Learning from Amazon—How Development Programs Can Avoid Mismanaging Talent

Many of our clients have been talking about the New York Times’ recent article on the work environment at Amazon. Amazon prides itself on having a culture of relentless performance. In many ways it can be thought of as a case study for finding the balance between being high performing and becoming one’s own worst enemy in performance. As development shops continue to grow in size and sophistication, how we manage talent will be directly linked to our overall success. Below are a few principles that will impact the culture within your program.

Turnover and ROI must be examined together.
Amazon’s model is based on intense performance and commitment to the job. Employees work 80+ hours each week, and there is an annual cull of low performers from the company. Amazon is driven by short-term innovative projects that have immediate impact and measurability. However, in development we know that relational fundraising is a long-term process, and turnover is high. It takes time to build a portfolio, deepen relationships with donors, and position top prospects with exciting projects. Development officers sometimes do not reach their full potential until two to three years into the job; therefore, institutions can’t afford high turnover, especially that of rising or new talent.

Even so, some turnover is actually good and necessary for fundraising success. Turnover has to be divided into two categories: talent loss and talent opportunity. Times of talent loss (in which high ROI team members and rising stars are lost) will be far more damaging to fundraising outcomes than those of talent opportunity (in which those who leave create a vacancy for a higher performer to fill). This distinction will help institutions prioritize which staff members to retain and help assess their success in staff management.

Employer reputation is influenced by those who leave.
The NYT’s article is driven by input and narratives by former employees, even while providing the perspective of current insiders to balance it out. One former employee commented that “his enduring image was watching people weep in the office.” Development shops are wise to recognize the power of their former employees’ feedback on their experience at the organization. Non-profit fundraising is a relatively small industry, so news, controversies, and gossip travel fast.
While you cannot control an employee’s feedback, you can influence it for the better. Working hard to make an employee’s transition out of your office as positive as it can be can help diminish negative feedback. So, be sure to:

  • Recognize and thank departing employees
  • Enable knowledge transfer between departing employees and other team members, when appropriate.
  • Provide a venue, often the exit interview, that allows departing employees to comment on why they are leaving and provide feedback on their experience at the organization.
  • Treat departing employees fairly and with respect.

Development offices have to cope with the reality of losing talent. With our clients, we have seen that when individuals depart on good terms and become strong players elsewhere, they help build the reputation that their original employer valued and encouraged high performers and high standards. On the other side of this dynamic is how quickly a handful of poorly handled exits can create a perception of a toxic work environment and discourage new candidates from being interested in joining your team.

Competition can be healthy in the right environment.
As the NYT’s article reported, Amazon’s model of high conflict and high competition has resulted in a constant stream of big ideas and the refusal to accept obstacles to efficiency. It has also created a workplace where crying at one’s desk is the norm, colleagues actively seek to undermine each other, and only the most pugnacious team members prevail.

While this approach is driving bottom-line results for Amazon, many employees, especially those in the not-for-profit sector, will not tolerate such treatment for long. So, organizational leaders must be careful to cultivate a healthy environment wherein competition occurs in a context of respect. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  • Recruit employees whose competitive nature is complemented by a collaborative approach. Such team members are self-driven to achieve but do so in a way that complements their team – they seek to learn from other high performers and are available to help other colleagues who want to learn from them. In their ambition, they are not destructive.
  • Emphasize the success of the organization as well as the success of each individual staff member. Recognize your team members’ accomplishments, possibly through a leaderboard of fundraising results, or highlighting key achievements in your monthly staff meeting. High performers will want to be recognized, but will keep the success of the organization as a priority.
  • Model the behaviors you seek to cultivate in your team. When debating ideas, address your colleagues respectfully. When challenging others, do so professionally. Further, don’t tolerate destructive behaviors. Employees are watching management to see how they handle staff members who cheat, manipulate circumstances for their benefit, or denigrate team members. Your response to these behaviors sends a powerful message about what you value in your team members.

Copyright © 2015 Bentz Whaley Flessner & Associates, Inc.

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