A part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Teresa Carlson.
Teresa Carlson is the founder and leader of Amazon Web Services (AWS) Worldwide Public Sector, and one of the most accomplished and forwarding-thinking technology leaders in the world today. Ms. Carlson’s charter expanded in 2020 to include AWS’s worldwide financial services, energy services, and telecommunications industry business units.
Through her charismatic leadership, Carlson has helped change mindsets of both individuals and organizations around the world, modernize policies at all levels of government and cultivate a 21st century global workforce equipped with the skillset necessary to leverage the full potential of cloud to drive innovation.
Carlson founded the Worldwide Public Sector in 2010, and since then has driven the business’ growth. Today, more than 5,000 government agencies, more than 10,000 education institutions and more than 28,000 nonprofit organizations around the world use AWS. Additionally, Carlson advises Amazon Public Policy on global policy issues.
Carlson has also been a strong advocate for empowering women in the technology field. That passion lead to the creation of “We Power Tech,” AWS’s diversity and inclusion initiative, which aims to ensure underrepresented groups — including women — are reflected throughout all AWS outreach efforts. Less than two years after launching the program, We Power Tech has engaged more than 1,000 individuals across 8 countries worldwide.
Carlson has over 20 years of executive experience, and has earned industry recognition for her leadership. In 2020, she was named a member of Washington’s “Power 100” by Washington Life magazine. She is also an inductee into the Wash100, a premier group of public and private sector leaders with expertise in the government space, and a Founding Board Member of the Halcyon House Board of Directors. Carlson has previously been named one of Business Insider’s Most Important People in Cloud Computing, as well as Washingtonian’s “100 Most Powerful Women.” Northern Virginia Technology Council has named Carlson “Tech Exec of the Year,” and she is a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, presented annually to individuals whose accomplishments in their field and inspired service to our nation are cause for celebration.
Carlson dedicates time to philanthropic and leadership roles in support of the global community. This includes service as Chairwoman of the White House Historical Association’s Council on History, a member of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, member of the International Women’s Forum, advisor to Georgetown University’s Hacking Defense Program, and advisory board member to George Mason University’s National Security Institute.
She also serves as a member of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children Board of Directors, the Chairman’s Advisory Council for the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region, the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. Board of Directors, Northern Virginia Tech Council Board of Directors, Wolf Trap Foundation Board of Directors and the USO of Metropolitan Washington Board of Directors.
Prior to joining AWS, Carlson served as Vice President of Microsoft Federal Government, where she oversaw the company’s US Federal Government business. She held a variety of positions at Microsoft including General Manager of the US Civilian Agencies and NGO’s; Director of the US Federal Solutions Unit, responsible for the Federal solutions framework and the US Federal partner channel that consisted of more than 2,500 Microsoft partners; and US Federal Director of Strategy and Operations.
Before moving into technology, Carlson specialized in health care, as a practitioner and consultant initially, then as a business manager and area vice president. In these roles, she was responsible for national accounts, marketing, and business development. During this time, she led customers through numerous transformations, including Joint Commission certifications and significant payment system changes.
Carlson earned her undergraduate and Masters of Science degrees in Communications and Speech and Language Pathology from Western Kentucky University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My current role is leading Amazon Web Services’s (AWS) public sector, energy, telecommunications, global financial services, and aerospace & satellite business units. That’s a diverse group of customers, but they’re united by the fact that each one is in a period of reinvention and transformation, and each has a tremendous potential to move faster with digital technology. I am starting my 11th year at AWS, and I am as passionate as when I started about helping customers through significant change so that they can serve their missions, and adapt more quickly to meet their strategic goals.
I firmly believe in the potential of technology to deliver real impact because I wasn’t always in technology. I have a masters and an undergraduate in Speech and Language Pathology, and I actually started out in healthcare as a speech/language pathologist. I spent the early part of my career working as a speech and language pathologist with the U.S. Department of Defense in Nuremberg, Germany.
When I eventually returned to the U.S., I went way out of my comfort zone in healthcare and accepted a role with a workflow and document management company. This job changed my world, because suddenly I saw how the right technology and tools could have had such a positive impact on my ability to respond to my patients, and I wanted to bring that same insight to other customers. I knew that I wanted to dive deeper into this idea, and here I am today. I feel so privileged that I can help customers to use technology to deliver better results.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mom and dad have been incredibly formational to who I am today. My mom taught in a one-room school classroom and loved what she did. She was also a constant learner, and was always working on ways to improve herself and her community. While raising us she went back to school, earned a graduate degree, and became the first female principal in Pulaski County, Kentucky. My father was a basketball coach — and I learned a lot about teamwork from him.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
AWS is a part of Amazon that launched in 2006. After over a decade of building and running Amazon.com, we realized that we had developed a core competency in developing technology infrastructure that could massively scale on demand. We embarked on a much broader mission of serving a new customer segment — developers and businesses — with web services they could use to build sophisticated, scalable applications to fit their needs. When I started the AWS Worldwide Public Sector business in 2010, we had a vision — and I made a commitment — to provide government customers the same tools as the world’s most innovative companies so that they could pave the way for disruptive innovation to build a better world. Since 2006 we’ve really seen the adoption of cloud technology take off — which is exciting because cloud can be a powerful accelerant of positive change. We’ve seen that especially during the pandemic.
