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Connex Member Spotlight: Michael Arena

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Michael Arena, VP of Talent Management and Development for Amazon Web Services recently spoke with Connex following the February 2020 Strategic CHRO Executive Sector Meeting. Michael graciously gave us insight into his pioneering work in social capital and networks, what it’s like to think about talent when you’re in the most innovative corporation on earth, and why we shouldn’t worry too much about the AI apocalypse. He even gave us some compelling reading advice – no, not his book (but you should read that too) – became the second Spotlight Member to question the value of growing up at all, and made us extremely jealous by recounting his romantic (in the old fashioned sense) exploits in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

We learned just enough about what it’s like to manage talent at Amazon to realize we’re not qualified to do it – “We are completely reinventing what it takes to do talent management inside a business that has grown at the size, scale, speed, and complexity of the business that I am in.” And uniquely, Michael managed to give us far more than a personal mantra, he gave us a thesis on innovation and human systems:

“Innovation is a social phenomenon, not a human capital-based phenomenon. We think we need really smart people, and that’s true, but we actually need really smart people positioned to leverage what they know already. One of the ways that happens is by unleashing human potential: You’ve got to not just bring in the best people, you’ve got to bring the best out of every person. The way you do that is to think very deliberately about where they are positioned in the network to leverage what they know best; if the network dismisses or marginalizes them, then what they do doesn’t matter to the business.”

This thoughtfulness characterized much of our conversation, and we don’t want to spoil the experience with too much synopsis! We encourage you to read on, but if you don’t, we’ll leave you with perhaps the most compelling thing we learned: For all the complexity that characterizes Michael’s work, at the end of the day, nothing beats a plate of good old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs.

Read the Full Interview:

What’s your motto or personal mantra?

Innovation is a social phenomenon, not a human capital-based phenomenon. We think we need really smart people, and that’s true, but we actually need really smart people positioned to leverage what they know already. One of the ways that happens is by unleashing human potential: You’ve got to not just bring in the best people, you’ve got to bring the best out of every person. The way you do that is to think very deliberately about where they are positioned in the network to leverage what they know best; if the network dismisses or marginalizes them, then what they do doesn’t matter to the business.

Thinking about inclusion, thinking about belonging, thinking about getting people pulled into the network is one of the things I spend a ton of time on.

 

What are your biggest challenges at present?

Can we find enough people – we’re hiring like crazy – enough high-quality people, and once we’ve invited them into the organization, are we super deliberate about getting them on boarded, assimilated, and creating an environment where they feel they belong and we can get maximum contribution?

 

What three adjectives would people use to describe you at work?

Creative; a bit of a challenger who tries to push people towards the next big thing, whatever that may be. And I would say, in a different breath, I am a bit of a broker in that I look inside the organization and outside the organization trying to discover that next thing and weave it together in such a way that we can do something innovative.

 

What’s the best part of your job?

We are completely reinventing what it takes to do talent management inside a business that has grown at the size, scale, speed, and complexity of the business that I am in. It requires us to reinvent the domain that we call talent management; I can’t develop people the same way, I can’t manage them the same way, I can’t promote them the same way.

 

At what age did you become an adult?

I hope I am still not an adult. I don’t ever want to be an adult. I think I go back and forth, there’s this childlike experience…if we’re not curious and we don’t go looking for interesting things, I don’t know what fun there would be in life. So, I hope I am never an adult, completely.

 

Tell me about one person within your organization who’s had a strong impact on you and why?

It’s hard to find one, so I will just talk about the people that I work with every single day, some of the smartest people I’ve worked with in my entire life. They’re just so quick to get from concept to implementation that I am baffled. The speed and finesse of this organization make it hard for me to pick one person, because it’s everyone I work with.

Basically: There’s an idea; first we’ll debate whether or not it’s a good idea, if it is then the conversation shifts completely away from the idea towards ‘how quickly can we get this implemented and drive impact for our customers?’ It’s just that disposition, and there are many, many people who think and operate that way.

 

Talk to me about your organizational culture.

Fast, bold in thinking about how to reinvent certain spaces, and super innovative in coming up with big ideas and rapidly getting them to implementation.

 

What does being a strategic leader mean to you?

I used to think that strategic and individual operator were distinctly separate manager types, both within a given individual and within the organization; now I look at it differently and I think of it much more as a matrix. You’ve got executors and you’ve got strategic people, but you’ve also got big S strategic and little s strategic; I think in everything we do, everyone has to have that little s dimension because we’re constantly looking around the next corner and over the next hill to determine how this service, feature, or component can be modified or reinvented.

 

What’s the best trip you’ve taken?

This goes back to the ‘I hope I am never an adult’ conversation. I used to ride motorcycles when I was a kid…I used to race motorcycles as a kid. So, moving into adulthood, I was at Bank of America and decided it was time for me to step out of banking during the financial crisis. I hopped on my motorcycle and just drove around the country for thirty days with a tent on the back; wherever I ended up, I ended up. I was everywhere, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alabama, Colorado.

