How Business Leaders Can Navigate the Unknown—and Thrive
Julie Benezet joined Amazon in 1998, when the company was just another ambitious startup in the nascent business of internet retail. She was hired to find sites for Amazon’s distribution centers as the operation grew. There were a lot of unknowns at the time, but the risks taken back then clearly paid off. Benezet left Amazon in 2002 after building the company’s first global real estate function. She was an executive committee member of the Samuel Zell and Robert Lurie Real Estate Center at Wharton and also taught the Challenges of Leadership program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Executive Education.
Today, she’s a consultant who teaches the value of taking risks, which is the focus of her new book, The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Benezet recently spoke on the Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM about the benefits that can come from being uncomfortable. (Listen to the podcast at the top of the page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: How did your experience at Amazon shape the content of this book?
Julie Benezet: I was in a company that was in a new industry. There was no such thing as e-commerce when I got there. The organization was new. There was no such thing as a business plan, and we had a large plate of work to achieve. In order to achieve that end in that environment, we had to make up a lot of things.
I like to invent. I’ve always enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit. Before, an entrepreneurial mindset was nice to have—it’s fun to go try to make something better that hasn’t been tried before. When I got to Amazon, it was a requirement because there was nothing that you could look back on and say, “OK, that worked well. We’ll do more of that.”
Instead, you had to look forward and ask, what does this new e-commerce customer want? What is it that they’re going to expect in terms of speed of delivery? [And] the way that things are handled in the back end, in the customer-service end. How do the programmers have to work together to create a new platform that will continue to address their evolving demands? You were always on your toes, trying to anticipate what these new customers wanted, and then making it work with no precedents.
What became our way of work at Amazon evolved into the 21st century, where everybody works that way. That created for me the Journey of Not Knowing, which is simply about the importance of going toward rather than away from the scariness of change to achieve something better.
Knowledge@Wharton: That’s an issue that a lot of executives have—they want to have the security of the known, and they do have the fear of the unknown.
Benezet: Absolutely. They get petrified when you say, “You don’t know if this new customer is going to like what you have to say, but how else are you going to find out unless you go and talk to this person?” I saw this at Amazon, and I see it writ large in today’s executives. People who have come in to present to us all the whiz-bang things they could do for our business without asking us what it is we were up to.
Part of the unknown is asking, being prepared not to know what they’re going to say, and being OK with the discomfort of that. A lot of executives feel like their job is to be super-confident, in-charge and in control. I believe that they’re going to miss what is actually going on because, at the end of the day, we live in a world of constant change. We are totally out of control. I mean, look at the madness of Washington. We’re out of control! But that’s an opportunity to learn.
Knowledge@Wharton: How has digital affected our ability to deal with the unknown in both our professional and personal lives?
Benezet: The digital world has created a life where everything’s hyper-connected and fast. It has sped things up so much that people have stopped thinking, and there’s a lot of reactive behavior going on, a lot of acting out, rushing to judgment. People take actions without the benefit of verifying facts. The digital world has accelerated this bias towards action, even when the action doesn’t make sense given what’s really going on.
Knowledge@Wharton: Early in the book, you write about these first couple of experiences of building fulfillment centers. You had to develop one in Germany, which was a unique dynamic in trying to understand the customer there, compared with the American customer. Can you tell us about that?
Benezet: In Germany, we weren’t exactly welcome. We had acquired an online book organization there. The owner was pleased to have the large check and the honor of having Amazon coming to buy it. But they weren’t pleased with us coming in and saying, “No, this isn’t right. We need to move your distribution facility to another part of the country where we have more space and we’re more centrally located. We can’t tell you where, but we can tell you why. We just don’t see you achieving that in the small space you have here.”
There was a lot of pushback of, “You don’t understand us, you don’t understand how we work. You don’t understand that if you move more than 30 miles away, you’re going to have to create a social plan which will fund people’s livelihood for the next 10 years. You just don’t understand.”
I don’t understand the German language, so it was a little inconvenient, but we worked around that. What we had to do, and in warp time, was to learn from them what the German setup was. We couldn’t have things like a nice database that told us where in the country everything was because there was no integrated database of real estate.
