How Amazon is Connecting Culture and Communication
Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up, so settle in, drink in the knowledge. Some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guest I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Senior Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. On this episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Kristin Graham, Principle of Culture & Communications at Amazon.
Amazon is an American multinational technology company based in Seattle that focuses on e-commerce, cloud computing, digital streaming, and artificial intelligence. It is considered one of the Big Four technology companies, along with Google, Apple, and Microsoft.
“As communications professionals, we spend so much time obsessing on the elegance of the work that we’re doing without giving enough attention to, how is the recipient, how is our reader, is our listener going to have the capacity to digest what we just spent all this time and ego producing? Because ego’s a whole ‘nother conversation in communications. And the fact of the matter is the digital age has completely rewired the brain. ” —Kristin Graham
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Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #34 Transcript
Chuck Gose: Welcome everyone to the first ever live broadcast-
Kristin Graham: First ever!
Chuck Gose: … of Culture, Comms & Cocktails. Jazz hands! First ever live one.
Kristin Graham: Jazz hands! Spirit fingers.
Chuck Gose: Welcome everyone to this broadcast and if some of you have watched the show before, you know it used to just be audio as a lot of podcasts are. Then I started capturing video as part of it, because why not? We’re already recording. And with this one, I was like, “I’ve been to experimenting with doing live streaming,” but more spinning the wheel a very structured concept with Rachel Miller. But I was like, “You know what? Let’s try going live with Culture, Comms & Cocktails.” And I thought, why not do this with Kristin Graham, principal of culture and communications at Amazon? Kristin, welcome to Culture, Comms & Cocktails.
Kristin Graham: Where’s the drum roll? And is it going live or is it going rogue? Because that’s what’s happening today.
Chuck Gose: Maybe both. Maybe a little bit of both, because why not?
Kristin Graham: No extra charge.
Chuck Gose: If you’re listening to this sometime later, we were live. We might do this again with Culture, Comms & Cocktails. But yeah, I thought there was a great opportunity to try something a little different, bring in a new audience. You can always catch other past episodes wherever you go get your podcasts.
Chuck Gose: Kristin, you and I first met back in early February. And I was thinking back to what a weird time that was then versus where we are now. And I was thinking largely with the pandemic, but also with racial tensions and Black Lives Matter and social injustice, what’s happening in Seattle where you’re located. I think back to early February, we were all in Seattle. We were there for the Elevate and Amplify Amazon communications event and that was the first time Amazon pulled together as a global communicator. So here a month before crazy pandemic hit, we were all in Seattle with a global audience. Where is the Amazon employee mindset now from a communicator standpoint? What’s going on there?
Kristin Graham: Oh, goodness. You’re just taking me back to when February was a thing; when months used to be just a set number of days instead of extended amounts of time. So yes, I remember February. It was funny. And what you’re talking about too is almost 200 of us all in a conference room. Remember when that was a thing? And it was accidentally strategic, when I think back on it, in terms of getting together a group of communicators. And by that, that’s lowercase C. That is people who in some form function as a part or as whole of their role do communications on behalf of different business units, regions, divisions, platforms of Amazon.
Kristin Graham: At that time, coming together in a very organic way to learn from each other and to build this community, which I feel like we’ll talk about later, was so fortuitous because since then, to answer your question, that community has really been our foothold in keeping going as we’re all learning new things in this space, but also helping each other out. Never before on so many levels have we all needed to come together. Just as… You and I have talked many times during this pandemic and said to each other, “What are you doing? But first, how are you doing?” And I think that that’s been the biggest, biggest takeaway.
Chuck Gose: At that event, it was interesting for me to learn that at Amazon, the internal communications role is relatively new to the organization. So thinking about even prior to February, but even the growth since then, how have you seen this team mature with each other? And also describe a little bit more about your role as principal of culture and communication. It’s a very big title.
Kristin Graham: It’s a vanity title. Let’s just be clear. To answer your… Let’s answer your first question first. So it is not a… For those of you who are listening or watching, Amazon doesn’t have a centralized team of 200-plus people. We have, as a lot of companies do, different individuals, sometimes purely sole practitioners, who are head count within their organization who do comms, again, in whole or part of their role. And then you do have some teams that have dedicated head count that work together that go deep in. And there’s also a central public relations team who is a dedicated team who does the large events, the all hands, the intranet, things like that.
