought it was a great example of how culture could allow a company to hold together
over the long term, even in an adverse environment.
Sohrab Salimi (25:27.601)
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, there's this famous quote from Patrick Lensioni, or I had the
pleasure to work with him and his team at some point. He said, there's actually two things
you have to do as a leader. You need to get everyone in the same boat. That's one. You
need to make sure that they all row in the same direction. And ideally the same rhythm. And
what you just mentioned around the RGR example is all around alignment, right? A culture.

Ethan Evans (25:42.207)
Ethan Evans (25:45.943)
Sohrab Salimi (25:56.681)
can help us create the necessary alignment. So the examples you provided earlier, like earn
trust or own this thing, it makes communication more efficient because we are aligned in
terms of how we interpret certain words. And then of course, you can also create alignment
around the strategy of an organization, which then trickles down into day-to-day
decision-making and provides the foundation for more and more of these decisions being
which then Amazon refers to type two and the other ones type one decisions. If I'm informed
correctly, right. But this is the foundation. If you don't have that, you have to constantly
debate and discuss everything that you want teams to work on. And that of course is then
not that efficient. And if your competitor is aligned, they just pace behind you, beside you.
Ethan Evans (26:48.222)
Yeah, so in terms of speed, one of the things Amazon says that gets it accused of being a
cult a lot is one of the leadership principles is have backbone disagree and commit. And
what this says is if you disagree with someone or if you have a different idea, your first
responsibility is to stand up and raise that disagreement and in fact argue for it fight for it
stick to it, but.
once a sufficiently high level leader, and we can always debate what that is, makes a
decision, then whether you agree or not, get behind it and try to make it successful. And this
part is where the cult accusation comes in because employees are asked if you don't agree
with something, but a decision is made, get on board. So like a very current example of that
is return to office.
many, many employees at Amazon enjoyed working remotely and in fact have fought quite
hard to work remotely. But the CEO has made a decision and said, thank you for your input,
we've considered it, we're now going to work from the office. And it's very clear, either come
into the office or leave. And that is the message. And so what that results in is,
What definitely won't work is to have a work from the office message that's inconsistently
enforced and that everybody's kind of half adhering to. That's a complete mess. So even
though I happen to be on the side that says, I would be, if I were still working there, I would
object to that. I would say, I think they've gone too far in the direction of return to office. But I
completely understand that having made that decision,
They're now saying we're all going to do this together because what's definitely not going to
work is to have an ad hoc hypocritical, some people obey, some people don't. That
undermines the whole leadership team. So I completely understand where they're going.

Sohrab Salimi (28:56.547)
Sohrab Salimi (29:00.029)
Yeah. But you know, it's interesting. And I like the example that you brought up. When I read
this and when I got familiar with disagree and commit, I always thought to myself, of course,
why wouldn't it be any different? Why would it be any different? And then I explored this and
I remember that, I mean, all my life I've played team sports, football or in the American term
soccer, right? And later basketball. And if the coach...
Ethan Evans (29:24.958)
Sohrab Salimi (29:29.853)
calls a play. That's what you do. You can disagree with it and discuss during the huddle, but
once the coach calls the play or says the formation that you're going to spend the 90 minutes
football, that's what you do. You can't, and if you don't like that coach or if you don't like that
team, you leave the team, right? And I find it so hard that in many organizations, they or
many people
don't understand it, then when I meet those people, when I talk to them, I realize that many
of them never played team sports in their lives. And then I'm okay, so they didn't have the
experience that I have in that particular case, so it is something that they need a bit of
support in terms of learning. Have you made similar experiences, Ethan?
Ethan Evans (30:19.53)
Yeah, so I have, and I play team sports too. I play ice hockey. But the, I think where I was
going is that a lot of companies actually don't strongly have this concept and you see that the
CEO or some vice president or whoever makes a decision, but under them teams continue
to undermine each other. And they're like, well, that's what they're doing, but we're gonna do
what we want.
And it's just very hard. Look, I love freedom, okay? America is a country that's overly in love
with the idea of personal freedom. And I'm actually one of those people emotionally that's
like, oh, don't tell me what to do. I'm free, blah, blah. But at work, if we all exercise that, it's
just chaos. It's what we call herding cats or cats in a bag. It's not going to work because it is
a team.
And I think a huge, you know, again, people can pick on Amazon and say, oh, it's a cult, but
that cult is damned effective at getting things done. Now, sometimes that means we all drive
off the cliff together, I was part of the Fire Phone team. You know, at that time I had moved
on from Prime Video and I was working on our app store. And so I was responsible for
putting the app store on the phone and it's really interesting.
This is a story you'll probably like. I raised my disagreement with the Fire Phone several
times, including at a lunch. My skip level boss was Andy Jassy, who at that time, he's now
CEO, but he was CEO of Amazon Web Services at that time. And I was working on the Fire
Phone and it didn't, my team was telling me how bad of a product it was. And...

