Amazon is famously proud of its Leadership Principles, but does the ongoing Studios scandal suggest they’re rather selective about when they apply them?
This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team and founder of ecommerceChris.com. ecommerceChris shows Amazon sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.
Recent news coverage and investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior has led to Amazon Studios and Roy Price, the studio’s head until he resigned three days ago. Two Weinstein Co. productions were in development with Amazon as recently as this week, and actress Rose McGowan publicly cited past complaints to Amazon Studios in regards to Weinstein.
As widely reported this week, Roy Price’s sexual harassment was originally reported by TV producer Isa Hackett in 2015 after an incident in San Diego. Amazon informed her of an investigation but did not inform her of the results. She did not receive an update, nor an apology, and as mentioned in the Bloomberg piece by Lucas Shaw and Spencer Soper, “Amazon hasn’t explained why it acted against Price now when Hackett first filed a complaint in 2015.”
The Wall Street Journal added: “Former Amazon employees said the only reprimand to Mr. Price was that he was told not to drink at company events anymore.” Amazon has not yet commented publicly on what other actions were taken in the aftermath of this event. Amazon has not presented any follow-up information on how management or executive behavior of this nature is evaluated, or monitored.
Much like Amazon’s recently canceled show, Z: The Beginning of Everything, it’s time to head back to the beginning, and review things from the top for potential improvements to Amazon’s management structure. I’ll take a look at one slice of how Amazon works internally, and see what lessons we can learn.
Chaos and Ugly Behaviors
Let’s dig into the recent chaos around Amazon Studios and the mushroom cloud concerning their now former Head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price. Already, some friction was swirling around Amazon Studios for lack of audiences and poor ratings performance.
At Amazon, bad performance should lead to poor performance reviews and managerial changes based on the demanding culture we all read about, right? Well, no, not always. It’s not the case on my former teams in TRMS (Transaction Risk Management Services), given the low quality work by performance and policy teams that my articles usually address. Now, we find this problem elsewhere in the company.
Clearly, what Laura Stevens of the WSJ referred to recently as Amazon’s “highly decentralized structure, with small, siloed teams” performing as “1000 different businesses” demonstrates the drawbacks to Amazon’s leadership principles. And what isn’t working on seller performance and policy enforcement teams now isn’t working in their entertainment divisions, indicating a more widespread problem that needs to be examined more thoroughly.
At Amazon Studios, not only did Roy Price continue to lead them into a low-rated wilderness, he’s also recently been accused of sexually harassing a TV producer, Isa Hackett. If that were not enough, Rose McGowan has accused Amazon Studios of ignoring her warnings months or even years ago about Harvey Weinstein’s past behavior, even to the point of tweeting Jeff Bezos directly. I haven’t seen Bezos reply to those, by the way, and I’m not sure we can expect him to. We’re all fortunate that Rose McGowan speaks out as often and as pointedly as she does, because otherwise, who knows how long some of these ugly behaviors would continue.
I come away from this topic with nothing but questions. Who’s minding the store? Who is watching Amazon Studios, or its studio head? How does Bezos manage his executives or assess their performance, AND their behavior? Are the leadership principles followed when it comes to protecting the workplace from rule-breakers and improper, unprofessional, or even lewd behavior? Did the investigation into Price’s behavior also land on Bezos’ desk?
We read a lot about Amazon’s “obsession” with customers, but dealings with the Harvey Weinsteins of the world means that consumers of Amazon’s original content may be watching product created by people they’d rather stay away from.
Amazon’s Leadership Principles
WSJ cited Amazon’s multiple leadership principles that guide employee behavior, focus and goals. Well, let’s talk about some employee behavior alongside its decentralized structure, for a moment. Stevens wrote of Amazon’s apparent need to split their enormous operations into two hubs, and the future need for executives to split up their time. This means, implicitly, less face-time with certain team subordinates. Will it also mean less oversight?
Let’s look at three core Amazon principles within the context of their Amazon Studios problems and consider what it might mean for other areas of the company.
Let’s start with customer obsession. When it comes to my former teams in Transaction Risk Management Services, the customer obsession directives were clear: protect buyers by ensuring a safe, effective, convenient marketplace.
But Amazon needs to obsess about how customers view their operations, too. Some stories about their workplace environment, or in this recent case, how the former Studios head behaved, may turn off even the most astute bargain hunters. Who decides who Amazon works with as partners? Who above them judges if those decisions were sound? I’d like to see Amazon proactively address these kinds of questions, to show their seriousness around these matters.
On a side note, is anyone watching these shows? All indications are that shows like Transparent win critical accolades but have poor viewership. At some point, Amazon Prime members need to like, or at least find interesting, the content provided by Amazon Studios when they have alternatives like Netflix to turn to. Netflix is beating their growth forecasts for a reason. People want to watch House of Cards a lot more than they want to watch Z for example, so a leadership change at the top of Amazon Studios was necessary regardless of bad behavior and harassment behind the scenes.
Now let’s talk about their “Ownership” principle. According to this one: “Leaders think long term, and don’t trade long term goals for short term payoffs. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team.”
It looks like it’s time for those monitoring executive performance and behavior to own the work of those who are tasked with charting success in a tough industry like entertainment. You’re only as good as the people you work with, to my way of thinking. If your partnerships get ugly, then that mud splatters on you, too. If leaders are owners, then Jeff Bezos needs to tackle this first hand, as Rose McGowan suggested.
Bias for Action
Let’s talk about a commonly quoted principle at Amazon, Bias for Action: “Speed matters [and] many decisions and actions are reversible [therefore they] do not require extensive study”.
In the WSJ story, Elaine Kwon, of Kwontified, a fellow former Amazonian, said: “Every team functions like an independent company. They’re all moving as quickly as they can because they’re given a lot of autonomy.” To this I say, maybe Amazon allows for a little too much autonomy, without scrutiny?
It’s time for Amazon to take faster action when it comes to executives or managers who are unable to move the needle in the direction of progress. People should not be measured only in terms of performance metrics. What about responsibility in the workplace, like making everyone feel that they’re evaluated on the merits of their contributions?
I don’t think there’s too much you’d want to leave out when it comes to reassuring your employees that you’re doing everything possible to hear their concerns, and you’re willing to act when sexual harassment occurs.
We’ve all heard stories from friends or colleagues from time to time, and in the case of Isla Hackett, apparently a firm was hired to conduct an investigation into Roy Price’s behavior. The results appear inconclusive, as Amazon only suspended him last week. Did Amazon take any action to prevent future breaches of workplace policy? Are executives held to a different standard than rank-and-file employees at Amazon? I certainly hope not.
Chris McCabe can be contacted via ecommerceChris.com.