 

It’s like that Route 66 trip that everyone talks about.

I went out Route 66 and thought I was going to get to California, but I hit a couple of bad sandstorms, so I decided it was time to turn north. So, I turned north to Colorado, hit the border of Canada, and drove across the top of the country. 

And I camped, which I don’t like. That’s not my way of getting out into the world. But you get to meet people who are the heart of this country, and it’s always a phenomenal experience.

 

If you could meet one person dead or alive, who would it be?

I think I would love to be at dinner with Gandhi. Just to really understand the thinking process of showing up in the world, being who you are; just the authentic nature of Gandhi and how he showed up in the world, what he believed in, and how he invoked his belief systems. I find it fascinating.

 

What would you tell your 21-year-old self?

Never become an adult (laughter). Stay curious, keep pushing, don’t settle. Don’t settle for bad advice. I say this a lot to the younger generation today, be careful of the person giving you advice and be very thoughtful about who you accept advice from. People are going to be telling you things left and right, but it’s their reality, not yours. Don’t fall into that convention, keep pushing the boundaries to find out who you are and discover as much as you can early in life, so you can anchor to it later in life and not lose that core drive and conviction of what you believe in.

 

Do you think that’s more relevant today for whatever reasons than it was once upon a time?

There are two ways to answer that question.

It’s more relevant because the world is shifting and changing instantaneously around as, and if you’re not anchored to something and can’t manage from your own center – whatever that means for you – then you’re going to be drifting in the waves of life.

I also find it refreshing that this generation tends to be better at that. I think it’s more relevant, and I think that we’ve got a generation that’s more fluent about understanding that about themselves, which frankly provides great hope to me as I think about where we are in the world and how this next generation could rise up to support different things.

 

What book would you recommend and why? Your own?

I would never recommend my own – it’s an okay book, but I’d never recommend it – that’s just not something I would ever say. I just read a book – I am getting the title wrong – “Humans are Underrated”, by Geoff Colvin, and it’s a phenomenal book. We keep thinking we live in a machine world, that robots are coming to wipe us out as a species, and there are certainly things that robots and AI are going to do that will - debatably - enhance life and take away certain routine tasks from a workforce standpoint, but at the core we’re all social beings. Regardless of if we’re working side-by-side with AI, we’ve got to have this sense of belonging by interacting with other people. The book emphasizes that that’s not going away anytime soon, and even if a robot could replace it, we would not let that happen because at our very core we’re social beings. I think that we need to think about that inside of our organizational constructs more deliberately, in terms of how we create connections person-to-person in a much more meaningful and intentional manner.

 

Tell me about your book, what did you get out of writing it?

I had a blast. The actual writing of the book was an incredible experience for me. It was highly therapeutic because I was able to get something out of my head that had been rattling around up there for a while, and I was able to manifest it into writing. It was different, I think it’s different from what I’ve read elsewhere, and it’s fun. The process of writing was incredibly creative and energy-giving for me. It’s a little bit harder on the backend. You know, I didn’t know this, but you’ve got to market this stuff and that’s not what I really like to do.

 

What would be the title of a book about your life?

That’s a great question. I think I would just describe it as a surprising adventure. I just kind of ended up where I ended up in life. There was no path, it was one step at a time, discover something, follow a passion, engage in it, follow that to the next step.

“An Unpredicted Adventure”, that would be my title.

 

What are your chief passions outside of work?

Well I already mentioned I love riding motorcycles, so that’s where I get my buzz.

 

Are you a Harley guy?

I have a Harley, yeah. I have a couple bikes, that’s one.

 

Is it true that’s not the most fun to ride, it’s just the coolest one to own?

Yeah, it’s true. The speed bikes are more fun to ride, but I don’t trust myself on them. A Harley you’ve got to slow down because you can’t take the turns quite as fast, and that’s a good thing.

 

What’s an interesting thing about you, or a thing that you’ve done, that people don’t necessarily know about you?

One thing I used to do a lot more than I do today is work in third world countries, missions work where I’d join different agencies, churches, and do work in Nicaragua, Honduras, Albania…I tend to work with local organizations on leadership development.

 

Is there any way a company could get involved with these organizations?

Sometimes I wonder if there is an opportunity to send a group of executives who are there to learn as much to give; originally doing that work gave me some sense of fulfillment because I was able to go into countries and feel like I was helping. That’s kind of an arrogant disposition; it turns out I was learning more from being in those countries about the economic and social situations, about the degree of happiness, where people are quite content and happy about how things are. Much more than I would have thought coming from my capitalistic mindset.

I think there’s a learning journey of getting middle managers and executives in this environment so they can learn from that and learn about themselves.

 

What would your last meal be?

I grew up in an Italian family, and if you could give me a plate of spaghetti and meatballs – like the best plate of spaghetti and meatballs – it would beat anything else.

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