We’ve supported organizations and governments in using the cloud to help people access critical information and services, keep schools going, accelerate research, and support people and communities. For example, we helped the World Health Organization (WHO) build an application to support health workers around the world who are caring for patients infected by COVID-19. In a quick response to COVID-19, we worked with WHO to deliver the application 12 months ahead of schedule. In Canada, we are supporting the University of British Columbia and Vancouver General Hospital as they use machine learning to help quickly determine whether patients have COVID-19 by examining CT scans. The research team has launched this as an open source model available to any researcher or health care provider as a diagnostic tool, which they hope will lead to better care of patients. We are supporting customers, employees, and our communities in other ways too — in fact, we recently announced that Amazon will help 29 million people get free cloud skills training by 2025 through AWS-designed programs. This is just a small snapshot of the ways we’re working with customers to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This is such an important topic. I was having this discussion recently with Amazon board member and former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi at re:Invent, and these are the three keys to success that came out of that discussion:
First, I emphasize with my teams to take time to take care of themselves. It can be so hard to disconnect, with so many of us working remotely. We don’t have the commute to decompress and create some space between work and home — so I emphasize with my team the importance of prioritizing health and well-being. For me, exercise has always been an important part of my routine, and I’ve made an effort to maintain that in these turbulent times. It helps me start the day to clear my mind.
The second thing is to operate with grace. As we work remotely, I’m encouraging my teammates to be patient and kind when working with one another. Children may scream in the background. A family member may walk through a video. Dogs will certainly bark when those packages arrive at the front door. These moments can be a way to find humor, common ground, and create shared experiences.
Third, dive deep on the details and work with subject matter experts. For example, during the pandemic one of the teams that has been instrumental in informing our response has been the AWS Disaster Response team. They’re specialized in using cloud technology to help organizations respond to disasters and health outbreaks. I was having frequent calls with them to understand, in real time, the worldwide impact of the pandemic and how we could best help our employees, our customers, and our communities use our cloud services and our scale.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I mentioned my mom and dad earlier — they really showed me how to have a passion for the work that you do. I wake up every day so excited and humbled that I get to work with an incredible team who is focused on digital transformation. I feel very lucky in that regard.
That’s not to say that I never need to reset and recharge! In those moments, I benefit the most from meeting directly with our customers, learning about their missions, and listening to their stories of success. I’m equally inspired by the talented set of leaders that surround me every day at AWS, and our colleagues around the globe who are dedicated to making a difference. And of course, whenever things feel particularly challenging, it’s a good moment to stop and take a break — even just a short walk or a quick stretch — and come back a little more refreshed and ready to jump right back in.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Change is happening at such a dramatic pace. I think one of the biggest challenges is getting a unified operating picture of your business and being able to then anchor your business in what matters. In a crisis there is so much static. It’s my job to distinguish the signal from the noise, and keep us focused on what matters– our customers. At AWS we often say we’re ‘customer-obsessed’ and we take that commitment very seriously. Many of our customers in the public sector are particularly challenged right now and I’m focused on finding creative ways to support them in this time of critical need.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It’s so important to stay tuned into how the team is doing and making sure that amid this craziness we find ways to stay connected. During the pandemic — and particularly at the start — I would take a few minutes to bring a bit of levity to the team to take a break from the intensity. I began to hold twice daily calls with my leaders to coordinate our COVID response. During these calls, I would carve out time for group jumping jacks over the video call. It was an easy and lighthearted way to share a smile. My team created a “stuck at home” team playlist with songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Stuck in the Middle with You.” We also participated in community projects, including a care basket distribution for hospitals worldwide to honor frontline healthcare workers on International Nurses Day. That really helped keep our collective morale high and maintain a sense of team, even when we were so dispersed.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Well, Colin Powell once said “Bad news isn’t like wine. It doesn’t get better with age.” I’ve always found that timely, direct, and honest is the best approach. I can’t change the fact that I’m delivering bad news, but my goal is to make sure that the recipient knows that I haven’t held anything back and they can count on me to help them. Honesty earns trust.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The key to dealing with unknowns is to find ways now to build resilience and agility. This will make you better able to respond quickly to new challenges. There a few ways to quickly build resilience into your operating model.
