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Are tough environments a necessary experience to develop great leaders?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Earlier this month a friend of mine accepted a job with Amazon. After congratulating him, the next thing out of my mouth was, “I hope it’s not as awful of a place to work as I think it is.” Then, two days later, we were reading the New York Times article.

I’ve never worked at Amazon. My view point is from the two years I spent talking to Amazonians I was trying to recruit, when I managed talent acquisition for a publicly traded company in an adjacent space. Most of the people I talked to were top performers and not active job seekers. Some of them we hired into leadership positions, so they later became my colleagues.

No one ever trashed their experience at Amazon, and not because they were on their best interviewing behavior. It seemed to me that they truly enjoyed and thrived in a frenetically paced and cut throat environment, they really liked working there.  Almost everyone I talked to achieved incredibly with surprisingly limited resources. But some of the stories I heard from candidates didn’t sit right with me. When Amazonians we hired into leadership roles brought elements of that culture to our company, and when I heard some of the stories from their Amazon days, I formed my opinion: Amazon was not a place I would ever want to work, and I’m a go-getter, constant-improvement, work-a-lot type. It seemed to me that to survive at Amazon, yes you needed to be an incredible performer, but you also needed a lot of luck because you were working somewhere that was tough and unpredictably unfair.

To be clear, one of the leaders I respect most, had a successful career at Amazon. He is incredibly level headed, positive, and inspirational, and I still don’t know how he was able to successfully turn around several major departments, with a large yet still limited team, and answer an email thoughtfully from me, mid-level recruiting manager, 10 minutes after I sent it. Same goes for the other former Amazonians with whom I worked. I recognize the result of Amazon’s tough environment, is an ability to develop great leaders. And because of that, pre-Stories Inc, I thought that in order to be the type of leader I wanted to be, a tough environment was necessary. Some of that bled into my recruitment and assessment of talent: Did you work in a tough, unfair environment? Did you make it?

One of the best things about working at Stories Inc is that we meet with tons of companies who are growing quickly and treating people well, because it’s the right thing to do. Because of my expanded view, I no longer think tough environments are a necessary experience for superior leadership and explosive organizational growth. Because of our experience and perspective these last few years, our purpose at Stories Inc has changed: we want to elevate the world of work. We want to celebrate the companies who are leading the way by thinking differently about people, profit, and purpose.

I am ecstatic that the New York Times article has caused such great discussions this month: we should care how some of the top organizations treat their people. I’d love it for the New York Times to now recognize high growth companies that are getting this right by similarly covering one or two as they did Amazon.  Hopefully this inspires a similar lively discussion—how can we take those best practices and get it to Bezos and the Amazons of the world? Let’s make progressive and fair people practices within innovative, explosive growth companies the norm.

What people practices are you most proud of? Email me at


Photo: Sam Churchill on Flickr

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