Create Moments of Zen

Life is busy. Especially these days. We’re still in a pandemic but are already starting to plan for the time when we get out. Due to that, there are still a lot of moving parts. There are still a lot of things that change under our feet (and probably will be for quite a while), and it takes deliberation and effort to keep our balance despite the changes.

However, changes are always opportunities as well, and how we will perceive and utilize changes depends 100% on our state of mind. Do we feel chased day by day, reacting to what’s going on, or are we taking a proactive stance to plan for what matters while also anticipating coming changes and readying our minds for them?

It is often recommended to start meditating to foster that open, attentive, flexible, but calm mindset that lets us recognize and embrace change and challenges as opportunities. I agree that meditation is one great way to clear our minds and get them focused on what matters.

However, there is more that can be done. I like to think about it more broadly as creating moments of Zen in your daily and weekly rhythms. Create predictable and stable islands in a sea of change. Those predictable routines and times for yourself will give you stability and direction. The best time to do that is right at the start of your day before things get busy.

Create moments of Zen, create moments of clarity at the beginning of your day and week.

How you start the day and week sets the tone for the remainder of that period. Have a rough start, and you will have a hard time recovering from it. Be in control when you start, and you have a much higher chance to remain in control.

There are many different ways to get off to a good start. You need to find what works best for you and what gives you that moment of Zen and clarity of mind for a terrific start into the day. Here are some ideas I heard from co-workers over the years:

Opening the day with a calm mind

  • Get up early and tidy up your house (no, that’s not me)
  • Get up early and tidy up your inbox and calendar
  • Set your priorities for the day or week; don’t pick more than three – only one is even better
  • Go for a walk or workout
  • Sit in front of the fireplace and reflect on the coming day (my current favorite)
  • Start with a meditation or a prayer
  • Have a relaxed breakfast with loved ones

Closing out a day so you won’t worry about it through the night or weekend

  • Shut down your computer and silence your cell phone
  • Go for a run or workout
  • Enjoy nature to get out of the ‘office’ frame of mind
  • Close your day by reflecting on what you’re thankful for, count your blessings
  • Plan out the week ahead on Fridays
  • Get down to inbox zero on Fridays
  • Organize your upcoming meetings for the next day or week and resolve any conflicts that you might worry about
  • Before you go into the weekend, have all open actions either scheduled for a specific time next week or consciously deprioritized

Plan proactively and be in control, don’t react tactically like a leaf in the storm!


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

New book: Thriving in High-Pressure Environments

It’s done! Our new book just published!

Our third book goes deeper into business and leadership principles.

We discuss the mindset and approaches that make high-performing individuals stand out, be successful in the face of challenges, and ultimately enable them to inspire and lead others in high-stakes and high-pressure environments.

The chapters in this book explain the most effective strategies and principles we learned over the years. They were introduced and refined at Microsoft and Amazon and then put to the test while leading a high-speed organizational transformation during the global COVID pandemic.

Taught by the best – forged by fire.

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN: 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

More about the book

In April 2020, our family moved to Bozeman, MT, where I took on a new role as Managing Director Strategic IT at Montana State University. From my first day on the job, the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic forced us to think on our toes, constantly change our strategies and tactics, and always be ready for surprises.

Applying my learnings from high-stake, high-pressure roles in Amazon allowed me to help transform the organization and culture while rebuilding team morale and keeping motivation high. During the pandemic, my team delivered high-impact outcomes at an unprecedented velocity and volume. We were rewriting every process in the book while running at top speed, keeping up with ever-changing demands and constraints to serve our customers during those challenging times.

The world population lived through challenging, demanding, and emotionally taxing times in the year 2020. Times like that make you break or come out stronger on the other side. I tried to help my team come out stronger by sharing my learnings from the decades with Microsoft and Amazon in what I called ‘weekly reflections’. Most often, those reflections discussed approaches and thought models to deal with specific issues that I observed during that week.

A different set of challenges presented themselves when Uli took over a role as Site Manager for the Montana State University COVID Testing Center and later their COVID vaccination program. Some of my thoughts and lessons were inspired by those challenges.

This book summarizes the lessons, approaches, and principles that I shared with my team as we all did our best to deliver exceptional service to our customers in circumstances that no one was prepared for.

I hope that some of the strategies and principles will work for you as beautifully as they did for me. I hope they will help you thrive in challenging situations and help you get one step closer to your dreams.

