Single Threaded Leaders (STLs) are core to Amazon’s leadership philosophy. We are all STLs for one thing or another. However, what does that actually mean?
A STL is the one person who owns success or failure of a given initiative, project or goal. They are the decision maker or the one who is responsible to drive decisions. They are the single point of contact and the one who answers for the project. The STL is the one who doesn’t have excuses for not raising an issue, driving a decision and moving the project forward.
Less polite descriptions used in other companies are ‘butt on the line’ or ‘throat to choke’. I do NOT think that’s the right way to think about it though!
How to be successful as a STL
We all strive to be effective leaders, in Amazon-speak strong STLs. So what makes a strong STL?
It starts with Ownership
Being a STL means that you OWN the projects you were given responsibility for (better even: you took responsibility for). It also means that you feel fully responsible for the success of that project. There is no one else to point a finger to or to blame.
It does not mean that you need to fix or do everything yourself though. Far from that!
Ownership doesn’t mean that you need to do everything yourself. It does mean that you need to make sure the right things are happening and the right people know about status changes early on. Delegate and orchestrate!
Ownership means that you own the progress, understand when things go sideways, and either put the right fixes in place to correct course, or escalate quickly if problems/fixes are beyond your control. You don’t need to be afraid if things don’t always got the way as initially planned. However, you should feel bad if things go sideways and you didn’t try proper actions and escalations.
Come with a solution
When things go sideways and a fix is beyond your scope of control, you need to escalate up quickly. Speed matters. There are few things a manager hates more than being surprised at a time when they are out of options to help you out.
So how do you escalate if you need help? Come with a solution!
Followers come with a problem; leaders come with a solution.
Present the problem, give a short explanation on the root cause that got you there, and then offer a solution proposal. Ideally, also explain the alternatives and why you picked that specific proposal (what were the pros and cons of the alternatives?).
Explain how far you were able to push within your scope of influence, what you tried, and what specific help you now need from your leader. Help them understand the tradeoffs that need to be made. Be clear what specific help you need or what action you are taking for which you need backup from your leader.
Do not only come with a problem or open ended question. Your leader will most likely jump on the opportunity to solve it for you, but that will harm your authority as STL and also deprives you from the sense of control over your project.
A quick glimpse into the mind of your leaders
Leaders like to problems-solve. That’s how they grew up, how they became leaders. However, as a leader, the ultimate goal is to grow their impact by delegating spheres of problem ownership and knowing they will get solved locally as much as possible (and without needing to keep track of progress).
So when presented with an open ended question or problem, a leader will jump into solving it for you (unless they are a really good leader, in which case they will try really hard to hold themselves back). However, after your meeting they will have that nagging question in their mind: ‘why did I have to solve this, what did I do wrong?’ Help your leader to not wrangle with that question!
Help your leader to scale to the next level by showing them that you own your space at the next level.
What makes a great STL?
Know that you are empowered. Don’t just say it, know it, feel it!
Feel responsible for the end to end! Fully.
Own driving the solution, or if you can’t, own having a solution and asking for proper help.
Escalate when you exhausted your options or ideas or spent too much time trying – understand the point when you need to go up.
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One thought on “Single Threaded Leadership at Amazon”
Right on! For any really business-critical initiative – starting a second line of revenue, a strategic partnership, a new operation, a cloud/SaaS transformation – wouldn’t you want someone to be 100% focused and accountable to its success? Much of my own career has been as a single-threaded owner starting new lines of business, new markets, and new strategic partnerships for established companies to grow and diversify their revenue (though we didn’t use the term STO). So when I saw this trend emerge from Amazon, I knew there was something to it. I wrote extensively about the Single Threaded Owner job description on my blog: https://www.stellexgroup.com/blog/for-strategic-initiatives-you-need-a-single-threaded-owner-sto
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