And I went to my boss, a man named Mike George, and I said, hey, I don't think this is a very
good product. Like, what do we do? I don't think it's very good. And he said, you know, I
don't think it's too good either, but we're gonna trust Jeff. Jeff thinks it's good. And I said, oh,
okay, trust Jeff. So then I was invited to lunch with Andy Jassy, who was Jeff's direct and
obviously his successor. And even then we could kind of see, like, who was gonna be the
Ethan Evans (32:43.03)
So I'm like, okay, I've got the number two guy. And I said, Andy, this thing doesn't seem to be
that good. I don't see that it's gonna work that well. What do we do? And Andy said, you
know, it doesn't seem that good to me either, but we're gonna trust Jeff. So this is where
disagree and commit failed. In that.
the decision that was made turned out to be wrong. But what didn't fail is the thing got built
and launched now. So if everyone had just been, if I'd have been like, wow, I disagree, I'm
not going to put any more effort into it. Then I would have crippled the phone and it would
have had no chance. So by all of us doing what we thought was right in terms of following
along with the direction,
the phone did ship. If I had just disagreed and been like, well, I'm gonna take my team and
like, deprioritize this, then it would have had no chance because it would have had like, say
a crappy app store because I would have not put enough effort into it. So that's a case of
both sides of the story. The key, and you understand this in a team sport sense, is you may
get beaten.
But if your team members don't even execute the play, they don't hold the formation if we
talk about soccer. And people are like, well, I'm a midfielder, but I'm moving up to striker on
my own initiative. And then it's a disaster. And as opposed to it being, well, we lost one nil,
that's sad. It's like, wow, you got blown out seven nil. How did that happen? Well, everybody
decided their own play. And that's a disaster.
Sohrab Salimi (34:40.605)
Ethan Evans (34:40.682)
So that's kind of the story of Fire Phone as a one nil loss.
Sohrab Salimi (34:45.765)
As a one in loss and as something, and I like that you emphasized it, you still had the
success in shipping, right? Building the product, getting everything together. And if I'm
informed correctly, many people that worked on the Fire Phone later worked on the Echo
devices, right? And having built the ability and the relationships and the teamwork to get
something of that scale out of the door, right?
Ethan Evans (34:54.631)
We got the product done.

Sohrab Salimi (35:14.653)
that's also part of the disagree and commit to the FireFone that then enables so many other
things. So in total, I don't believe there's anything out there that can help us to create sure
successes. Why? Because these successes depend on so many other things, including the
customer, right? Including the overall market. But having the ability to continuously ship
something, get people aligned on something, it's really powerful.
Now, being mindful of our time, Ethan, I don't want to talk all the time about Amazon. It's so
fascinating, but you left Amazon after 15 years. You went through this incredible journey,
100X the size of the organization. You also went through the ranks. You were a vice
president in the end, 800 people reporting basically into your organization or part of the
organization. And then you...
Ethan Evans (35:55.199)
I did.
Sohrab Salimi (36:12.321)
semi-retire, as you mentioned at the beginning, but decide to work with organizations and
probably mostly individual leaders, that's an assumption that I'm making, in order to help
them take their careers to the next level and build great organizations, places. I wanted to
ask you about the why, but you mentioned that why earlier on, that's your fundamental belief,
that's the passion that you have. Now what I would be interested in, what elements
of the Amazon, let's call it operating system, have you taken to other organizations, to other
leaders, and what have been the effects? You don't have to name the companies or the
people, right? I understand confidentiality, etc. But I would just be interested in a few more
stories of how these principles were applied in other places.
Ethan Evans (37:02.71)
Yeah, it's a great question. So naturally, many of the people I coach or that I teach are at the
other high tech companies. So they're going to be at the so-called Fang or Manga collection
of other high tech companies, but not all of them. I talk to people all over the world in all
kinds of companies. And I think from bringing Amazon culture,
What people are interested in from Amazon is how to scale because Amazon is scaled in a
way that even some of the other large companies haven't. If you take the example of me that
you cited, my first team was six people. When I was hired for the first year, I managed six
people, which was a big step down. I had been managing teams of 20 to 30, and now I'm
essentially a first line manager with six direct reports. But over time, I ended up with 800
which is a huge, was way out of my league and I had to learn all these new skills. I think.
Amazon, I bring the leadership principles to other people, but a lot of what I bring is the
mental model. How do you always think about scale? How do you always start with the
customer? How do you do as Bill Carr and Colin Breyer's book says, how do you work
backwards to come up with the right ideas? And how do you drive, drive for implementation?
If there was one, even though I contributed to the ownership leadership principle,