Amazon at the time was hardly creditworthy. We were beloved by Wall Street because our stock soared because people saw this great future, but the lenders weren’t so convinced. They said, “You have no credit. You’re not profitable. In fact, you stubbornly say you don’t want to make profits for the next few years”—which was not a very strong base to go in from.
When you arrive at the doors of landlords who have never met you, who say, “Yeah, we hear about in the United States, you got this thing going. But we don’t know about it here. We have requirements.” It took a lot of painting a picture of, “Here is the acceleration of the internet, which is growing at 2,300 percent a year. Here is the acceleration of people buying off catalogs. You put these things together, you have a business model that is only going to grow; it’s going to grow quickly. That’s why we have to get this super-sized facility to house all of this.” They finally believed it, and we were able to get a distribution center. But there was a lot of insanity along the way when people, just because of the scariness and the speed of it, pushed back.
I spent a lot of my time feeling like a social worker, asking, “What’s getting in your way? What’s stopping you?” Because the Journey of Not Knowing is not just knowing what idea is going to work, it’s also not knowing how people are experiencing things inside. How are they with the new? How are they in taking experiments? How do they feel about failure? One of the things that was very freeing in working with Amazon, which executives these days can learn from, is that failure was OK. We failed all the time. The important thing is what you learn from it. What do we need to change to push this forward?
Some things were abandoned entirely. For example, zShop was brought out in the late ‘90s as a competitor to eBay because we wanted an online auction kind of format. It failed miserably because we just didn’t know how to do it right. But what it led to was the format we have today at Amazon. It led to the Amazon Marketplace, which is an integrated model of being able to buy something from the vendor, buying something that is used, or buying something that is from a third party. And you can buy it all from the same place, on the same page.
Believe it or not, that made a big difference. About 50 percent of the retail activity on Amazon now occurs in the Marketplace format, but it started with a failure. Back in ’98, ’99, when we were trying to get this distribution center in Germany, we were awash in failures. But it led to something that was successful, and we got the distribution center.
Knowledge@Wharton: You have four key principles that you call the Core Four. What are they?
Benezet: The whole point of the Journey of Not Knowing is to learn to travel through the discomfort of trying out new ideas to make life better. Your job as an executive, or anybody in life, is to make something better. In order to do that and deal with the discomfort of going to this unknown place, you have to do four things.
The first is, discover your dreams. Choose something that you want to improve. It can be anything. Maybe you want a different communication culture in your company because people aren’t honest enough with each other. They resist giving each other feedback. What you want to build is a culture where you give honest feedback in a constructive way.
It’s a disruption because people are so conflict-avoidant, but it’s an important change. It can be choosing a new market to go into. It could be a different way of staffing teams, in which the teams themselves choose their members, rather than the managers choosing. The idea is, you choose something that you want to make better. That is your dream.
It’s often something that you’ve been avoiding because it bugs you so much and it’s going to be hard. But once you have that dream, then you have to go learn about the people who will benefit from it. If you are looking at project teams, and they are the ones who would benefit from changing to a regime where they choose their own members, you spend time with those teams. Ask, “What goes on for you? Where do things trip up? What happens when you have a member who’s not functioning at a high level?” That crystalizes what your dream is and allows you to hone it, so when you go to test it, you have better facts to deal with.
The second principle of the Core Four is to get comfortable with the scariness of risk. We spend a lot of time trying to de-stress ourselves, trying to be mindful and so on. All of these are good things. But when you’re in the business of trying new things and the new behaviors that go with that, you’re going to be in a place where you’re going to be nervous. It’s important to accept that as part of the deal.
However you experience it physically, however you experience it mentally is to not fight it, but to embrace it and say, “This is the cost of trying to improve things, and that’s good.” It doesn’t mean you sit and shake and do nothing, but you allow it to travel with you. In effect, allow it to say, “This is assigned to me. I have to pay more attention to what’s going around me, to learn from the others, to ask questions, to hear what they’re saying, to course-correct as we go along.” And be OK with the fact that they, too, are going to be nervous.
