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The Lessons of Away’s Weird Company Culture

Luggage maker Away’s CEO has gone away. Photo: Away

Away founder and CEO Steph Korey is stepping down after our sister site the Verge’s report about her being a nightmare manager who built a culture of fear and intimidation. This seems like a good step for the company. I thought my own former manager, Business Insider global editor-in-chief Nicholas Carlson, summed the situation up best:

Of course, not every company needs to be totally kumbaya and nice-nice, and Korey thought of her style as part of a business strategy. Verge reporter Zoe Schiffer wrote about what the founder thought she was learning from Amazon’s success:

Korey often framed her critiques in terms of Away’s core company values: thoughtful, customer-obsessed, iterative, empowered, accessible, in it together. Empowered employees didn’t schedule time off when things were busy, regardless of how much they’d been working. Customer-obsessed employees did whatever it took to make consumers happy, even if it came at the cost of their own well-being. The framework echoed the tough company culture at Amazon where employees are taught to forget old habits and embrace a new set of ideals.

Amazon does have a reputation for being a tough workplace, designed for people with high expectations and sharp elbows. But one of Amazon’s 14 leadership principles, alongside “customer obsession” and “insist on the highest standards,” is “earn trust.” The Amazon principle about earning trust says “leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully,” and it’s hard to see how Korey’s behavior — “She began randomly calling the customer experience line to see whether someone picked up, often berating the managers and screaming, ‘What is this shit!’ at her desk if her call went unanswered” — could have been construed as in line with that principle.

When I read about Away’s odd culture, and in particular about Korey’s edict banning email and forcing communications into the open on Slack, where anyone can read them, the company that jumped to mind for me was not Amazon but Bridgewater Associates, which is the world’s largest hedge fund and also one of the weirdest prestigious places to work. Bridgewater is built on a philosophy of “radical transparency.” Conflict is encouraged. You’re not supposed to say anything behind someone’s back that you wouldn’t say to their face, and company meetings are routinely recorded, so that recordings from those meetings can be circulated widely within the company and used as lessons.

The thought of working at Bridgewater gives me agita. But a nice thing about Bridgewater is you don’t have to work there. If you’re in hedge funds, you can probably find a job at a company that has a similar business model to Bridgewater and a more normal corporate culture. And some people, for some reason, seem to like working at Bridgewater. Within some bounds, a diversity of corporate cultures is good: People who like the idea of recording all the meetings and challenging each other to integrity contests can go work at Bridgewater, and the rest of us don’t have to.

Similarly, in the “hot start-up” sector (I was tempted to say the tech sector, but like so many hot tech-ish start-ups, Away is in fact a consumer product company) you have a diversity of business models to choose from. Some companies want to be like Amazon while others want to be like Google, pampering employees and urging them to “bring their whole selves to work.” These soft culture models have their downsides, not just for managers but for some employees, who might want to be able to bring out their sharp elbows and depend on their colleagues to follow something like Amazon’s 14 principles.

Of course, while there is no single correct corporate culture, there are wrong corporate cultures, and it sounds like there’s a reason Away needed to recalibrate. (Google, for its part, seems to have realized it went too far in encouraging a freewheeling atmosphere and is reining things in.) The new CEO will need to take things down a couple notches. But maybe not too many notches.

The Lessons of Away’s Weird Company Culture