AF#2 - Employee Obsession: Unlocking Customer Obsession (& Results)

How a hurricane honed my leadership style…I needed a hack…

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Hurricane Sandy Aftermath, Coney Island. 2012, Image: Copyright John Huntington

My last project before Amazon was the 2012 Hurricane Sandy emergency response; restoring heat and hot water to thousands of flooded homes in Coney Island. It came around Thanksgiving, during the coldest months. Normally Skanska’s domain was the large civil projects of New York City (Subways, World Trade, etc.).

Our ‘field office’ was an amalgamation of trailers mobilized in the minor league baseball Brooklyn Cyclones’ parking lot, a 10-minute walk from the last stop on the Q.

By the time I arrived every morning at 6:45am the yard was already buzzing with hundreds of workers stocking up their trucks. My 90-minute commute from the Upper East Side was one of the better ones. At least I could bang out some problems sets for b-school on the subway.

The cause was noble, the job horrendous. I ran a team of four, which made up our cost department.

MCU Park, Home of The Brooklyn Cyclones. Image: David Torres

Our scope was turning the hundreds of sheets of paper generated every day (times cards, invoices, shipping manifests, etc.) into some sort of ticket that a city inspector would sign so that we could then usher it through the myriad of auditors at city hall to be turned into reimbursement.

Did I mention it was horrendous?

We could barely keep up with the 7-day workweeks not to mention that sorting out paperwork after the installations were already complete hardly felt like being on the front lines.

But the capitalist reality, and my responsibility was that any contractor who pulled key people off of every other project to drop what could easily turn into a $100MM donation would probably not be around to help out during the next hurricane.

Sorting through the mountain of paperwork every day was rewarded by a fresh mountain the next. It didn’t take a genius to see that this assignment was not a great stroke of luck for anybody on my team.

This is how I accidentally stumbled into a leadership style. I needed an inspiration hack.

So, I made it my mission to somehow turn this assignment into the best thing that ever happened to any of them. Lofty and unlikely, but I would try.

Hurricane Sandy, 2012. Image: NOAA

There were not a lot of obvious career benefits I could offer.

One woman from accounting was interested in Excel so I would try to share skills that would have her running circles around her team back at the home office. Another one I would help analyze the offers she was getting from other construction companies. I didn’t care what their goals were, I just wanted to add value.

The two younger guys, I learned had similar business geek interests to myself so I’d take them to see guest speakers I had access to up at the NYU b-school and then buy them beers afterwards to talk about economics. Or golf. Or woman.

It became a game, seeing if I could make this unique experience a net positive for each of them, not just in careers but in life. I didn’t start caring any less about my job but I was caring way, way more about my people.

And then something magic happened.

There is a subtle yet humongous difference between employees ‘wanting you to have the opinion that they’re good’ versus ‘not wanting to let you down’.

There is no review process I could have put in place that would have delivered stronger results.


In 2017 Amazon rolled out the ‘Career Choice’ program for hourly associates. It would pay tuition for continuing education ‘regardless of whether those skills are relevant to a career at Amazon.’[1]

In his letter to shareholders Jeff B. (Bezos) said it was something of which he was particularly proud.

We want to make it easier for Amazonians to pursue their aspirations,’ per the Amazon Career-Choice website[2].

This idea of making the job a net positive to an employee’s life sounded familiar.

This concept I had stumbled into at Coney Island - making your employee’s dreams into your obsession - Amazon would be investing $700MM:

The Boardwalk at Coney Island. Image: Brittany Petronella from

Seems ‘New-Age’y

You could say it sounds extreme - caring about your employee’s dreams more than your customers - but if your ambitions for your customers are extreme then your tactics are going to have to match, whatever they are.

Stillwell Ave, The Last Stop On The Q. Image: NilsPix from

‘Tactic’ though, isn’t the right word for this. Caring can’t be faked.

Employees were not a means to an end and the truth is, employee obsession was not a sacrifice. It was the unlock to amplifying customer obsession and delivering results.

If it worked at Coney Island just imagine if I were actually offering great roles to boot.

I’d have to beat away candidates with a spoon.

“I care more about my employees than I do about my customers, and I care more about my customers than I do about breathing.”

- Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia, ‘The Thank You Economy’

Pee Wee Reese & Jackie Robinson at the Entryway to MCU Park. Image: Andrew Burton, Getty Images North America from

The Cyclone (1935). Image: The Museum of the City of New York from

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