Kristin Graham: But for the most part, this group, which is now 250 people, although I’m sure there are a lot more than that across the whole global company, but they come together and we have our alias, we have our conversations, we have our monthly get togethers, and so it really becomes information sharing. At Amazon, one of the things that we talk about is invent and simplify. It’s one of our principles. And the best way to do that, I find, is to peek around corners and see what other people are doing. I’m a big fan of originality is great, but plagiarism is faster. So if Chuck’s doing something cool, friends, you’d best believe I’m going to be all about taking his good work. I like to be upfront about that space.
Kristin Graham: So to answer your other question, within the global learning and development organization, they were seeing a lot of opportunity to do culture. Amazon is well known for its, we call it peculiar culture. And so there’s a lot of channels that Amazonians, employees, are intersecting with and they wanted to do a little bit of streamlining and conscious connection of everything from on-boarding, and now we’re doing a big bets in what we’re calling pre-boarding; from the time somebody accepts a role before they get to their first day. We know that that’s a sweet spot, so really getting to their hearts and minds. So delivering to them through technology, what’s some culture things that we can learn about? That’s an area I see really evolving in the communication space and then all the way into how do we intersect with them throughout their life cycle? Ooh, lifecycle. I just sounded like a corporate nerd; our life cycle. Wow. I’m going to… Too bad this is live, otherwise we’d edit that nerdiness.
Chuck Gose: And then what about your role in particular?
Kristin Graham: My screen just went dark, so that’s awesome. One of the things of working from home is when your screen decides to go dark. My role in particular, I give a lot of free opinions to people. I go around as they’re doing programs and they’re saying, “Hey, we’re going to launch this to people managers,” is a big project that I’ve been working on right now. And they’re saying, “We’re really seeing through people managers who are new to the company,” so let’s give that as an example of culture, that they’re coming in and we’re seeing that there’s a different level of opportunity, but also vulnerability. You’re coming in, you have most likely interviewed, been hired, met your team, met your manager, met your peers all virtually right now. If you think about even just the last six months what’s been changing. So we’re seeing not only do they need information and most companies have a plethora of information, but what they’re really asking for is, “I need a safe place to have conversations so that I can feel connected.”
Kristin Graham: So we’ve launched a new platform recently called Circles, which is a one to many peer mentoring circle. So you get together with other new people managers. So not only are you accountable for your individual responsibilities, but you are leading a team during these, as you said at the beginning, extremely uncertain times. You’re coming in and you’re doing it all from your laptop, which is not working like half the time mine is. And so you’re trying to fumble through that.
Kristin Graham: This group, so back to, what do we do? We look after that culture that we can create. So instead of saying, “Hey, here’s your on-boarding buddy,” which we have. So, “Kristin, go talk to Chuck anytime you have questions,” it’s like, you can talk to Chuck because he is a tenured Amazonian, but you also are with another four or five people managers just like you; across the business, across disciplines, across geographies, but here’s a group where you can have vulnerable conversations and say, “What does that mean? What’s that acronym? And what do I do about this?” We’re all feeling vulnerable in our life.
Chuck Gose: I love that pre-boarding idea because it is so often… It’s a crazy time anytime you join an organization, especially one the size and scope and scale of Amazon. I know just in my limited exposure and experience with the team, amazing team, creative team, powerful team, but very complex organization. So I can imagine joining, there’s a lot of acronyms and structure and people and places to learn. And even, I think, people that have been there a long time are still very much in that learning mode when it comes to Amazon.
Kristin Graham: A hundred percent. Amazon’s the second largest company in the world only behind… Can you guess? I put you on the spot.
Chuck Gose: Second largest company… The total employment… Is Walmart in there?
Kristin Graham: Walmart’s number one, yeah. Both in terms of revenue and employees. So good guess! Especially since that wasn’t scripted.
Chuck Gose: I knew at one point the federal government was in there too. So maybe you surpassed the federal government.
Kristin Graham: I mean, I’m pretty sure the Chinese army is still larger than us, but yes, in terms of where there’s revenue based and… Yeah. I’m doing my very best to not make any comments about the government right now. So you should move on to your next question.
