An Amazon exec explains why working at the tech giant is like ‘walking on a tightrope’ — and why that’s a good thing

Amazon campus

  • Amazon‘s company culture can feel a bit like a practicing a high-wire act.
  • That’s what VP of Worldwide People Operations Ardine Williams told Business Insider.
  • She said that the company values resilient people who can fall off the tightrope, pick themselves up, and get back on.

Working at Amazon is a bit like walking on a tightrope.

At least, that’s how Amazon VP of Worldwide People Operations Ardine Williams puts it. Williams — who’s slated to deliver the keynote speech at Glassdoor Recruit on September 27 — has worked at the tech giant since 2014.

She told Business Insider that when she began working at Amazon, a colleague gave her some valuable insight about the company’s work culture.

“When I first got here, one of the folks said, ‘Working here is like walking on a tightrope. You walk out. You fall off. You pick yourself up. You dust yourself off. You think about what you learned, and you hop back on,'” she told Business Insider. “‘That’s how we innovate on behalf of our customers. It’s wash, rinse and repeat. Get used to dusting yourself off.'”

Ardine Williams Amazon

Sure, walking on a high-wire might sound intimidating. But Williams attributed the thinking to Amazon’s culture of “failing smartly.” In other words, while one of Amazon’s core principles might call for top leaders to be “right, a lot,” there’s not much room for perfectionists, either.

“If you’re worried about always being perfect, it’s problematic because you don’t innovate,” Williams said.

According to Williams, the work culture allows for employees to feel comfortable enough to take risks.

The concept of the tightrope act also ties into one of Amazon’s 14 leadership principles: earning trust by becoming “vocally self-critical” and, therefore, learning from past mistakes. When you fall off the tightrope, you’re not supposed to get defensive or give up. The idea is that you learn something, and put that toward improving your act.

“When I got to Amazon, one of the things that was just incredibly liberating for me was how welcome it was for someone to say, ‘You know what, I was wrong,'” Williams said.

She added that people who succeed at Amazon are resilient and comfortable with ambiguity.

“Are you able to shift from task to task and pick yourself up after you fall off that tightrope?” she said.

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