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MBA At Amazon Tells You 5 Skills Every Future Leader Needs

In a fast-changing business world, you need to adapt and learn new skills to stay ahead. We spoke to Amazon talent acquisition lead and IESE MBA Jess Smith to find out more


Fri Jan 24 2020


Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and self-made billionaire, knows a thing or two about how to stay ahead in business. Amazon, for every employee, sets out its 14 leadership principles, a set of skills that every future business leader in their organization must embody. 

While not quite at Bezos level, Jess Smith, IESE Business School MBA graduate and talent acquisition lead at Amazon’s Austin office, has years of experience at the forefront of this fast moving industry. Jess works with a team of researchers and data scientists at Amazon to help companies recruit top talent using data analytics.

Here are the five skills she says that future business leaders need to have:

1. Grit

Digitalization, globalization, and shifting generational standards about work are all rapidly changing the way that business is done. Hard skills that were vital five years ago might be redundant today. 

Future business leaders must approach this fast rate of change with what Jess only describes with one word—grit.

“It’s about being able to fall down and get back up again quickly,” Jess explains.

Grit means embracing, rather than resisting, change. In this, speed is of the essence, particularly at tech companies like Amazon. It is this fast-paced environment, Jess believes, that is drawing so many MBA graduates like herself to the tech industry, fast becoming one of the most popular routes post-graduation. 

“It’s because MBAs are trained to solve problems. When there’s a lot of change, there are a lot of problems to solve.”

2. Perspective 

From her first job at Johnson & Johnson to her current role at Amazon, Jess has worked in a variety of roles, including product management, data analytics, finance, recruiting, and marketing. She needed a wide perspective of business to make these career shifts. 

This is the emphasis of the general management approach at IESE. Leaders must grasp a wide range of skills and functions to be able to view business holistically rather than through a narrow perspective. It has helped her see the impact of her decision making across the whole business, rather than just in her department.

Echoing the success of startup models, large companies like Amazon are starting to embrace a flat organization model, where leadership is less hierarchical and leadership is much more distributed. 

This environment expects employees at all levels to move more freely across a variety of functions and departments. 

“More people have to make decisions and be comfortable with the decisions they are making, and be able to move out of their specialist area,” explains Sebastian Reiche, MBA professor and director of people management department at IESE. 

3. Data analytics

Big data is fast becoming one of the most in-demand skills for employers, in both tech and non-tech organizations. Being able to analyse data is a crucial tool for being able to make better decisions as a leader. 

“It helps you to tell a story. When you’re working in the product space, being able to ask the right questions because you understand basic data flows, and how the structure of data generally works, is key,” Jess underlines. 

Data analytics also happens to be a field with a significant skills gap, named as one of the five hardest skills to recruit for in the Financial Times Skills Gap Survey. MBAs able to grasp data, and who can apply it to business, will have a significant advantage in the future of work. 

4. Ability to engage your colleagues

As organizations become less hierarchical, leadership positions are much more loosely defined. For future business leaders, this is an opportunity to command a different sort of influence, one based on trust, respect, and support for your team. 

Jess highlights IESE’s emphasis on ‘service leadership’, a leadership philosophy where the main role of the leader is to serve.

“The idea is being able to lead through others when they know you appreciate them and the work that they do,” Jess says. “In an environment where that isn’t the norm, it can be a real advantage.”

Engaging and networking with her colleagues has served Jess well. “Whenever I get offered different roles, that’s thanks to networking. Networking has really helped me influence.”

5. Responsibility and ownership

Part of the erosion of formal leadership at organizations like Amazon is that employees are expected to take more responsibility and ownership over their work. 

“You can take on a huge amount of responsibility in these roles,” Jess underlines.

Ownership is in fact the second of Amazon’s leadership principles—stressing that leadership should ‘act on behalf of the entire company’.

Sebastian has seen a significant increase in MBA graduates pursuing entrepreneurship as a career option. It’s part of what he calls an increasing trend towards ownership in all companies, a shift towards companies bestowing more responsibility and ownership over work at all levels of the company.

From small startup teams to 100,000+ employee organizations like Amazon, leaders must be willing to step up to challenges and take on new responsibilities that go beyond their remit, all for the sake of the company at large.