Chuck Gose: Fair point. We’ll stay out of politics on this one. I noticed in your LinkedIn bio you had interesting wording; you’re a self-described people collector. Before you get arrested based on people thinking you’ve got bodies hidden somewhere, what do you mean by people collector?
Kristin Graham: I need to clean my closets. Hold on, let me make a self note of that. That’s just… Now that you made me sound creepy to everybody, Chuck, thank you. It’s really more my approach and my philosophy. And it’s more around I found that networking is the secret sauce to career success; probably personal success in some areas too, but it’s certainly, I know that I have benefited enormously from networking. So, networking gold; that’s what that means.
Kristin Graham: But it also is… I am relentlessly curious, so I love meeting new people or learning new things, but I’m also a little bit lazy. So, saying that I’m a people collector is more like if somebody came to me and said, “Hey, Chuck says that we should know each other,” or it’s usually the other way, I’m usually going in saying, “Hey, Chuck talks a lot about you.” That’s just my version of networking TripAdvisor. If you’re already connected to Chuck, that means that there’s been some due diligence and you’re probably much cooler than somebody I would meet on my own.
Kristin Graham: So “people collector” is not only about my own selfish pursuits, but the fact that you and I are even having this conversation right now is because Cindy Hoots connected us. And I feel like every great thing that I’ve been able to experience in my professional career has been because there’s been a plus sign. Somewhere along the way, somebody double clicked on something or I… Gosh, I am such a LinkedIn nerd. I’m reading all the scrolls and I’m like, “Who’s commenting on Chuck’s stuff? Cool.” And then I just run around and ask people to be my friends. It’s a little pathetic, but it works for me.
Chuck Gose: And you used that word curiosity. I’m a huge fan of curiosity. When I saw you speak at the Amazon internal event, you were speaking about the human brain, which is something that I’m curious about and fascinated by it and how it impacts communication. So in your job as a communicator, where do you see the employee brain today? How receptive are we to communication are not receptive to communication, or when are we receptive?
Kristin Graham: Oh my gosh.
Chuck Gose: As a communicator, how do we begin to manage and impact those things?
Kristin Graham: Oh my gosh. That’s such a big question and such an important question.
Chuck Gose: That’s why I asked it.
Kristin Graham: The thing is… Well, thank you. Anybody else want to weigh in on the chat? Anybody? Well, it goes back to my roots. I started out as a journalist, so research was always key. Before you were speaking, you were checking and rechecking facts. So I’ve always been a big research nerd. And early on, as I was learning my communications career… Listen, there’s only so much innovation that’s going to be done through a newsletter. And I’m going to say that respectfully, because I have done a lot of newsletters in my day. I’ve done them up until last week where I edited for somebody else. But you’re not going to get movement behind a lot of that.
Kristin Graham: I used to be the ghost writer who would do the CEO’s annual letter in the printed annual report. Remember when that was a thing?
Chuck Gose: Of course.
Kristin Graham: It was like, what cover paper should we use? It was very sexy times, kids! Pay attention. But within that space, what I learned a lot about was, and especially back to your point about the modern age, because the brain science is phenomenal in terms of how we are able to have short term memory. There’s some great research out of the 1950s in psychology work around what’s called the magical number seven; and that is how much can the brain retain on a short term basis. And in fact, the modern telephone system, the seven digit numeric number, now we have to add an area codes and the rest, came from that research. What can we hold in our heads for both short term and repetitive memory? So there’s things from academics, there’s things from information science. And there’s a lot between information psychology. Now you’ve got me going and I haven’t even had a cocktail yet. But all of that totally influences how somebody is going to receive that email.
Kristin Graham: When you’re getting upwards of 200 emails a day, personal and professional, when you’re looking at… I was just talking to a friend yesterday and he was like, “Have you gotten into TikTok, Kristin? Everything is 10 seconds.” I was like, I can’t… Wow. And it’s constantly scrolling. I’ve got teenage boys and they’re plugged in in a completely different way. But the thing is, are we retaining any of this goodness.
Chuck Gose: But you just said, you want people to remember but you also want them to feel. And I think that’s that big part of-
Kristin Graham: Yeah. That’s how they remember.