Recommendations

“This common-sense approach to discussing what has been learned is easily understandable and was readily adapted to a variety of challenging situations that we as business people experienced in the recent past. It also provides a structured guide to apply those same “learnings” as we move through future weeks, months, and years.

If you seek theory, you will be disappointed. If you pursue reality and the associated efforts of discovering new and creative ways to resolve issues, you will be very satisfied. A concept that I encourage and attempt to adhere to myself is “change, assess, and then change again”. This book will provide the foundation for taking action, assessing, learning, and taking action again.”

Michael Trotter
Vice President and CIO, Montana State University

About the authors

Alfons worked at Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and Amazon in Executive and Senior leadership roles for the last 25+ years. He currently serves as Managing Director Strategic IT at Montana State University.

Uli practiced as an MD in Germany. When she moved to the US, Uli became a Tai Chi, mindfulness, and art teacher. To help through the pandemic, Uli stepped up to lead the Montana State University COVID Testing Center as well as their vaccination program.

To lead means to ask good questions

I had several discussions this week about dealing with conflict situations or getting someone on board with a plan. It’s funny how similar leadership issues seem to cluster at certain times. Those discussions all ended up in exploring the importance and power of asking questions. So let’s dive a little into why asking questions is so critical and so powerful for us as leaders – and we all are leaders! We lead projects, we lead (virtual) teams, we lead families, we lead partnerships, and many more…

As a leader, asking good questions that guide deeper understanding is a critical skill. Of course, it needs to be paired with the patience and desire to ‘listen to understand’ (instead of listening to identify an opening where we can jump in with our own monologue). You don’t ask questions to show off – you ask questions to understand.

As a matter of fact, what usually marks the transition from a manager to a leader is the change in how they interact with their direct reports, peers, and bosses:

A manager gives direction; a leader asks questions and guides understanding.
A manager (thinks he) has all the answers; a leader knows what questions need to be asked.
A manager is the superstar; a leader develops everyone around her into superstars.

There are many benefits in asking guiding and insight-seeking questions instead of rambling about your opinions. Here are the three most important ones:

I. You broaden your understanding (Decision making)

Let’s start with the hard truth: You don’t know everything!

You may be as smart as they come – you still just can’t know everything. You won’t know all the details, you will miss the specific context, and you don’t have the specific perspective that others bring in based on their personal experience and background.

As a leader, your job is to make good decisions. So ask questions and LISTEN! Gather as much diverse data as you possibly can. Listen to what you hear, then think about the next good question to ask. Don’t try to shine as a superbrain by asking tough questions – listen, digest, and then ask for what additional information and perspective is needed.

Your goal is to gather diverse data that challenge your opinions and biases. Ask the right questions to gather that data and listen to what you are given back in return. A good answer is a gift that you should cherish!

At some point, it will be you who needs to make the call – try to gather as much unbiased information as you can before you take that step. However, once you do, it’s your call – allow for new information as you go along, but  don’t allow second-guessing of your decision based on the existing information.

II. You encourage thinking (Coaching)

By asking questions, you guide critical thinking. You point out areas that might need further investigation or reflection, or you draw out important additional information and insights that weren’t shared yet.

By doing so, you walk your partner through your thought models. You help them think about their own opinions from a different angle and more holistically. You help improve their thinking and decision making, leading to better plans and strategies.

Best of all, if you only communicate your grand plan, you will not teach your partner anything. They get a black-box solution and won’t understand what led to that solution. If you lead them to the rigth solution with your questions, you share your thought process and let them experience and practice it on a concrete example. Instead of giving an answer, you have taught a thought model. You showed how to fish, instead of just handing over the fish.

III. You are in control of the flow (Negotiating)

While the first two scenarios and reasons for being the one who asks the questions are more focused on finding a solution, this last one is more about being effective when you have a plan and just need to get it done against resistance.

Our typical reaction when we run into resistance is to defend our plan and thinking. The more resistance we encounter, the wordier we get. We get into the defense and dig a deeper and deeper hole for ourselves. As we are trying to explain our position, we are always a step behind – it’s easy for the other person to just question our opinion and keep us on our toes, explaining and defending until we doubt ourselves.

Asking good questions instead allows us to get out of the defensive position and take control of the flow of the discussion.

Instead of saying “…but I really believe that we should do X, as I said, we have looked at all the data…”, start asking, “Well, I would like to understand better why you think this won’t work. Can you walk me through the challenges you see and how you think we could overcome those challenges.”