The one I probably applied the most was bias for action. I took a lot of gambles at Amazon.
And I had some, the thing is, those risk taking, they were calculated. And sometimes when
you make a calculation, you may say, well, this is 80% likely to work out. You may be right
that it's 80% likely. Still, sometimes you end up in the 20%.
Ethan Evans (39:03.658)
And so you're left with a problem or even a disaster where you're 20%, you have to accept
that. But Jeff taught speed matters in business. And so what I help others see is they're
probably better moving quickly and being right 80% of the time than trying to move
conservatively and be right all the time. And this is not how we're taught. If you think about
It's get perfect marks, that's the goal, right? Always get 90, 95, 98% as your marks or A's,
whatever system you're in. Amazon would say, meh, maybe get B's really quickly. Maybe the
right thing is get through four years of college with a B average in two years, and that will
actually get you further faster. And I think bringing that idea of it's okay to take risk and be
Because a lot of people are very afraid of risk, and frankly, a lot of managers punish failure.
And so how are you gonna work through that? How are you going to deal with having a
manager that can't see that moving quickly and being 80% right is a better idea?
Sohrab Salimi (40:21.549)
So I like to double down on this element of speed matters because most organizations that I
get to work with, when they bring us in and ask them, why are we here? Why do you need
our support? They're like, we want to be faster. And it's not about we want to type faster,
because that's you can take a typing course, right? We want to get products out faster,
shorten our time to markets, etc. And there's so many things you can do.
And of course, in addition, they also want to get the right product out faster, which is very
important. So not only drive, drive pace, but also the, the effectiveness of what you do. Now
you mentioned already a few things about the speed or that drive speed. One is being okay
with 80% instead of aiming for the a hundred percent. And we all understand the 80, 20
Pareto principle, et cetera. And I think it's, it applies in so many levels.
Ethan Evans (40:54.145)
Sohrab Salimi (41:17.453)
in the business world and in other places. One of the things that I have come across, and
this is a hypothesis that I have, and I want to challenge it with you, is that the speed of
decision-making fundamentally drives the speed of an organization's ability to create value
for customers. And yes, the willingness to fail in decision-making plays a role here, but I
believe also the decentralization.
managers being willing to let go so that their teams and individuals within those teams can
take decisions as they're closer to the customer, faster and in many cases better. What has

been your experience around this? Would you back this up? Would you say no, you're going
down the wrong path? I'm curious. I'm asking with a very open mind.
Ethan Evans (42:09.266)
So I would strongly agree with it. And I think at Amazon, I saw, I can cite a couple of clear
examples. Early in my career, when I was working on what became Prime Video, we were
approached with a partnership with TiVo, the DVR company. And TiVo said, we'd like to put
your new video service on our device, would you be willing? So we had a meeting internally
My vice president was there, but our senior vice president was there. And our senior vice
president said, I would not do this partnership. I would not pursue this partnership. It's not
that it's a bad partnership, but I think it's a distraction. Like we should focus on our own
product. And if you do this partnership, maybe it will work and maybe it won't, but you'll be
entangled with this other company. Well, I had done the work to realize it wasn't gonna take
a lot of effort to do this partnership and my beliefs differ.
So I said these very key words, and they're kind of words that you wonder about. They just
came out of my mouth spontaneously, and I said, well, you've told me I should take more
ownership of the product, and I believe in this. And so unless you order me not to, I'm going
to do this partnership. And he said, it's your decision. And that's the key, is he said, I wouldn't
do it, but it is your decision. Now, as it happened,
The partnership worked very well. It was easy. We did build it. We did ship it. But most
importantly, customers loved it. And then the press loved it. And what that did is it made all
the Smart TV manufacturers aware and they came beating a path through our door saying,
oh, we're Sony. Would you put your service on our Smart TV? And we're Samsung. So
bringing this full circle, I was a senior manager.
I had talked all the way up to my senior vice president and said, I'm gonna do this. And I later
got to see my promotion document to director. And the key line in it said, well, you know,
without Ethan, we wouldn't have had TiVo. Like that was, basically they said like, this guy
took this decision and was right. And that's our sign that he's a director level leader. So that's
one example of
Ethan Evans (44:34.19)
taking that risk, now it could have gone wrong. And I also tell stories about decisions I made
that went wrong. But we moved quickly, we got it done, we saw benefits. And I think there
are many such examples of leaders including Jeff, I was part of this very quickly, I was part
of another meeting where a different vice president wanted to purchase a company, a pretty
big decision. Now it wasn't a big company, it wasn't a lot of money.
And Jeff said, you know, I don't understand this. I don't think it's good strategy. I'm really not
sure about entering this segment, but you seem very sure. And the leader said, yes, I will
make this work. And I remember Jeff said, well, I think this leader's name was Greg. And he
said, I think we just saw Greg lay his badge down. Like, I'm gonna bet my employment on
the company on this decision.

