Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, hates the recent New York Times article about his company. He says it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” Rather, it depicts “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He doesn’t think any company adopting such an approach could survive, much less thrive. Anyone working in such a company, he continues, “would be crazy to stay” and he counts himself among those likely departures.
The day after the Times’ article appeared, the front page of the paper carried a seemingly unrelated article, “Work Policies May Be Kinder, But Brutal Competition Isn’t.” It’s not about Amazon; it’s about the top ranks of the legal profession and the corporate world. Both are places where the Times’ version of Amazon’s culture is pervasive — and where such institutions survive and thrive.
The articles have two unstated but common themes: the impact of short-termism on working environments, and how a leader’s view of his company’s culture can diverge from the experience of those outside the leadership circle.
Short-termism: “Rank and Yank”
Bezos is hard-driving and demanding. According to the Times, his 1997 letter to shareholders boasted, “You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.”
The Times reports that Amazon weeds out employees on an annual basis: “[T]eam members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year.” Jack Welch pioneered such a “rank and yank” system at General Electric long ago and many companies followed his lead. Likewise, big law firms built associate attrition into their business models.
Theoretically, a “rank and yank” system produces a higher quality workforce. But in recent years, a new generation of business thinkers has challenged that premise. Even GE has abandoned Welch’s brainchild.
As currently applied, the system makes no sense to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Bob Sutton, who observed, “When you look at the evidence about stack ranking…. The kind of stuff that they were doing [at GE], which was essentially creating a bigger distribution between the haves and the have nots in their workforce, then firing 10% of them, it just amazed me.”
If Amazon uses that system, which focuses on annual short-term evaluations, it’s behind the times, not ahead of the curve.
Haves and Have Nots
Professor Sutton’s comment about creating a bigger gap between the haves and the have nots describes pervasive law firm trends as well. The trend could also explain why Bezos and the Times may both be correct in their contradictory assessments of Amazon’s culture. That’s because any negative cultural consequences of Bezos’ management style probably don’t seem real to him. Bezos is at the top; the view from below is a lot different.
This phenomenon of dramatically divergent perspectives certainly applies to most big law firms. As firms moved from lock-step to eat-what-you-kill partner compensation systems, the gap between those at the top and everyone else exploded. Often, the result has been a small group — a partnership within the partnership — that actually controls the institution.
Those leaders have figured out an easy way to maximize short-term partner profits for themselves: make the road to equity partner twice as difficult than it was for them. As big firm attorney-partner leverage ratios have doubled since 1985, today’s managers are pulling up the ladder on the next generation. It’s no surprise that those leaders view their firms favorably.
Their associates have a decidedly different impression of the work environment. Regular attrition began as a method of quality control. At many firms, it has morphed into something insidious. Leadership’s prime directive now is preserving partner profits, not securing the long-run health of the institution. Short-term leverage calculations — not the quality of a young attorney’s lawyering — govern the determination of whether there is “room” for potential new entrants.
About the Long-Run
Such short-term thinking weakens the institutions that pursue it. As Professor Sutton observes: “We looked at every peer reviewed study we could find, and in every one when there was a bigger difference between the pay at of the people at the bottom and the top there was worse performance.”
That’s understandable. After all, workers behave according to signals that leadership sends down the food chain. Dissent is not a cherished value. Resulting self-censorship means the king and the members of his court hear only what they want to hear. People inside the organization who want to advance become cheerleaders who suppress bad news. Being a team player is the ultimate compliment and the likeliest path to promotion.
One More Thing
Bezos’ letter to his employees about the Times article encourages anyone who knows of any stories “like those reported…to escalate to HR.” He says that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon in the article and “very much hopes you don’t, either.”
One former employee frames Bezos’ unstated conundrum correctly: “How do you possibly convey to your manager the intolerable nature of your working conditions when your manager is the one telling you, point blank, that the impossible hours are simply what’s expected?”
Note to Jeff B: Escalating to HR won’t eliminate embedded cultural attitudes.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong about all of this. On the same day the Times published its piece on the increasingly harsh law firm business model, the Wall Street Journal ran Harvard Law School Professor Mark J. Roe’s op-ed: “The Imaginary Problem of Corporate Short-Termism.”
It’s all imaginary. That should come as a relief to those working inside law firms and businesses that focus myopically on near-term results without regard to the toll it is taking on the young people who comprise our collective future.