Asking good questions and genuinely listening to what you hear are some of the most powerful tools to make you more effective and a better leader and collaborator. Practice and sharpen those tools whenever you can!

And here’s a quote from Jack Welch in closing:

When you are an individual contributor, you try to have all the answers. When you are a leader, your job is to have all the questions.” – Jack Welch

PS to the quote above: I actually don’t think YOU have to have all the questions. Your job is to make sure all the right questions get asked – no matter whether they come from you or from your teammates. You foster those questions. You don’t have to provide all of them.

More great quotes on the importance of leading with questions: https://leadingwithquestions.com/latest-news/my-top-ten-favorite-leading-with-questions-quotes/


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

A path to continuous process improvement

Every process can be improved! Every process!

It does take energy and time to inspect a process. You might need to overcome inertia (“that’s how we do it”). But it will pay off in the long run!!

It’s important to remind ourselves that process improvement is not a one-time thing; instead, it requires continuous reflection and ongoing critical assessment.

There are many different models, frameworks, and visualizations on process improvement. You can even earn martial-arts-themed belts in some (loving and practicing martial arts myself, I always found that silly, but that’s just me). The key point for all of them is never to stop critically looking at your processes and systems and to ask yourself how you can improve them constantly. What can you do to make the experience better for your customers? How can you simplify the workflow to make it easier for yourself? How can you make the overall system more efficient to reduce total operational costs?

If you want to get started on simplifying your processes, I would (strongly) recommend doing the following:

  1. Start with documentation! – You don’t need to make this a scary huge project that you hope to never get to. Instead, just write down what you do, as you do it. Often you will have something to copy from to further lower the barrier – an email that you sent to the team, meeting notes, a brainstorming document, or your own mindmap. Take that content as the starting point for your documentation. Bonus points if you put your documentation somewhere, where people can find it. Simple documentation beats no documentation every single time!
  2. Audit and reflect critically – Look at what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Ask yourself if all steps are necessary, or if some of them could be changed and simplified. Ask yourself if the customer experience is the greatest it could be. Think of customers as everyone that interacts with the process – true customers, your partners, and supporting resources. Step back and remove yourself from the process and your emotional attachment to it and take a hard look at what doesn’t make sense. Ask your customers what they think you should do differently, ask them what they like and don’t like about the process. In agile, we call this “doing a retro”.
  3. Tweak and test – Try a new process improvement and see how it works. Is it better than what you had before? If so, keep it and keep going. If not, revert back. Try lots of different things and observe how they fare in comparison. Make small tests before you make a big change for everyone. Keep what works, discard what doesn’t. If you want to be fancy and show off, call it “experimentation”.
  4. Update your documentation – Don’t forget this step! In step 1), you spent the time and energy to document what you had before. As you make changes to your SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), also update your documentation to keep it fresh. Few things suck more than out of date documentation.
  5. Simplicity drives adoption – And here is my master rule for all processes: Keep it simple! The simpler, the better. The simpler, the more likely it is that your process will get adopted and followed consistently over time.

Things can always be improved. We might not have gotten it perfectly right the first time, circumstances might have changed (e.g. resourcing constraints), capabilities might have changed (e.g. technology advancements), or certain aspects of what you did before might just not be necessary anymore.

Everything can be improved. I’ve yet to encounter a perfect process or system. Take the time to reflect on what processes you can improve or help to be improved!


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Do you know your core values?

We had an IT Community Senior Leadership Team retreat this week during which we attended a workshop on the ‘New World of Work’. The discussions reminded me, among other things, of the importance of knowing your personal core values, the alignment of shared values in a team, and the power of working off those shared values.

Personal values have always been a huge guiding principle for me, and I make most of my big decisions relative to alignment with those values. While that usually happens subconsciously, the training reminded me to check in on my values again deliberately.

Do you know your core values?

Our core values – whether we are aware of them or not – define how we think and guide our decisions. They also have a significant impact on whether we’re happy and satisfied or not. Core values made me seek new jobs and leave existing ones. They made me push for extensive life changes. Whenever my situation aligned with my core values, I was happy and felt accomplished. When I had made choices for other reasons (e.g., money), I usually was frustrated and often times felt miserable after a short time.

As I said, I was curious and revisited my values to see if they had changed. They didn’t.