And he said, I respect that. Like you want to place that bet. You understand the stakes. I will
buy this company with my money as Jeff Bezos. And you understand that if you don't make it
work, that may mean the end of your future here. Maybe we won't fire you, but you're never
going to get that kind of trust again. And the leader said, okay, I'm on board. Um, now we
can debate should the stakes be that high and should there be that implied threat?
I don't necessarily think that threat is wrong. It encourages you to really think, well, how
committed am I? Like I love the movie Hunt for Red October and in it Sean Connery has that
fake Russian voice where he says, well, when Cortez reached the new world, he burned his
ships and as a result, his men were well motivated. That's what happened there, right? Is
that leader understood that he was burning his ships?
And by buying this company, it was succeed or pay the price. As a result, he was well
Sohrab Salimi (46:38.133)
Yeah. And I think coming back to disagree and commit that you mentioned earlier, if you
disagree with someone, but you see how committed someone is, you also, it's much easier
for you to be committed with them.
Ethan Evans (46:56.382)
And I think that's key. Once I made that decision to ship with TiVo, everyone above helped
me. It wasn't like every two weeks, they're like, so Ethan, how's your bad decision on TiVo
going, right? That there wasn't this undermining and the same thing. Uh, the acquisition of
that company didn't go that well. Um, but it's not like the people above that VP.
were like, oh, you are in trouble. You know, they weren't like lurking there to pounce. And
instead they're like, hey, we all agreed. And that included Jeff agreeing to buy. And so at that
point, Jeff was on board as a cheerleader and that worked.
Sohrab Salimi (47:38.821)
network. So, Ethan, I think that's a very nice closing for our today's session. I hope it's not
the last time that I speak to you. At the latest when your book comes out, I'll come knocking
again. But what I take away, especially from the last piece, when I asked you like what do
you transfer to other organizations, it is the mental models, right? It is the understanding of
the scale of
Ethan Evans (47:47.02)
Ethan Evans (47:53.194)
Ha ha ha!
Sohrab Salimi (48:06.673)
the importance of customers, the bias. So many of the principles are also like mental
models, like bias for action, speed matters. And I believe this is something where so many
organizations can learn, not only from Amazon, but the reason I point to Amazon is, yes, I'm

talking to you, but it's also a very well-documented company, both with their leadership
principles being out there, but also with the book written by Bill and Colin.
It helps organizations deeply understand what this organization is all about. And then there
are people like you who bring in their experience as coaches to other leaders, to other
organizations to implement a lot of those things. So I want to use this opportunity to thank
you again. I will recommend everyone to follow you on LinkedIn because you post so much
valuable stuff out there and there's very little actually zero self-promotion. You always
provide value to people.
the customer obsession from your Amazonian times. And yeah, I hope I'll see you again at
some point. Thank you so much.
Ethan Evans (49:12.234)
Well, I have really enjoyed this conversation. I would be happy to return when there's more
you want to discuss because it's fun to talk with someone who has so many insights from the
other parts of the industry and yet is very familiar with Amazon. You've not only talked to me,
but other leaders there. It makes it easy to have a deep conversation. And you're right. I've
taken on as my life mission to really help people with their careers. It is true. I sell some
classes and things, but I try to do as much as I can
set of people because I think that's missing. And the one good thing about not working for
anybody else is I am free to share my candid opinion. For example, I disagree with
Amazon's return to office approach based on what I know. Now I'm not inside the company
to know what Andy knows. So I have to leave open that maybe he knows something and has
better reasoning than I do because he has better information. But I'm able to at least be
transparent and hold a no agenda discussion.
Sohrab Salimi (50:12.786)
Ethan Evans (50:12.906)
And I think that's what a lot of people really value is that I can talk without needing to worry
about my reputation. I often talk about the problems, totally different topic, but I will like talk
about the problems of male dominated leadership, right? I'm a white man with gray hair. I fit
completely the stereotype of some of the problems in leadership, but I can talk about that
I don't have to worry about like, well, what is HR going to say? I gave an interview about
being a, you know, a gray haired male leader. There's, there's no one second guessing me
except me.
Sohrab Salimi (50:51.417)
Yeah, that's the beauty of freedom. Coming back to that point that you made, everyone in
America wants to have this individual freedom. It's also beyond America. I also enjoy the
freedom that I have, but I know you have to run to your next meeting, Ethan. Thank you,
thank you, thank you so much. And I'll come back knocking on your door.

Ethan Evans (51:03.647)
I do.
Ethan Evans (51:08.482)
I look forward to it. This has really been a lot of fun. Thank you.
Sohrab Salimi (51:12.265)
Thank you. All right.