The third thing is to watch out for self-sabotaging behaviors. I call these ‘hooks.’ These are defensive behaviors that are very common in business and life. We all know them. I’ve identified 10 of them. They are ways of calming yourself, of giving yourself some way of feeling you have a modicum of control over things. The problem is, while they may help settle you down in the moment, they will take you off the course to the bigger idea.
The importance of watching out for these self-sabotaging behaviors is to learn to recognize them and to switch strategies. These are things like micromanagement, perfectionism, conflict avoidance, disengagement. They are things that are very common. It doesn’t mean that you have a psychological problem. It means that you’re a normal person trying to find your way through scariness and trying to calm yourself.
But when you catch yourself, for example, readjusting the fonts on a proposal, or yelling at your team to make sure they got the PowerPoint slides just so, instead of thinking, “Is this proposal really a winning proposal for this client we’re going to approach,” catch yourself. “Oh, I’m micromanaging. What’s going on here?” Then you go into a strategy of literally stopping yourself, stopping the speeding train of [reactions], and [ask], “What do we need to do here? Have we spent enough time with the proposal?”
I taught strategy for years, and it’s remarkable what a high percentage of the time a strategy fails because people didn’t know the stakeholders. They didn’t spend enough time either internally through the organization, or externally. They didn’t get what was the real problem. They just said, “I’ve got to get this done. Just please put a Band-Aid on it, let’s go.”
At the time, it’s all done in a spirit of making change, but it’s not enough. You have to go to that uncomfortable place of saying, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I don’t get what they’re upset about.” And go to the humbling place of learning what it is that people care about. But that’s the point. When you go from reactivity to activity, you’re going out in a learning mindset to take in what you’ve got to know and what you didn’t know before to make the idea work.
The final principle of the Core Four is to find drivers to help fuel your travel through the discomfort of the new idea that comes with the unknown. The driver can be anything that gives you purpose. It can be a really serviceable driver like, “I just hate that guy so much that I would rather die than he wins this proposal. It would kill me to see a smug expression on his face if he wins and I don’t.”
“I am going to go work with a super-scary analytics department in our company who makes me feel like a moron, but they would definitely help me put together a winning proposal because I don’t want to see that guy’s smug expression.” It doesn’t have to be something that speaks well of you, it just has to work for you. You will find a different messaging for your team, for sure. But for you, find something to help navigate the discomfort.
Core drivers are about who you are as a person. What is it that makes you, you? What do you care about? A very powerful film is Invictus about Nelson Mandela. Mandela did not want to be a victim. He was in prison for 27 years. He studied his jailors and learned who they were as people. When he came out of prison, he wanted all of the people in South Africa to be equal.
But in order to do that, he had to go through all sorts of scary experiments. The whole thing about the World Rugby Championship was a huge bet because black Africans didn’t even play rugby. And here he was, trying to get them to pull together. But the idea is that his core driver was he so did not want to be a victim. It allowed him to try out a lot of new and scary things.
I have had countless women tell me that they had mothers who thought that they would fail, and they would tell them that. These women would come into my office and tell me these stories, and then tell me they had spent their life disproving their mothers. That was a driver for them.
I have worked with many men, too. I remember in particular an executive group where five out of six of members were men, and very successful ones. We were sitting around in a meeting one day, and it turned out that every one of them had a distancing father. It really empowered them to say, “I am going to prove to that guy that I can do it.”
Knowledge@Wharton: How much do you think leadership is truly going into the unknown?
Benezet: All of it. You have businesses that are changing quickly, customers that are changing, the businesses that have failed to recognize the customer change. Just think of what social media has done. It has really elevated the power of the individual to have an opinion.
I worked with a restaurant company where they said they just dread it when people take out their phones at the table, start photographing the meal, and then typing something. They can put out there that they had a crummy meal, and it will really hurt business.
As leaders, we have to keep ahead of where the customer’s going and acknowledge that they have an opinion and, like it or not, it counts. So, that absorbs people all the time. At the same time, it’s exhilarating because it makes you want to try new things. For example, restaurants that went to a format of having the kitchen open to the dining room was in response to the people in the dining room being curious about cooking. It’s been a very successful model.