Here are the core values I hold dear and close to my heart:

  • Family
  • Integrity
  • Autonomy

I would encourage you to reflect on your core values as well if you haven’t done so lately. Share them with your coworkers if you feel like doing so, or keep them as your own personal guiding star.

Getting down to three core values is much harder than you would think. Most people can easily brainstorm their 10-15 most important values, but how do you pick the three that matter most (and if you’re like me, you cannot really consistently memorize or handle any list that is larger than three entries)?

Here are two ways to explore your three core values:

  1. Write down your 10-15 values on flip cards – one core value per card. Then give away three of them. Then another three. Then two more. Keep going until you’re down to the remaining three that you would fight for really hard. You will see that it gets really painful as you get closer to the three. There are values that you really like, they’re just not your top three, and you have to give them away.
  2. Use an app to guide (i.e., force) you through the process. On the iPhone, I found this free app that does a pretty good job: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/valuescardsort/id1510029675. What I like about the app is that it’s easy, quick, and intuitive. What I liked less is that you are limited to the values the programmer put into it.

Go explore or revisit your core values!

If you’re interested, here are the values that the app came back for me. Mostly the same; I think the difference is semantics. Pick whatever way of exploration you like best.

  • Self-care
  • Trust
  • Honesty
  • Authenticity
  • Independence

Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Meeting effectiveness and efficiency

We all spend a LOT of time in meetings. That time is important and valuable, as meetings help us to discuss topics, get different opinions, resolve issues, and decide on actions. However, those meetings can also waste a lot of time.

So how do we make meetings more effective? Here are some things that I learned over time – 8 quick checks for your next meeting:

  • Shorter is better – Humans have a tendency to always fill the available time (I think it’s a yet undiscovered law of physics). If you have 2 hours for a task, you will need two hours. If you have only 30 mins, you will focus on what’s most important and be done after those 30 mins. Likewise, if you have 1 hour for a meeting, you will fill that time. Think about what the absolute required minimum duration for a meeting is and then schedule for that time. That will force you and everyone else to stay on topic and move forward.
  • Have an agenda! – If you don’t chart out the way, you will not reach your destination. Share a meeting agenda ahead of time to set proper expectations and get the results out of your meeting that you need. In a previous team, we had a rule to not join a meeting if it didn’t have a clear agenda and purpose.
  • Define desired outcomes and manage towards those outcomes – If you don’t say what you need from the meeting, you might be surprised by what you will get. In tandem with the agenda, also define what the desired outcomes are (e.g. “In this meeting we will agree on the proposed project plan and develop a complete list of necessary changes to that plan. After the meeting, execution against that plan will start.”). If you define clearly what you want to achieve, attendees will be more focused on helping you to get there. It will also give you a way to redirect discussions if they get derailed (and they always will).
  • Recognize sidetracks and get back on track – Every meeting goes sideways at some point. Identify discussions that are not critical to the agenda and your desired and stated meeting outcomes, suggest to move them offline, and politely redirect the group back to the actual agenda. Something that can be quickly solved in the room (2 mins or less) is ok; everything else should be dealt with offline.
  • Know who should be there (and who shouldn’t) – It’s easy to invite anyone who could be even remotely interested. That is also very expensive and doesn’t really add to your credibility as a thoughtful leader. Decide who really should be in the meeting to make the desired progress. Send meeting notes to everyone else.
  • Engage people by asking them directly for input – Many people join meetings, make up their own thoughts, but stay quiet. This is particularly pronounced in virtual meetings and the worst for attendees who join only on audio. It’s so easy to multitask, or just hide away. Ask people specifically for their opinions. Ask them by name. This is important if you need a decision, but it is also a critical tool to ensure that more introvert communicators are not drowned out in meetings – their thoughts and opinions are just as important but often harder to get.
  • Drive for decisions – Be sure to get the outcomes you desired from the meeting. Drive for decisions, ask people by name for their sign-off or explicit disagreement. A little tip / dirty trick: how you phrase the question matters. “Are you all ok with this?” leaves ambiguity and wiggle room. You will never know for sure that you have full buy-in or a defendable group decision. “So in summary, the decision of this meeting is X, unless anyone voices any objections now.” removes ambiguity, and forces people to voice any concerns right now. They cannot say “I didn’t know or agree” later. Everyone needs to be clear that now is the time to voice concerns or rest their peace forever. This is not about forcing a specific outcome; it is about eliminating decision avoidance.
  • Write the meeting notes – Everyone will have a slightly different opinion of what was discussed and decided in the meeting. And as time passes by and memory fades, those gaps will just widen. Write down all decisions to have them documented and make them stick. Plus, who writes the meeting notes controls the decisions to a large part. Bonus points if you take the notes in the meeting and share your screen so that everyone sees them and has an opportunity to jump in right away if they disagree.

