Wakes and ripples continue to emit from the New York Times article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, and some of those ripples came my way, rocking me this way and that, pondering thus and so.
I began my career with, what was then called, a “Big 8” public accounting firm. It was 1989 and the “old boy’s club” manners were dying out and new hires were trying to decide for themselves which side of history they wanted to be on, as they determined how loud to laugh when a legendary, grey-haired partner told an off-color joke about women or whether to join a lunch time meeting with a long standing client at the local strip club.
As I gained experience and times changed, I have been lulled into thinking more progress has been made than might be so. Perhaps each generation can only go through the process of finding a place to match their ambitions, challenge their intellect, and decide for themselves how much they are willing to bargain for, in order to, hopefully, figure out what they seemingly want.
I began in an era where there were still leaders who sent me for coffee because I was the only woman on the team. I also remember the feeling of shock at being asked to leave a board meeting, even after I had been invited by the CFO. (I admired that CFO for his truth telling after this incident, admitting the reasons were both because of my sex and age.) I am thankful I was on the right side of this history, and as young leaders began to rise and old leaders felt their time had come or their missteps caused too much risk, I began to have experiences where my knowledge, skills and abilities, as they say, were championed and promoted.
After letting the article ruminate a bit, the emotions that stayed with me were primarily ones of sadness and guilt. Sadness for the slow pace of change at a highly respected, top performing company and guilt for the connivance of my consumer ways that seem to be driving the culture and choices of those building our new world.
While it’s great to see that women are hired for their unique talents at Amazon, it felt as though they were being invited aboard the cruise ship “success-at-all-costs” which doesn’t allow for the mere mention of families, illnesses, or any expression of female strengths, i.e. nurturing, collaboration, rendering women, or men who express feminine characteristics, to be data driven back to port.
As I sit here today, raising a born-digital daughter, I was saddened to see there was much I recognized in the workplace the article described: 80 hour work weeks- check, relentless culling of employees – check, belittling new ideas – check, albeit, there seems to have been progress made since the belittling is now happening without disguise.
Now, while I’m proud to call myself a feminist and I “leaned in” at the tables I was invited to, the children’s story that resonated the loudest in support of my thoughts is a story about beauty, attention, love and marriage. I hope you’ll allow me a bit of latitude to use this gorgeous story, written and illustrated by Evaline Ness, as my way of making sense.
Evaline Ness, an American artist who illustrated over 30 children’s books, passed away in 1986, around the same time I entered the workforce. Her 1970 book titled, “The Girl and the Goatherd Or This and That and Thus and So” came to mind as I thought about today’s workplace and wondered…
The story opens with a girl. A very ugly girl. A girl who could think of nought else except to be beautiful. Now, before getting into the story too far, I’d like to assign the part of “the girl” to Amazon. For, with their values worn so unabashedly and proudly, they could think of nought else except to be great.
Now, even though the girl got uglier as she got older, one man, a goatherd, looked at her and asked her for her hand. The part of “the goatherd” I will assign to “a leader”.
As the girl sat a-moping a witch appeared. The witch makes a bargain, “I’ll make you the most beautiful of all if you do as I bid.” The girl asks, “Ooooooo?” “Yes,” said the witch. The witch then gives her an impossible demand, to roof her house with oak saplings, by dawn.
Now, there is one last part to assign, the witch. I shall assign the part of “the witch” to be “a customer”. Yes, me. Dare I say, us? Aren’t we the ones with these demands? – Find me an Elsa doll, even though not one vendor in all of New York City can do it, Amazon, you must! “Do you want to be great, Amazon?” I ask in my consumer witch form, “I will make you great, but these are my demands!”
Back to the story…Well now, the only place to find the oak saplings was on top of the highest hill. The girl went up and down, up and down, until she floundered and come midnight, she still didn’t have enough saplings, so she stood and boo-hooed. The NYT article similarly mentioned a lot of boo-hooing at Amazon in order to meet consumer demands, and by dawn!
Then, along came the goatherd. The goatherd liked the girl’s looks the way they be, telling her, “don’t fret yourself, I’ll help you.” For you see, there is much to like about the girl (Amazon), even if she seeks beauty without paying mind to those helping her get there. For once she accomplished the witch’s (consumer’s) demands, with the help of the goatherd (a leader), she was all smiles and hardly a thank-you.
Now, you can ask yourself, would a leader help the girl? Why would a leader help someone achieve an unhealthy vision? Upon first glance, the goatherd can be seen as a simpleton, an enabler solely focused on his own goal, marriage, but my experience tells me leadership is not so simple, not so black and white. While he has his own goals, he decides to help the girl, without asking for anything in return, for now.
Well, as you might guess, the witch made her better to look at than before, but beautiful she was still not. You see, customer demands are never fully met, each iteration will bring about a new demand, stating we need this and that, done thus and so…
The witch goes on to demand a hundred yards of cobwebs for curtains so the girl will realize more beauty, and then steal a thousand birds’ eggs, and only then, will she be the most beautiful girl of all. Each time, with a moment of boo-hooing and then help from the goatherd, who liked her the way she be, all of the witch’s demands were met.
As the girl “hummed and fluttered and twittered and wiggled, she was that a-gog to be the most beautiful of all.” And, sure enough, Amazon has gotten its wish, to be the greatest retailer of all! How glorious to achieve what one wishes, to have set your sights on something so grand. To have followed your 14 leadership principals to greatness!
Most grand of all most grand of all most grand of all most grant of all most grand of all most grand of all most grand of all
The news of their greatness flew around the land and they were showered with gems and treasures in the form of rising stock prices and knights and lords and princes and kings came from far and wide in the form of the best and the brightest workers, lining up at their doors. But not one spoke to her or touched her or even smiled on her. They thought, you know, she was more gold than girl. Ness creates this amazing two-page spread of the beautiful girl being looked upon by all of her admirers, just the way Amazon must feel.
And this is where my Amazon comparison ends, for we do not know what the very next thing will be for Amazon as we do for the girl. For she began to snuffle and sigh once again, even more so than before, realizing, “To be the most beautiful of all’s not the first and last to be happy. I’d sooner be ugly.”
Then the goatherd, once again, agreed to help the girl, but this time only if she would stop her nattering and marry him. The girl agreed, and with this and that and thus and so, betwixt them together they worked the night through.
Leaders, at all levels, know there is much to like about Amazon, but would you continue to want their hand or would you search elsewhere after giving so much? For now I wonder whether Amazon, in light of all the gawking at their greatness, will realize they are more gold than girl and decide to stop meeting the demands of consumers at all costs, and listen to their goatherds, to those who have helped them, to those who are kind and have worked hard, and to realize seeking ones goals at all costs is not the first and last to be happy. The article spoke of many a goatherd, who simply got tired of helping, tired of hostile language, tired of not being thanked and went away, to find another, not worrying about being the first or the last.
The leaders I have admired over the years, some of which I’m afraid don’t get much attention or thanks in our culture, are the ones who quietly take action, persevere, listen, act, compromise and ultimately know when and for what to ask, both of themselves and of those around them.
For now, I wonder whether I can change my witch ways, reigning in my own demands for timely products and services, thinking twice about whether I really need another Eveline Ness book by tomorrow morning. Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t. With this and that and thus and so, only time will tell how much we change.