Let’s be honest: most of us fear failure. We can try our best to win, to overachieve, to surpass our goals, but the road to success isn’t always linear. Messing up is inevitable. It will happen and it’s not fun. Why not shoot for the moon and embrace it? Owning and growing from mistakes is exactly what led to the success of NASA’s Apollo Space Program to put a person on the moon. Resiliency is a superpower. If we, as leaders, can work with our teams to build these reserves of strength and perseverance, we will be unstoppable.
With this mission in mind, I recently took our team on an immersive journey to Johnson Space Center in Houston for the Apollo Leadership Experience, designed and delivered by WDHB, the global pioneer in experiential learning (and a company I’ve had the privilege of partnering with for several team-building programs over the years). By using space exploration as a metaphor for leadership, we learned how to empower our employees as they think outside the box and achieve the impossible. The lessons were acutely relevant to our work at AWS and are invaluable as we gear up to chase our ambitious goals for 2022 and beyond. Here are my top takeaways, and why I’m so proud to be part of an organization that values putting its people first:
In sessions taught by NASA Historians Brian Duffy, Harv Hartman and Holly Ridings, we were encouraged to create a culture of innovation where risk is managed and leaders build a tolerance for successful failure. Facilitator Sunil Narang explained that “FAIL” simply meant a “first attempt in learning”. I loved that reframing. At Amazon, we’re relentless about our “Invent and Simplify” leadership principle – we believe in constantly iterating to keep raising the bar on what we deliver to customers. If we encourage our employees to fail forward, we invest in a culture of innovation that allows our people be fearless, take chances and soar to new heights.
I value stepping up and boldly committing to a path of action, but as a leader, it is even more important to empower my team by stepping back and setting aside bias. To put this duality into action, we learned about a time when Apollo Program Manager Tom Kelly’s team came to him with an idea to address the weight of the Lunar Module. Rather than saying “no,” Tom simply stated, “I don’t see it.” In turn, his team came back with a visual cardboard mockup of the solution to help him “see it” – which he did. This strategy gives a team permission to take creativity to the next level when their leader is inclined against a suggestion but needs more information before committing. We value being “right” at Amazon, and part of that is trusting people’s judgment and instincts, as well as being open to new perspectives. As Andy Jassy wrote in his letter to shareholders, “you need blind faith, but no false hope.” Tom’s approach is a reminder to invite employees to respectfully challenge me (and each other!) until a final solution is achieved.
My colleague from Stockholm, Sjoerd Verborg, commented that this program was all about “thinking big at a different dimension.” Apollo showcased an effective vision because it brought out an emotional response from people, sparking a strong commitment to the goal. Rather than simply stating the vision from top down, it was vital to showcase personal, immediate and certain motivations for change. Not only does this localize the narrative, but employees feel a direct connection to the mission. As we innovate to deliver bigger, better results for our AWS customers and partners, we need to communicate consistently and inspirationally to push our employees to their highest potential. That’s our job as leaders, to set a compelling vision and build a team that feels connected to and invested in that vision. People need to know the why – why are they here? Why does their work matter? We have to help them tell that story.
Part of our Day One mentality at Amazon is to continue to learn and be curious. Leaders are never done learning. Dedicating ourselves to self-improvement is how we will provide the best experience for our teams, our customers and our community. Participant and leader, Jody Striegel stated, “Being onsite in Houston provided an experience that will help the lessons stick in our memories better than a virtual event or at our office, making it more likely to be applied when we get back to our busy lives.” I look forward to taking these lessons with me as we proudly step into the great unknown. Even if those brave steps sometimes lead to mistakes, we continue to march forward with a strong north star.
I want to thank the WDHB team and Historian partners for their incredible facilitation and thoughtful content throughout the Leadership Experience. I also want to thank my colleagues for showing up and participating with a learner’s mindset. Investing in change and growth through our people is a goal AWS shares with NASA and WDHB, setting the stage for an unforgettable experience – and fueling our journey forward.
WDHB is proud to deliver the Apollo Leadership Experience in association with The Conference Board.
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