Inefficient meetings have been one of my pet peeves for a long time (being a true introvert, I hate long meetings without clear purpose and tangible forward progress). Following the above rules can make all your meetings substantially better.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

The Third Way

As some of you know, in my personal life, I have been passionate about martial arts for a long time (some 30 years by now). Studying those ancient arts taught me many valuable lessons over the years. One that I was reminded of just this week is the idea of “The third way” in Tai Chi.

In my earlier times of practicing the arts, my responses were limited to one of two categories: retreat or attack; submission or domination. Tai Chi teaches that in most cases, neither is the best solution, and one should rather look for a third way. You don’t surrender, and you don’t oppose; you find a way to embrace the energy and momentum and direct it in a direction that you deem valuable.

So how does this apply to work, and why am I writing about it here?

Well, very often, we are asked to add things to our already full plates or are confronted with situations that we don’t like or that even upset us. We usually respond either by saying ‘yes’ right away and then silently grumbling about yet another thing or by saying ‘no’ without further regard of the importance of the request.

Unless something is easy to do anyway (in which case we should just do it), or completely out of scope and unreasonable (in which case we should clarify why that is the case), it is usually worth to take a pause and to think about possible third ways. Ask yourself a few questions like:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Is there a simpler way to get there?
  • Who is best positioned to achieve those outcomes?
  • Who can we tap into for support?
  • How can the requestor help to make the work more efficient or simpler?
  • What aspects of the ask are hard requirements, and which ones are more flexible?

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – take the time to work with the person who asked you to do something to gain a good understanding of the best way to achieve what they need to accomplish.

A recent reporting automation project that my team supports is one example of this. We could just take all requests for new reports, say ‘yes’, and hire more people to fulfill them. We could also cap the number of reports and headcount we are willing to fund and say ‘no’ after that. Or we can think about better ways to deliver what our customers want and need (i.e. good data to gain insights) – for example: where can we simplify (standard reports), or how can we enlist the requestor’s help (self-service dashboards).

Ask questions to understand. Ask questions to find the best solution. Ask questions to lead.

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, insist on finding the best solution for everyone.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Public by default! 

It took me a few years, but I converted into a big fan of “public by default”. The term was originally coined by Google (I think) and became famous as one of the best practices in their company culture.

Many of us grew up in need-to-know cultures. We had learned to keep things close to our chest, and only share them when people insist we do. That mindset originates from many different motivations: perceived need to shield expert knowledge, the angst of the content being questioned or even improved, being overly controlling of perceived IP (intellectual property), and many others.

The reality is that sharing content makes everyone better. It allows co-workers to learn from what you already know and prevents them from having to re-invent the wheel or re-discover the wisdom. It also helps you, as it either directly reduces the number of questions you get, or at least allows you to point in the direction of an answer instead of having to re-create it.

Obviously, this excludes personal and confidential content!! “Public” in this context also means public within the organization.

As I said, I have been a BIG believer in over-communicating and freely sharing content (that is not confidential) for many years now. You might have already guessed it from these updates. It has served me well, and it has made teams I worked in better and more effective.

Whenever possible, legal, and ethical, think about how you can make content more accessible and discoverable. If you write down some good process steps in an email, copy them into a Word document. Find a place where you can make that content available to the org (Teams, SharePoint, file shares – whatever your organization uses for central storage). Create mechanisms to make it discoverable to others without having to ask you for a pointer – for example, put an index of all relevant documentation and shares on a OneNote in a Teams channel for that work area.

Especially in times that are as fluid and dynamic as these days, oversharing and overcommunicating is critical to ensure everyone can be most effective.

Files on local hard drives is where knowledge goes to die.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Ownership

One of the things that define how Amazon runs its business is what they call the Leadership principles. These principles are treated like religion. They define daily business processes, project priorties, how decisions are made, and apparently, they work really well for the company’s success. Those leadership principles are also widely regarded as operational blueprints for many startups. Over my time with Amazon, I learned to love some of them, see the value in others, and realize that a critical one was missing (I’ll tell you that secret over a beer if you’re interested).

