A few years ago, I was working in a particular group within Amazon Web Services (AWS), and I decided I wanted to switch teams. To begin the process, I spoke to a number of potential managers. It was relatively easy to assess whether I would be interested in the product. I could generally figure out if the technology was something I would enjoy learning. It was challenging, however, to assess whether I would like my new manager. And finding the best manager is essential to having a successful work environment.
You can chat with someone for an hour or two over coffee and get a general impression. You can ask a pointed question or three. It is not possible, though, to cover the full gamut of differences you may have with a future boss. It’s tough to roll the dice on such an important decision; your manager has a huge impact on your overall job satisfaction. What’s more, the management style that works best can vary from person to person and team to team.
During my search, one leader asked me to do an exercise in which I would write statements regarding how I would interact with my ideal boss—that is, the perfect person to handle my quirks, appreciate my personality type, and mesh with my preferences.
These statements focused on controversial areas and ones that had caused conflict in the past. In a process that sounds quintessentially Amazon, he would review the document independently and write a response. The response would clarify which of those statements would work for us and which required further discussion. We scheduled a final discussion of the document and response over lunch.
The exercise was enlightening. It helped me internalize my own rough edges and the behaviors I was sensitive to. I took the opportunity to reflect on situations where my manager and I had not been on the same page and try to determine the root cause of the friction.
Perhaps even more reassuring was our discussion around the points we didn’t agree on.
Reading and discussing the manager’s response was more valuable than a dozen informal lunch discussions. At Amazon, we rarely discuss without accompanying documents. This exercise is another example of why documents provide far more clarity than a solely verbal discussion.
I had a clear sense of relief around the aspects we agreed on, but perhaps even more reassuring was our discussion around the points we didn’t agree on. We were able to openly share our points of view, explain why we thought the way we did, and explore how we could deal with it going forward. Everything was out in the open, and we were able to have an honest conversation.
Because of the connection and trust we were able to build, I was comfortable taking the leap to join this new team. I have now been with my manager for more than three years. I am still impressed with how well this exercise identified our common values and the areas we needed to work on. It has provided a base framework for how we work together.
Below is a copy of the exercise, which describes the ideal boss in the type of role I was seeking. I was a senior manager at Amazon (I am now a director), and I was looking for a specific type of autonomy and purpose. My ideal boss may have been a nightmare for someone else.
This is not a complete list of everything I might need from a boss. Rather, it is the result of thinking through the ways I haven’t completely meshed with my previous managers (or peers) and articulating how my ideal boss would handle those situations.