Checking Academic Culture Against Amazon's Leadership Principles

Divergence and alignment.

March 21, 2019

Does your university provide a set of publicly articulated values and principles to guide recruitment shape employee culture?

How would those values and principles differ between faculty and staff?

I got interested in this question when looking at Amazon’s Leadership Principles.  The Amazon jobs page state that, "We use our Leadership Principles every day, whether we're discussing ideas for new projects or deciding on the best approach to solving a problem. It is just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar".

Let’s go through each of the Amazon principles, and see how they may (or may not) map to academia:

Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Academia:  If you replace “customer” with “learner,” then this principle might work.  Or maybe stakeholder, as many higher ed people think about other constituents such as parents and alumni.  Where scholarship and research fit into this obsession is a good question.  Those of us who work at schools built around the scholar-educator model think that an obsession with learners and of research are inseparable.


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".

Academia:  A long-term perspective seems to map very closely to how academic think, although maybe it could be argued that this applies mostly to more privileged institutions.  Professors are loyal to their students and their academic disciplines.  The primary loyalty of staff is to their institution.  Alternative-academics occupy the liminal space between institutional and disciplinary/student loyalty.

Invent and Simplify

Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here." As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

Academia:  Well, yes and no.  Higher ed people are acutely aware of what is going on at our peer institutions.  We usually prefer to be fast followers than bleeding edge groundbreakers.  Where we could stand some improvement is our willingness to look beyond the higher ed ecosystem for ideas.  There does seem to be an ingrained bias against learning from for-profit companies from within non-profit universities.  Those trying to do new things in higher ed are definitely misunderstood, although it is not clear that doing new things is an institutional value.

Are Right, A Lot

Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

Academia:  It is interesting that Amazon puts this leadership principle in the form of hypothesis testing.  The best academics that I know (faculty and staff) advance their ideas as hypotheses to be tested.  They do look for, and welcome, disconfirming evidence. Seeking diversity is a core value shared by higher ed.  The question is how are we doing in bringing in diverse voices (in academic IT not that great), and are we being broadminded in the sort of diversity that we seek?

Learn and Be Curious

Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Academia:  I’d argue that academics are the most curious people on the planet.  Why else would one go into academia?  As the number of classically trained academics who move into non-traditional academic positions grows (all those instructional designers and faculty developers and other alt-acs), I expect that the higher ed curiosity quotient will only increase.

Hire and Develop the Best

Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

Academia:  Universities would undoubtedly say that they do everything to recruit and develop the best talent.  Academic hiring, for both faculty and staff, moves at a slower metabolism than the private sector (and Amazon).  There is less churn in higher ed than the private sector.  Fewer jobs open up, and schools take a long time to fill them.  Folks do move around some in higher ed from school to school, but a much slower pace than at companies.  For traditional academics, there is a clear promotion path, at least for the minority of professors who are on the tenure track.  A persistent challenge for staff is the lack of a clear promotional ladder or internal opportunities for advancement.

Insist on the Highest Standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Academia: Higher education is a mission-driven industry.  The people who go into academia do so for reasons mainly of internal motivation, rather than extrinsic reward.  The values of higher ed people go beyond what is rewarded in the market.  This translates into a culture that has high standards for the quality of our teaching and research.

Think Big

Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Academia:  Thinking big is difficult in the face of public disinvestment, challenging demographic trends, and rising costs.  Tuition-dependent colleges are doing everything they can to come up with new academic business models that are economically sustainable.  There is lots of big thinking going on, but the most visible bold thinking in higher ed too often comes from schools that serve a disproportionately small number of students.  The question for higher ed is how to encourage and reward big thinking among faculty and staff in an environment of permanent scarcity?

Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Academia: Well, not so much.  Maybe at a few risk-taking schools - but overall it would be hard to argue that higher ed has a bias for action.  Is this a value we should be rewarding in our academic leaders, and in our faculty and staff?


Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.

Academia:  This puts a positive spin on the structural economic challenge that is 21st-century postsecondary education.  Our public institutions, and in particular our community colleges, are being fiscally squeezed beyond anything that breeds "resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention.”  At some point, small tuition-dependent colleges will no longer be able to more with less.

Earn Trust

Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Academia:  Collegiality is a deeply held value in higher ed.  Although it seems common for norms of collegiality to be violated.  Relationships are the coin of the realm in academia if you want to get anything done at a departmental or institutional level.  People work together for years (decades) at colleges, and successful academics pay attention to their relationships.  Traditional academics will often work as closely with colleagues from other schools within their discipline as with people down the hall.  Reputation in higher ed is everything.  Maybe we could all learn to be a bit more self-critical?

Dive Deep

Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

Academia:  I think that this Amazon principle speaks to making data-informed decisions.  Higher ed, until recently, has been a mostly data-free zone.  This is starting to change.  In my world of learning, analytics will change most things (if not everything).

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Academia:  How this principle applies to academia will largely depend on your power and status within the institution.  Those with tenure are in a better position to tenaciously disagree than those without.  Universities are made up of faculty who are closer to independent entrepreneurs (at least those on the tenure track) than traditional employees, so disagreement and dissent among faculty is the norm.  Alternative academics are trying to figure out if they have a voice in leading the institution.  Staff (and hear I’m not talking about academic administrators who come from the faculty) may lack the protection and security to challenge decisions.

Deliver Results

Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

Academia:  Higher ed leaders have to deliver results out of necessity.  The challenging economic environment that most schools find themselves facing requires creative approaches to keep the lights on.

Does your school have a set of principles to guide faculty and staff culture?

How do you think that Amazon’s leadership principles align or diverge from the leadership principles (stated or unstated) at your institution?

Can we in higher ed learn anything from Amazon’s leadership principles?


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