Since those Leadership principles are universally applicable and useful, I will pick a specific one every now and then and share its official description as well as my personal take and experience. As always, I would love your thoughts, feedback, and differing point of view.

Ownership

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

To me, ownership is probably the most important one of the leadership principles. It is so important because it defines how we approach our jobs. Are we just in to tick off hours and collect a paycheck, or do we deeply care about what we’re doing and want to positively impact our field, our customers, and our co-workers?

For that reason, in my mind, ownership is also closely linked to the three pillars that drive job satisfaction (purpose, autonomy, and mastery). If we don’t step up and take personal ownership, we will not feel any control over these three pillars either.

Ownership means caring about what we do. Ownership means not waiting to be told what we should focus on but proactively assessing our space all the time and moving forward with the things that matter most. Ownership is the difference between looking at the clock ticking away versus looking at your customers and thinking through how you can improve their lives.

Ownership is also about being in control, which again, is one of the key drivers for job satisfaction as well as one of the key things that cause burnout if it’s lacking. If you don’t show ownership and take control, someone else will fill the void for you and tell you what to do.

Always remember:

Ownership is taken, not granted!


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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

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Think like Amazon

A while ago I was asked “how Amazon thinks and is different”. There are many books written on this topic, but if you want the Cliff notes, here’s my take:

How Amazon ticks (at least a small set of those principles)

A lot of the operating principles for Amazon are coded in the leadership principles, which everyone lives by on a daily basis. You will notice that there is often a tension between two leadership principles, which is intentional, as it forces everyone to consistently make conscious trade-off decisions.

Aligned goals while preserving autonomy

Hierarchy of goals – Amazon follows and tracks a hierarchy of goals. Some of those goals are set top-down, but the majority are aggregated bottoms-up. All goals are focused on the outcome, not the method, allowing for ample degrees of freedom to adjust process and solutions, as the team learns more about what works and what doesn’t. Aligning those goals up the chain ensures that everyone agrees on the priorities, and teams are given a framework to make an autonomous decision. There are several categories of importance for goals (company, department, team) to empower teams to make local decisions if some of those goals start to conflict with each other (e.g. one goal needs additional funding at the expense of another one).

Local autonomy – With a clear decision and priority framework through agreed-upon goals, teams are granted high local decision authority. That authority typically lies at the scope of two-pizza-teams, meaning teams that are small enough so that they can be fed with two pizzas in a meeting (i.e. no more than 10-12 people). Those units design their programs such that they can exist with minimal dependencies on other teams. Authority for most decisions lies with the leader of that team (typically a Manager or Senior Manager).

With that, Amazon, in many ways, functions like a group of many independent startups that work towards common goals with high independence and are well funded.

Starting small and embracing failure

Embracing experimentation and failure – Experimentation and failure is highly encouraged. There is a lot of deep thinking done in advance, and decisions are made based on extensive data analysis. However, there is also an understanding that all data is incomplete, and analysis-paralysis needs to be avoided. One-way versus two-way doors is a mental framework that helps navigate through that ambiguity. There is a high willingness in management to write off failures if the initial thinking was valid and data-driven. Experimentation in small pilots is the standard procedure to avoid costly mistakes at large scale. Teams meet on a weekly basis for project reviews where they look at all operational data to make quick course corrections if needed.

Start frugal, start scrappy – Contrary to public perception, every idea and implementation begins in a very scrappy and frugal way. That minimizes losses for ideas that don’t work. Once an idea is successful and gains traction, systems often have to be completely re-written in order to become more scalable and manageable and meet the larger scale and operational demand. This approach ensures extremely high agility and velocity at a very low initial cost (two pizza teams). Substantial investments are only made once an idea has proven to be successful. The extra cost of re-engineering a system is a conscious trade-off that is being made to allow quick and cost-effective initial development.

It’s all about the customer experience!

Customer focus – The customer and value for the customer are truly always put first. That is not so much for altruistic reasons, but because Amazon focuses on the lifetime value of a customer. Short-term losses are acceptable if they lead to a stronger engagement with the customer, thus ensuring a higher lifetime value. Customers are an investment for the long run, and short-term losses are acceptable toward that goal.

Of course, there is way more to what makes Amazon tick, but the above – together with the leadership principles – are some of the principles that, in my mind, make the most difference.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.