Chuck Gose: That’s that good gooey stuff that I talk about with people, that people retain that because they remember how they felt reading it. They remember how they felt watching it. And when I was getting ready for this, I went to go online to find an image of you, Kristin.
Kristin Graham: Don’t! This is not cool.
Chuck Gose: And when I did that, I found a few interesting things out there. Mostly, there’s a lot of differing Kristin Graham photos out there that aren’t you, but that’s okay.
Kristin Graham: Yes. There’s an attorney’s-
Chuck Gose: One photo I did find though, which I thought was interesting, was from an event that you spoke at.
Kristin Graham: As communications professionals, we spend so much time obsessing on the elegance of the work that we’re doing without giving enough attention to, how is the recipient, how is our reader, our listener going to have the capacity to digest what we just spent all this time and ego producing? Because ego’s a whole ‘nother conversation in communications. And the fact of the matter is the digital age has completely rewired the brain. And if you and I, Chuck, are doing our jobs right, what we want is people to remember. And we do that through storytelling. We do that through the head and the heart; and brain science to me is that magical formula back and forth between them. Oh my gosh. I’m going to-
Chuck Gose: And behind you on the screen, it said, “do fewer things better.” What’s that advice related to communicators? I think I know, but I want to hear it from you.
Kristin Graham: Okay. Well, I’m really glad that’s one of the photos that you picked. I felt like I was having a bad Oprah moment at the time or more like Jerry Springer moment; but again, separate podcast. Do fewer things better. It’s one of my favorite mantras, because most of us who are in…
Kristin Graham: And by the way, I speak for the entire communications community when I say we get… We’re like, “Twitter? Yeah, let’s go tweet.” And what we do, especially when… Doing fewer things better means absolutely explore, absolutely understand what’s out there. I’m going to have to check out this TikTok stuff. I’m probably pitching that Jeff Bezos is doing TikToks; not that that’s even my role, let’s just be clear. I was making myself sound important.
Kristin Graham: So if your leader, if your community… And look at what our education system has been doing right now. All of a sudden you took classroom learning, traditional longterm model, and said, “You have to be in front of your teachers. You have to be with cohorts,” and they’ve moved everybody to this virtual space. The connectivity, the retention, all of it turned on a dime. And so within that space, they didn’t go out and say, “You’re going to have 10 different channels you have to be connected to.” It’s like, here’s what we’re doing in what order. And I think as human beings, our nature is to say we need to be a little sequential.
Kristin Graham: Because we’ve all been victim to going on to some social channel and 49 minutes later, you’re still just scrolling and scrolling. There’s productivity behind a lot of it. So what I challenge us to do is to not get distracted by what’s the frosting, but really to focus on your cupcake. Now, I’m just saying that because it’s almost lunchtime here. But if your audience…
Chuck Gose: Yeah, I did finally last weekend or something around there, finally signed up on TikTok to experience it, to see what it’s like.
Kristin Graham: Communications isn’t owned by any one individual. All of us are communicators, whether that’s our job title or not. And what usually attracts people to study or to be a student of communications is the interests. We can get distracted by shiny, sexy things. Be curious, go look and explore all these different things and how people are responding to them, but at the same time, in our jobs, we don’t want to do 10 things moderately well. We should really hone in and go deep and do fewer things better. It goes back to the audience obsession. If you’re not clear on what your audience is able to process, and you’re making shiny TikTok videos by your CEO, and people probably aren’t doing that, I’m just going on a tangent here, you’re going to have a lot of pretty products that nobody’s using. And we’ve all been guilty of that. Yeah?
Chuck Gose: I’ve only gone on it a few times since then to see and it’s not my cup of tea. But you’re right; you must go and experience it and learn for yourself. But back to your do fewer things better. It goes back to a mantra that I’ve heard many times, people echo in slightly different words, that if you work on your weaknesses, you become average at everything. If you work on your strengths, you become amazing at some things.
Kristin Graham: Yes.
Chuck Gose: So along those same lines, do the things that you’re really good at and do them really well. You can’t do everything at optimum level. So I certainly agree with that. Another thing I’ve learned is that you’re also big data fan, which we want in communicators. We don’t want to see it in communicators, we want that in communicators. So my question for you is, what’s some advice you have for communicators who seem to be swinging and missing a bit on data? What’s not connecting for them?
