Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2021 as part of our year-end countdown.
Kristin Graham is comfortable being uncomfortable.
She just left her powerful role as Principal of Culture & Communications at Amazon to launch a consultancy to help organizations and business professionals improve communication and productivity. It’s not unlike the two times she went skydiving: the fear, the adrenaline rush, no safety net, flying high.
“When you pull the ripcord, you free-fall for 30 seconds and then you’re just floating up there,” says Graham. Quoting musician Ben Rector in his song “30,000 Feet,” she notes: “It takes the sky to see what’s on the ground.”
For Graham, unraveling the knots of interpersonal communication is what excites her most. For the past four-and-a-half years at Amazon, she taught tens of thousands of employees about the art of narrative writing and communication best practices—and counseled teams from senior leadership to interns to communicate with cultural sensitivity and transparency.
A “one-stop nerd shop” is how Graham describes her new, independent gig.
When you tap into both brain science and information science, says Graham, you discover amazing insights about attention spans, cognitive overload and interpersonal communication — or lack thereof. This mix of brain science, psychology and marketing is how you break through the noise. And for communicators, it’s been a noisy year.
Navigating year two of a pandemic, smart communicators keenly understand that the changing nature of corporate culture requires an open mind and a desire to listen to all points of view across the company, says Graham. That means looking beyond the org chart to everyone in the organization to improve dialogue and create positive change.
“Communications is no longer the drive-thru window,” says Graham, who spoke to us from her home in Bellevue, Washington, in the Seattle area, which she shares with her two teenage sons and a rescue dog. “We are influencing the two-way conversations.”
To get there, Graham calls for “space and grace,” allowing employees to unplug, be it turning off their camera on a team video meeting or going for a walk in the middle of the workday. She encourages managers to schedule (and stick to) shorter meetings (40 minutes max) and to declare meeting-free days. Slack may be replacing that standard, 9 a.m. team meeting. Get used to it.
As most of us have increasingly short attention spans, communicators should be delivering information in more bite-size formats, or “micro-content,” whether it’s five-minute excerpts from a corporate town hall or a three-minute podcast from the CEO. Include translation services and close captioning, and provide collaboration channels such as Slack, says Graham.
The hankering for concise communication is coupled with employees’ demand to be working for a company that takes diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) seriously. “I can have all the experience in terms of my training, but my experience as a white American needs an ampersand,” says Graham, likening it to playing with Lego vs. a flat board game. “Make room for additional Legos, and bring in other voices to enhance and educate.”
Three major shifts: Are you ready?
Annual reports and scripted presentations still have a place, but Graham sees the most effective leaders zig-zagging on the uneven path toward transparency and DEI. “There’s a shift from trying to be elegant to trying to be more responsive. Messy is the new credibility.”
Graham identifies three distinct, burgeoning communication modes:
1. In-person, kinetic information sharing. As more people are vaccinated and begin to congregate, Graham puts a high premium on collaborative spaces and in-person meetings. “It’ll be like the Paris salon – a very powerful mix of people and ideas coming together.”
2. Active through technology. This is where people of all backgrounds and experiences are showing up and not waiting for an invitation. Social audio platforms such as Clubhouse allow for real-time conversations and a larger “playground” focused on connecting through auditory channels.
3. A demand for on-demand content. We are now living in a world where content is accessed at any time. Employees want to consume and create content, and they want it now or maybe later, but it’s up to them. Communicators should provide more options. “Having choice is the new benefit,” says Graham.
These changes challenge hierarchy, are asynchronous and allow for more voices, backgrounds and perspectives. “These are going to light up the under-tapped talent segments in your organization,” she says. “You don’t have to wait two years to have an opinion.”
A journalist’s mindset
After graduating from Northwestern University with a masters in journalism, Graham expected to land a reporting job, but “communications chose me,” she recalls. She joined Allstate’s corporation communications department where she was a generalist, contributing to executive communications, grant writing, media relations and even light computer programming. “At one point, they said to me, let’s start this thing called an intranet.”
It was at an Allstate executive offsite meeting in Tucson, Ariz., that Graham realized “employees were my jam.” The new CEO at the time was met with some resistance by the other Allstate executives because he didn’t have an insurance background. Kristin listened to his speech that day where he conceded that those in the audience were challenging his ability to run the company.
“He was telling the audience, we are responsible for two things – our people and our capital. He knew that the job of the leader is to bring back employees the next day.” His ability to communicate and resonate with a skeptical crowd got Graham hooked on comms. She sees her role in employee communications as similar to a journalist’s beat. “Every day you have to bring back an audience, in this case, employees.”
After Allstate, Graham spent about a decade in communications roles at Expedia and Aon Hewitt before joining Amazon. In 2019, Ragan Communications named her to its inaugural list of Top Women in Communications.
Raising the bar
A common misconception about Amazon is that it can’t have a distinct culture because of its Amazonian size. “We are customer-obsessed and are always raising the bar together,” says Graham. This focus on high standards is even part of the interview process where Amazon’s designated “Bar Raisers” interview job candidates to assess cultural fit of the candidate and whether they’d raise the bar, keep it level or lower it.
Across all departments and disciplines, Amazon puts a premium on great writing. Its “Doc Bar Raisers” are volunteers who work one-on-one with a colleague on their writing. Whether to help write a strong wiki post or a coherent financial report, these are internal volunteers who “teach it forward.” And they do so happily, says Graham, as “people show up even without free pizza.”
During her tenure at Amazon, Graham has touted and followed Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, which are also shared outside its walls (see sidebar). Among her favorites are to “Learn and Be Curious” and to “Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit.” On the latter, she said, “It’s an equalizing principle, so regardless of your title you should have an opinion, speak up and then commit to the goal,” even if you sometimes disagree with it.
Putting the principles to action is always the hardest part for any organization, and Graham says communicators can help senior executives earn trust through everyday actions and words. “There’s incredible currency in just saying, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t know yet,’” she says.
To stay upbeat and sharp during the pandemic, Graham takes frequent breaks indoors and outdoors. She’s a stickler for the 20-20-20 rule – after 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
She purchased a NordicTrack treadmill desk to combine physical and intellectual wellness, with the aim of being what author A.J. Jacobs describes as “drop-dead healthy.” Her walk-and-talk calls (or meetings, when back in the office) strengthen her auditory skills and help her retain information. Even walking in circles in her backyard while taking in the Pacific Northwest air, she says, activates her senses and keeps her pumped up for the day.
Graham says she’s looking forward to jumping out of an airplane again, when she turns the big 5-0 in a couple years. As she puts it: “You need to sit on the edge of something scary – get your feet dangling off of something.”
Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”
Invent and Simplify
Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here.” As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.
Are Right, A Lot
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
Learn and Be Curious
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
Hire and Develop the Best
Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.
Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.
Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.
Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.
Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.
Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.