Why and How to Run Your Company like a Community (With Mark Birch from Amazon)

Companies that are run like communities do better in engaging and retaining employees. Mark Birch from Amazon speaks about the why, what, and how.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
June 7, 2023
min read

I've been obsessed with community for longer than I can remember.

And community at work is more important than ever because we're trapped in the hybrid paradox: "The more hybrid someone's work is, the more they are overwhelmed by a huge mental burden and isolated, lacking strong connections with colleagues."

Only half of remote employees have strong relationships with their direct teams. Most employees say that relationships, collaboration, and communication with teammates are the most challenging aspects of hybrid work.

But community can solve more than just remote workers' feelings of isolation. It makes everything better, in business and in life.

This is why I loved interviewing Mark Birch, a global leader at Amazon, who is the founder of the Enterprise Sales Forum, and the author of "Community-in-a-Box: How to Build Event Driven Professional Communities."

Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, your favorite podcast app, or YouTube.

Mark, why is community so important, and what can managers and leaders learn from what you've learned about building a community in their team?

The thing about community that I've always found interesting is that you can do amazing things when you assemble a group of people that are committed to a goal and have similar interests and values.

That's incredibly inspirational as you think about the challenges of running a company. We're no longer hourly workers at a factory, churning out units of some sort of product. We're creators.

Many community dynamics work in the organization's context and how managers should orient themselves to manage their in-person, hybrid, or distributed teams.

For example, how do you think about engaging your employees? How do you enable them and give them the agency to explore and be involved so they feel best utilized and add value?

My first question to founders about running a company is what the organization's values are and whether their team aligns with the startup's purpose.

The best companies in the world have values that center the organization in terms of some very discrete things you do, from hiring to the work you do to how you manage meetings, how you engage external audiences like your customers, partners, and investors, and how you think about promotion cycles.

In the book, you define community as people with shared interests and values. What can managers and leadership do to ensure you get the right people in so you can form a community?

You have to think very intensely about how you put together the pieces of what will eventually be your culture. That starts with formulating a North Star, the why of your organization. What is the impact you're making in the world?

Values then get to the core DNA of the group of people that will get you there. Anyone who comes on board has a language, structure, and understanding as they enter the organization about how you engage with each other to do your best work and together to do their best work.

Take the example of Amazon, where we have 16 "Amazon Leadership Principles" that define how we do things. This starts from the hiring process, where five interviewers all get to ask the candidate about a few leadership principles. This helps us understand if our values align with who this candidate is and how they work.

Those same leadership principles are also applied when we do our internal work. When we write narratives about work we want to do in the future, we embed leadership principles into those documents as the core DNA of what we will do with any project, program, or service.

They're also a language that we often use in our meetings, in our outward conversations with customers and partners, and out to Wall Street, our investors, because you will often see those very same leadership principles embedded in our annual shareholder letter by our CEO.

So they are infused in everything we do, and that's how we become this group of people called Amazonians and how we identify with that and map our internal values to the values of this organization.

Whenever I meet people from Amazon, they understand and actively practice leadership principles deeply. This was also apparent when I met Colin Bryar, who wrote the famous Amazon book "Working Backwards." Was it hard to learn and integrate the principles into your daily work?

It wasn't difficult for me to gel with our leadership principles. To prepare for my interview with Amazon, I wrote a story for each one of the leadership principles. I used the Star Technique, Situation Task, Action, and End Result, I could demonstrate what I did that demonstrated a leadership principle.

And so when I came on board, I already knew the leadership principles well; they were embedded in my mind. I also learned in that process that much of what I've done maps quite well to how Amazonians work and think. We call our culture this peculiar culture, but for me, it's how I've worked from the very beginning of my career.

What you're saying is that the culture that Amazon has very purposefully built attracts a certain community, including yourself, that feels that they belong in that place.

That becomes a flywheel for creating a stronger and stronger community, boosting employee engagement and retention, which the best communities also do. Has hybrid and remote work changed this at all?

Amazon's work to embed culture across the organization was incredibly helpful because it created a structure by which people do their work, engage with other Amazonians, and a language that they collectively use.

With this, Amazon created the foundation to enable anyone who came on board, no matter where you were in the world, to get plugged into how to do work at Amazon, to be part of our culture.

Even if you worked alone, you were not alone, because you have that commonality. While we're not in the same place, we are all aligned to doing this amazing work of community building, creating the value of this community, and building connections.

Like a good community, companies must first bring people together as volunteers. This is possible when you have a vision, a why of the community, and aligned values and interests so that people want to spend their precious time on it.

The only difference is that in companies, you're doing this work for pay, you're getting a salary. So it's a different system of rewards and recognition than from a community. But the same principles apply. You won't get great work if people just come for the paycheck, there needs to be alignment.