Kristin Graham: Yes. Thank you. I struggled when I came in and was learning data. I’m like, “So I just have to plop in some numbers, right? That’s what that is?” And I was working… This was probably about 15 years ago and I was with the big executive and she said, “The data will set you free.” And so, all the time that you’re running around and you’re trying to influence, and you’re trying to have salesmanship or…
Kristin Graham: But what we’re doing is that we’re going out and we’re just saying here is the data. We’re seeing that 75% of our audience is on Google. Okay, that’s a factoid. But if you come out and say, “But 50% of our marketing is on Bing, what are we going to do about it?” Or 60% of our workforce is now choosing to work from home through the end of the year. We’re not going to have 90-minute in-person town halls anymore. So let’s talk about attention to online videos, et cetera, and do benchmarking and best practices, which goes back to fewer things better.
Kristin Graham: But if we just use data and then we do a full stop, we’re only giving them half the story. And you said earlier, what’s the impetus behind it? What’s the feeling? What’s the emotion that we can do that? So, if we said research says that 65% of people are opening emails on mobile, and I think it’s climbing every day, what does that mean about the word links that we should be doing, images we should be doing, links we should be putting in there? If we just said, “Everybody’s reading it on mobile,” you’re missing the comma. And then what? Where you can influence. And when you’re using business communications or, gosh, business credibility, but data is the data is the difference… To your question about what are communicators doing, we’re inserting facts without insight. So the data is, here’s what happened; where the insight is, what are we going to do about it? So data helps drive discussions and helps us have the conversations that are needed where insight and action are informed by the data.
Chuck Gose: Yeah. We might want to have a conversation or maybe an intervention with a company that’s spending half of their ad budget on Bing, but that’s…
Kristin Graham: That was just a for instance. I hope you don’t have advertisers, Chuck, because…
Chuck Gose: And then in the… I wish I did. When I was doing that research, I saw a tweet that somebody had shared, which I thought was an interesting take, that I’d like for the watchers’ now and the listeners’ later on the podcast feedback on; it was, “Internal communications is not a department,” Kristin Graham says, “it’s an expectation of our employees, of our people, and it’s because we live in the world of perpetual conversation.” That’s pretty heavy.
Kristin Graham: Wow. She sounds cool. Can I just side note say, I think you know more about me than my mother does at this point? I’ll stop short of saying creepy, but I like it. Yes. Did you just want me to expand on that or you just showing off your skill?
Chuck Gose: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of people that work in the internal comms department and they take a lot of pride in that. I think the message you have is that internal comms is the responsibility of everyone and it’s happening everywhere all the time.
Kristin Graham: A hundred percent. Especially now, especially now, because I’m not sure when I said that pithy quote, but communication belongs to the people. Communication in a company or a community isn’t a function of a few org chart boxes. Kristin Graham doesn’t own communications for this particular division. I am merely an amplifier existing. And that’s where culture comes into play. But going back to communication belonging to the people, we’re seeing that everywhere right now, in terms of the fact there is a very low bar for BS. So while people are still expecting to hear from, I’m going to call it authorities, it could be executives, it could be government, it could be your subject matter experts, if it’s not ringing true or authentic and if it feels one-way, that’s no longer internal communication. Not a two-way channel… And it doesn’t mean you solve everything for everyone.
Kristin Graham: If there is the information or the data that we have at this point, and let’s keep talking. I think that the more that we create that community of conversation, I’m saying the we as communicators, that we then create communities that become our teachers. The fact that as we are reading this is in the week where Juneteenth is going to be acknowledged in some places, we’re seeing all these companies come out and say, “Okay, now we will acknowledge or we will pause or we will cancel meetings.” That’s what Amazon’s doing. Others, Nike just this morning. What it means is this is a conversation and this said it’s now a company holiday. I remember sitting at the table 10 years ago having a conversation with a former employer about Martin Luther King Day. It’s not for a few people in a few boxes to decide, it’s to say, what are we hearing? What sounds right? And the fact that we all get to change our minds. Communicators sometimes come out and we are the microphone for others who say, “This is the way it is.” Our job should be to say, “In this conversation at this point, here’s where we’re at. What’s next?” We don’t know what we don’t know. And that’s the most, I think, going to be the most empowering communication forces as we move forward; not extolling our expertise, but really expanding our listening skills more than we speak.
