Proudly UnAmazonian: A Company Striving To Lead With Empathy

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I have never been so exhausted in my life…

The last time I remember sleeping was three days prior, just before Tash’s contractions started and we moved into the roller-coaster of labour.

In the wee hours of the morning 3 days after it all began we had our baby girl in our arms. For a couple of hours we simply sat there with little Olia in our arms - checking her out as she made her introduction to the world.

It wasn’t long before my mind started flipping back to business.

Coming off a challenging 4 month product leadership & launch initiative which required several consecutive 50-60 hour work weeks - I was eager to let my boss know I would be in that week to ensure the team continues driving forward.

In the hospital room I flipped open my laptop and fired a quick email notifying the team I’d be in and out of the office all week and available 24/7 for support - as usual.

Clicking send, I immediately realized a huge sense of conflict in offering my time and energy up to the team only hours after my daughter had been born and my wife completing the gruelling marathon of delivery… I sucked it up and told myself I could manage both - full commitment to Olia and Tash, full commitment to my team - they both deserved as much.

What happened next is one of the most incredibly gracious moments I have experienced in my life.

Within 10 minutes of clicking send I see an email from my VP. A beautiful congratulatory note, heartfelt and sincere, reflective and kind. And then a warning - "...don’t even think about coming into the office, I don’t want you to worry even for a minute about work this week - take the time to enjoy the first hours and days as a new family. I may be smaller than you but if I see you in the office I will do whatever I can to kindly escort you back home (smiley face)."

I wouldn’t have ever admitted it to you, but receiving that email was exactly what I needed and likely the only way I would have ever let down my guard and paused to fully accept and appreciate this rare moment of new life.

I let out a massive sigh and sunk back into the rocking chair - it felt like 1,000 pounds had just been lifted off of my back.

I told Tash, nearly in tears with gratitude and appreciation for the company I worked for and the culture we have strived so hard to build and uphold.

Proudly UnAmazonian

At BuildDirect we have this Big Hairy Audacious Goal to disrupt and completely transform an industry. Striving to build a world class marketplace and technology platform we share many similarities with Amazon and there is no denying it as a source many of us look to for market leadership and innovation insights.

After the continued ‘coming out’ on the destructive culture being revealed under the tech giant’s kimono, I can’t proudly enough state how un-amazonian I feel today.

Filling in the gaps.

When we’re talking about a company with well over 100,000 employees, it’s obvious we’re only getting a small slice of the story with regards to the net cultural impact and experience within the walls.

That being said, after reading several dozen accounts, and specifically Julia Cheiffetz’s I Had a Baby and Cancer When I Worked at Amazon. This Is My Story - there is a cultural theme I continue to pick up on.

In Julia’s brief maternity leave from the company (5 months) after delivering a child and being diagnosed with and fighting cancer she returned to find out her role had essentially been dissolved/transitioned and for lack of a better term she was essentially thrown into what sounds like a meaningless corner of the company.

One word changes everything.

I can understand in a fast moving company a lot can change in 5 months. I can also understand the shifting and adapting of new roles when returning from a leave like this. But what I find scarily shocking is the seemingly utter lack of communication and transparency throughout an experience like this. It may seem a like a trivial detail but it uncovers the deeper cultural fabric that has mutated out of the Amazon cultural DNA.

Someone, and likely several people - leaders and managers - made conscious (worse yet if it was subconscious) decisions to ‘not’ communicate the changes, transitions, and decisions being made that critically impacted Julia’s role (and life) within the organization. Scarier yet, these leaders were convinced to the point of action (or non-action) that this was the right decision within the Amazon culture.

A Cardinal Sin.

This to me represents the cardinal sin I continue to see woven through the now hundreds of stories leaking from the Amazonian vault. The consistent lack of empathy for colleagues and employees is shocking and highlights the power of an organization's ability to create a brainwash culture where regard for role, title, status, and success trumps our basic human needs.

Despite the similarities of our Big Hairy Audacious Goal, and my zealous passion and commitment to the company - my experience with BuildDirect could not be more different.

Like many at Amazon, I possess the type A driver personality incredibly hungry to push the boundaries and limits of my own capacity and leverage this effort to make the biggest dent possible in the work I do and ultimately the world. I have excitedly taken on projects that have pushed me to work several consecutive 60 hour weeks. I have experienced stints of frustration, exhaustion and complete emotional and mental burnout - I have questioned whether it’s really worth it, or if it’s time for me to move on.

But that is about where the similarities end.

The differences are many, but a majority of them can all be bubbled up into one overarching word.


To date, that is what BuildDirect has been built upon, from the founders and early leaders of the organization this strand has been intentionally woven into our DNA and acts as the dominant gene. Even today, when we are out in the market looking for world class people, a mandatory prerequisite is a passion and innate desire to lead with empathy and compassion for others.

This changes Everything.

It means when I ask to take on a project and team I know will require 60 hour work weeks - the whole organization rallies behind me. The sentiment I begin receiving is never “You better get this done - your ass is on the line” but overwhelmingly “how can we support you to drive this initiative forward as successfully as possible.” Take a minute to think about this, regardless of the approach taken above, the work and outputs are ultimately no different…

The long term cultural impacts on the other hand… Well, we’re no Amazonians.

It means anytime a team member is struggling, is ill, is grieving a family tragedy - we intentionally take the time to pause what we’re doing and offer our thoughts, warmth and support.

It means we constantly focus on celebrating the successes and achievements of each other, both in and outside of the walls of work.

It means when our leadership team tells us something needs to be done that is critical to the business - we drop what we’re doing, band together, and do whatever it takes to make that happen. This has meant working weekends, through the night, changing roles, having difficult conversations, and making numerous sacrifices.

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

We have a madness and a hunger to stay the course of this exciting journey we’re on. There is an intrinsic fire that is burning at the heart of our company. Those who don’t share this fire and passion, eventually opt themselves out - I have seen it happen over and over again.

Those who have chosen the red pill have banded together, a tight knit family living the #BDLife. Good, bad, and ugly - we’re in it together.

The number of times I have seen examples above play out are too numerous to count. I am humbled on a daily basis to work with such incredible colleagues - no, that’s not right - I work with some of the most kick-ass passionate, humble, and empathetic human beings on the planet.

We are no Amazon. We will have hundreds if not thousands of hurdles as we climb the rungs from 300 employees to 1,000, 10,000, and beyond. A lot will change. Culture will become more and more difficult to guide. But I am confident if each of us continues to own the sense of empowerment we feel today and lead with empathy over all else - we’ll find a way to ultimately get 10x more out of the sum of our parts while creating exponential velocity as a consequence of a sustained tight knit tribe mentality.

What I do know is that I am grateful now more than ever to be a part of an organization, a tribe of people, who are dreaming big, willing to do whatever it takes to get there but will never put this above the value of walking a mile in another's shoes.

I have no doubt we will make it to the top of this mountain, it’s going to be one of the most challenging adventures of all our respective lives.

But we’ll be in it together.

When we set foot on that theoretical summit - we’ll look around, smile, crack a beer, and cheers to doing world changing work alongside 100s of people we call friends.


Thank you for taking the time to read - if you've gotten this far I'd love to hear what you thought below. If the story resonates - you're welcome to like or share with your Community. 

Note - all views and opinions expressed are my own. 

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