Building a great culture requires you to convey “guiding principles” across the length and breadth of the organization. At Amazon, this is done through Tenets.
Tenets are principles or beliefs. They’re how you choose to conduct yourself. They are how, as a leader, you enable others to make great decisions without your involvement. They enable you and your team to prioritize, make tradeoffs, course-correct when things have gone off. They’re critical for delegating decision-making authority to where the action is; not where the centralized power is. And they’re critical for leaving a legacy.
Tenets work for personal decision-making as well. Here are mine:
- Family. Me. Work. In that order. Those are the priorities.
- Avoid long-term sacrifices. I define sacrifice as losing higher-priority things for the sake of lower-priority things. For instance, it’s not a sacrifice to slow down your career to focus on family, if family is higher on your priority order. Short-term suboptimal decisions are okay; but you must always work to restore the balance ASAP.
- Minimize regrets. I define regret as “I knew the right thing to do at the time, but I chose otherwise.” Anything else is a learning opportunity, not a regret. For instance, I choose to speak up now about an uncomfortable subject, or admit now that I don’t know, or I need help - even if it’s easier in the moment to remain silent.
- Manage the Wobble. If you ignore any key aspect of your life for too long, it won’t stick around for long. Find time to take care of smaller priorities too. Call long-time friends. Visit distant relations. Work out. Reflect.
- Maximize options. Your quality of life corresponds directly with how many degrees of freedom you have. Having options matters. Make choices that provide the most options in your life. Build good karma whenever possible.
- Compound interest works. Small, incremental investments over time are better than one-off big-bang efforts.
- Give it a shot. And then another. If a goal is worth it, even if it’s big and scary, then keep at it. Risk appearing foolish, failing (even publicly) over and over, but improve with each attempt.
- Integrity matters. Do the right thing for others, even if it’s difficult or results in a loss. As far as possible, only deal with people who show integrity back.
Some Amazon guidance around writing tenets (copied directly from Joe Chung’s fantastic post on the AWS public blog):
The charter or mission states the what; the tenets state the how. Tenets are principles and core values that the program or team uses to fulfill the mission or charter. Exceptional tenets explain what the program is about better than the charter.*
Be memorable. Being memorable is correlated with effective teaching. Experience shows that the best tenets are memorable. Two attributes of memorable tenets are challenging the reader, and being concise.
Each tenet has only one main idea. Chiseling a tenet down to a single essential idea makes the tenet memorable and clear.
Be program specific. Don’t make a common tenet-writing mistake — creating a tenet that applies to many projects and communicates virtually no information, such as, “We will have world-class cloud capabilities.”
Counsel. Tenets help individuals make hard choices and trade-offs. A tenet takes a stand by declaring that a program cares more about one thing than another. Tenets guide rather than prescribe detailed actions. There will also be tension between tenets, and that’s okay (e.g. tenets around agility versus enforcement of policies or control).
Tenets keep you honest. It’s easy to get caught up in group-think or distracted by the nuances of a specific project and lose sight of the overall goals. Stepping back, setting tenets, and then considering those tenets along the way (only changing them when you step back again) will help you keep track of the wider strategy.