Chuck Gose: Yeah. I see that where communicators have this ultimate fear of failure and the failure is if they don’t know something; which we tell leaders all the time, it’s okay to be vulnerable. But as communicators, so often we don’t feel like we can afford to be vulnerable. Anyway, I did want to… We’ve got some people watching online. I want to say, if you want to submit a question in, we can pull it up. I’ll read it aloud for those listening on the podcast part or the audio part.
Kristin Graham: Please, something easier than Chuck is doing!
Chuck Gose: Certainly feel free to chime in with a question if you want. But this is called Culture, Comms & Cocktails, Kristin. We’ve spent time talking about culture and communications within your thoughts, and then what’s happening at Amazon. Let’s move along to the super fun part of this conversation, which is cocktail. Kristin, what is your favorite cocktail or perhaps favorite place to get your favorite cocktail?
Kristin Graham: Oh! Goodness. I like it. I like it. I love travel. It’s something that I haven’t done lately with a lot of us, but I have this preflight tradition that I get a lemon drop martini. This could not sound more girly, but I was in an airport lounge one time and they had a special sign that said lemon drop martini. And I was like, “That sounds so cosmopolitan.” It also had a rim of sugar on it, so I was sold. So now, when I’m going, especially on long flights, this is so dorky, I get a lemon drop martini and I take a picture of it next to my luggage. It’s super nerdy, but it’s what I do.
Chuck Gose: And I’ve read recently that in our pandemic world, like you, I used to travel all the time, now I’m not going anywhere, that I’ve seen now that airlines have stopped serving alcohol on flights.
Kristin Graham: I just saw that.
Chuck Gose: So I wonder if these airport bars are going to be even that much busier so people can get their lemon drop martinis preflight, not drinking on the plane.
Kristin Graham: I just saw that too this week, in fact, and I was wondering about, is that a revenue… Of course, I go to what’s the story behind the story? Is that revenue savings? Is that because of fear in that space? But I think that just as 9/11 changed the way that we traveled, we will absolutely see new normals. I mean, I can personally get on board with the middle seat being blocked off forever. I know that that won’t always happen, but it’ll be wildly fascinating. I haven’t been on a plane for months and I’m eager to do it when it’s right to do. But I’ll be wildly curious to see what it looks and feels like.
Chuck Gose: Yeah. As someone who flew not quite every week, but pretty frequently pre-pandemic, yeah, I don’t know that I’m excited to get back on a plane right now because of the uncertainty of it. Not that I think anything bad is going to happen, but man, it’s really hard to keep yourself healthy, even pre-pandemic, keeping yourself healthy traveling.
Kristin Graham: Don’t you know!
Chuck Gose: Now you’ve got this greater risk out there.
Kristin Graham: Well, and you and I, we have kids. When we travel, we bring things back to the families. And I think that’s the burden that I’m feeling more now with travel. Travel used to be such a selfish endeavor and it was just kind of us out of a suitcase, and now there’s more.
Chuck Gose: Well, Kristin, I want to thank you again for coming on and experimenting with me doing Culture, Comms & Cocktails live. I want to thank you for that. Also want to announce a new feature I wanted to do experiment with adding to this podcast is office hours. Now, I’ve completely ripped that off and stolen that from Scott Galloway’s podcast, but he’s more of this elite marketing brand, econ world. He’s never going to hear about it from me.
Kristin Graham: No.
Chuck Gose: But he answers questions from people and you submit them in as audio files so that you get to be part of the podcast.
Kristin Graham: Oh, I love it!
Chuck Gose: So all you have to do is submit an audio file to email@example.com. Ask a really great question. I’ll bring it into a future podcast and give you a little shout out for the question. Anything related to internal communications, leadership, employee experience, if I’m not able to answer it, I’ll go find someone who can answer it and bring them on the podcast.
Chuck Gose: So thanks everybody for watching this. Thank you, Kristin, for joining me today and everybody have a great weekend.
Kristin Graham: Thank you friends.