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Former Amazon executives discuss work-life balance at the 2015 GeekWire Summit.

A panel of former Amazon executives took the stage at the GeekWire Summit last week to share their experiences about what it’s like working for the e-commerce giant, a discussion that kicked off a larger debate about workplace culture.

One of the more interesting moments during the discussion came when an audience member challenged former Amazon manager Sandi Lin’s opinion about who is responsible for managing employees’ work-life balance.

Sandi Lin
Sandi Lin

“I also think it’s a fallacy that the company is responsible completely for an employee’s burnout status,” Lin said. That prompted someone from the audience to yell out: “Yes you are.”

The exchange was just a glimpse into a conversation that has been swirling around the Seattle area ever since the The New York Times published a widely-read article that characterized Amazon as a “bruising” workplace. The story revealed anecdotes of employees who have been pushed past their limits and kicked off a broader conversation around work-life balance in the tech industry.

David Streitfeld, who co-authored the NYT piece in August, moderated the panel discussion at the GeekWire Summit.

“If somebody is reaching a burnout point or feeling like their balance is out of whack, there’s some responsibility on them to speak up and say, ‘I need help. How can you help me?’” Lin said.

Dave Cotter - GeekWire Summit 2015
Dave Cotter

Dave Cotter, a former Amazon manager who has spoken candidly about his struggles to find a work-life balance, had a slightly different take. Cotter, who went into startup life after his days at Amazon, was hospitalized with a stroke before he found his limits.

While he agreed employees need to speak up for themselves, he said it’s the managers who can open the door for them to do that.

“I wish I had taken a harder stand in letting someone know I need a break,” Cotter said. “I think it’s really easy to get into any kind of company environment, especially when you’re younger, and try to say yes to everything, to not think it’s appropriate to say no or not having the skills to have a conversation with your manager about what is appropriate for you. I do think a lot of that comes from culture, which is primarily driven from the top down. I do think we have to empower employees to feel very comfortable to say, ‘Hey, I can’t do that.’”

If there was one consistent theme throughout the GeekWire Summit it was around this topic of workplace culture, and the role leaders play in fostering that culture.

Amazon.com’s unique workplace certainly was discussed, but other tech leaders weighed in as well, explaining their secrets to success.

Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff noted how “great cultures get great people” and “great people build great products.” Meanwhile, Glassdoor CEO Robert Hohman said that “people want to work for a leader that cares about them.”

Nike COO at the GeekWire Summit
Nike COO at the GeekWire Summit

In the concluding session of the GeekWire Summit on Friday, Nike COO Eric Sprunk offered perhaps the most insightful remarks about work-life balance and culture.

To make his point, Sprunk shared the personal experience of coaching his kids’ sports teams while living in The Netherlands earlier in his career.

“A huge part of your job as a leader is to give energy to those that you work with, and who work with you,” said Sprunk. “And that’s how I always put fuel back into the tank, and it taught me a ton about how to relate to people.”

He continued:

“At Nike, we don’t tell you that you are going to be the boss of a group. We tell you that you are going to be the manager of a team, or the coach of a team, and your job is to get everything out of every member of that team. And, for sure, you are going to have people on the team who are going to be more promotable, and higher potential. But everybody on the team is important, and that is a good sports analogy, and I learned that as a coach.”

Part of the responsibility of being a good leader is making sure that employees are avoiding burnout and are positioned to do their very best work.

“To do that, takes an incredible amount of energy and compassion. If you are a leader, you have got to find some balance in your life, so that you can provide that to the organization. Because I am a firm believer, and I will use the male part of the gender, that the better father, son, brother, uncle, friend you think you are, the better employee for Nike you are going to be.

So, I want this right, or I am not getting the best Nike employee…. If you see me as the COO walking out the door to go coach my kids’ teams, you should say to yourself: ‘Geez, if Sprunk can do it, I got to find a way to do it.’ Yeah, I want you to find a way to do it. If that’s how you get energy, do that. If it is a hobby, find time for the hobby. If it is traveling, find time to travel.

Because I want the best you we can have at Nike, and then we will provide you an environment where you can do your best work, but you got to get right before you come there. I am a big believer in balance. That’s why I coached the kids’ teams, and … that’s why I always come up to the Seahawks games. That’s all play there. I am a big believer in that. I think that is part of our culture as a company.”

Sprunk comments, which drew huge applause, start at the 35:40 minute mark of the video below:

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