Something so important in what you just mentioned is that even though we pay people, that's not enough for them to do great work and be emotionally committed. Many leaders don’t get this.

Danny Meyer, who wrote Setting the Table, a book about applying hospitality principles in running a business, said he still treats his employees as volunteers, even though they get paid because they should want to show up. People can work anywhere, so why should they join you?

I've been a fan of Danny Meyer's restaurants, but I've always thought his philosophy is even better. He gives his employees so much agency and ownership in their careers, and he truly understands the dynamic of give and take between an employee and their company.

When I launched the Enterprise Sales Forum, and it grew to 30,000 people worldwide, I couldn't have managed all that myself. I needed people that would be chapter leaders in cities to bring these humans together for monthly in-person events.

One evaluation criterion for bringing on chapter leaders is where they are on that spectrum of taking to giving. Because if they had more of a taking mentality, they would use the forum for their personal gain. People that wanted to be chapter leaders needed to give. Yes, they would get rewards, but that couldn't be front loading oriented portion of them engaging.

In a company, this is the same, you want people to want to give a little and not necessarily have that orientation towards a paycheck only. Because then you have people that begrudgingly do the work because their focus is getting that paycheck.

I've been engaged in organizations where everyone's more focused on their paycheck than on doing great work. And you can viscerally feel the change in dynamic. You go to any government agency, and without offending anyone, you have a bunch of people working for the paycheck, not necessarily there to give great service.

So looping this back to what Danny Meyer. His employees operate with agency, with joy in their work, with being able to express themselves and to give themselves wholly for the purpose of bringing joy to their customers.

Danny also famously said you should put your customer second, which I know is very anti-Amazon thinking. In his “virtuous cycle of enlightened hospitality” your team always comes first because if they are inspired, your customer will get a great experience.

Now, work is evolving, and we see trends toward the gig economy with people taking up partial scopes of work. Once you start bringing work down to the level of one unit of execution, like Uber drivers, you lose any personal value alignment. It becomes very transactional. We also lose our connection to other people.

This is also a danger for remote companies, where you only see each other once or twice a week or only once or twice a year. How do you keep people connected in this distributed world of work?

We still struggle with this, trying to bring that sense of togetherness in an organization where you will have your colleagues in far-flung places. You may not see people when we've gone through this crazy experiment during COVID of how you effectively rally your team when you can't be in the same place.

I take some of the lessons from my time at StackOverflow, which is a remote-first company. This means we still had offices, but we didn't prioritize the work in a building with a group of us over people in remote locations. We had employees all around the world, in Brazil, Germany, Australia, all these different places.

We would inspire and connect people through regular video calls that we’d take from our individual locations. We didn't want to create a dynamic where the people in person had one kind of communication channel, and then there was a channel through your video on the screen that thought that was a different dynamic.

We also knew that it was important to bring people together so that we would have these quarterly meetings with the teams over a year, we'd have our group made up where we'd have the entire company together in one location to make those connections.

We also had like a few other tools in the toolkit. We had this thing that we called Stack Roulette. So a system that would randomly choose three people, and you had someone be lead to find time for the three of you to get together on a call, not to chat about work, but just to get to know each other.

That would help break the natural orientation towards just focusing on your team or group so you can get the engineer talking to a salesperson, someone in H.R., and so on. It was really good in bridging those gaps between different teams and departments in the organization to better understand who we are as people.

Something that wouldn't necessarily happen otherwise. Companies that are born remote or take a remote-first approach typically do it so much better than traditional companies because, from the beginning, they build everything with great intentionality.

One last question. If you could say only one thing to the world, one piece of advice or thought, what would it be?

Again, with the orientation of community, you must understand that people aren't work units in your organization. People come with their emotions, desires, intellect, knowledge, and experiences. And it's our job as leaders of an organization to bring these incredible humans on board to enable them to do their best work.

We got to get out of this mentality of the assembly line worker unit approach to what we think about work and engagement in a corporation. This is a lot of the baggage that has come about through this idea of scientific management.

This idea of these work units and the idea that people are just there to work to get paid for their time is not the dynamic we see today. And it came to full force during COVID because people have choices in where they spend their time.

They're going to spend their time where they feel they can do the best work, where they're valued, and where their work has some meaning in the broader context of the organization and its vision and mission out to the world.

So as we close this conversation, I just say be very intentional about how you set those values, make them real, and understand you're bringing together a group of humans to do some amazing things.

There's great work to innovate, help customers, create design, launch, and deliver value in this world. So you got to motivate them in a way that brings them into that great corpus of doing great work by enabling people to do their best work.

And you can only do that if you have very well-defined values. So people know how to do their best work and how they connect to the organization, whether you are all in person, hybrid, or remote, we need to bring a lot more humanity into how we engage and inspire people in an organization.

Thanks so much, Mark, for these wonderful insights and inspiring advice.

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A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.