For example, assess your workforce and make sure you have the plans and technology in place keep them safe and productive — no matter where that work is taking place. Are you equipped to help them work remotely? If employees can’t work, they can’t respond to the new situation. And what does a remote workforce mean for the customer experience? For example, prior to COVID‑19, a handful of agents staffed the State of Kentucky’s unemployment call center using technology that required them to work from state offices. Using Amazon Connect, the Kentucky Office of Unemployment Insurance set-up a cloud based call center in one afternoon and trained its agents in just 30 minutes, so they could work from home to accommodate social distancing restrictions The state then used Amazon Connect to build a statewide call center to manage about 200,000 daily calls fielded by more than 1,000 call center agents.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Amazon’s mission is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company. Keeping customers front and center is always our North Star and guides our thinking and approach.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Each leader faces their unique circumstances, so I can’t point to specific examples of decisions made by other leaders that I would have made differently. But I will echo something that our CEO, Andy Jassy, recently said: It’s really hard to build a business that sustains for a long period of time. Less than 20 percent of the Fortune 500 companies listed in the 1970’s are still Fortune 500 companies today. In order to build a business that lasts, you need to reinvent yourself on a regular basis. And you need to be proactive about reinventing yourself so that you can make changes while your business is healthy. Technology, especially cloud computing, offers an opportunity to easily and quickly experiment with new ideas so that you can better position your organization for long-term success.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
This is advice I give to every organization: Move fast. There’s no other way to say it, this has been a crazy year. Every industry and sector has faced dramatic changes. If the last 9 months have proved the critical value of IT, the next 9 months are an opportunity to shape new processes, seize new opportunities, and set new goals.
I think the first step to moving fast is understanding your data. Data is being created faster than ever, and it can be a powerful tool to understand how a black swan event like a pandemic is impacting a business.
Of course, leveraging your data has always come with hurdles — from breaking down data silos to the cost of storage. Cloud computing can help you overcome these hurdles, quickly, so that you can begin to analyze your data, make decisions, and act. Once you begin making decisions based upon a unified operating picture, you can continue to evolve your thinking and inform your actions, now and well into the future.
The second is to build a culture of innovation, and that really starts with leadership. Employees want to work in an environment where they feel empowered and accountable. It’s important to reward teams who are willing to think of amazing ways to solve their customers’ biggest challenges through experimentation, failure, and iteration until they get it right. Not just tolerating that process — but celebrating it — is the key to innovation.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
First and foremost, stay customer obsessed and work backwards from their needs. Doing that will help keep in focus what really matters, and cut down on noise and distractions.
At the start of the pandemic, we were talking to customers around the world and saw that there was an opportunity to help researchers who needed the scale of cloud computing to accelerate the pace of diagnostic research. As a result, we launched the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative, committing $20 million in credits and technical support to help accelerate diagnostic innovation.
Second, remember that speed disproportionately matters, as I mentioned earlier. That’s especially true in turbulent times. Prioritization and delegation are two important enablers of speed, and that boils down in practical terms to empowering your team.
Third, recognize the difference between one-way doors and a two-way doors. That’s something we think about a lot at Amazon, and it means thinking about whether a decision is hard to reverse or not. Most decisions are two-way doors, so you can adjust or reverse them with some time and effort. One-way door decisions are permanent, so require a lot more thought. Thinking about the kind of decision you’re making is another good enabler of speed, and can help avoid the “analysis paralysis” trap.
Fourth is knowing what I don’t know — and asking experts. I explored this question with Amazon board member and former PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi at AWS re:Invent, and we both agreed strongly on this point. AWS’s Public Policy team was invaluable early in the pandemic, reaching out to leaders around the world to offer our immediate on-the-ground help and support. Indra noted how, when she was appointed to chair the ReOpen Connecticut Advisory Group, the first thing she did was to go to Yale University and sit down with health experts to get steeped in the details of this pandemic.
Finally, hire and develop the best — and then rely upon them to make smart decisions. You may have the instinct to try and control everything when times get tough. But if you hire the best talent, help them to develop their skills, and then empower them to take responsibility, you’ll be surprised about how you can scale smart decision-making and navigate uncertain circumstances, faster and with better outcomes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a phrase I share with my teams regularly: “find a hole and fill it.” What I mean is, you find a problem, and you sit there and say, “There’s a hole and nobody’s filling that hole.” So I like to say, “Here’s how I’m going to do that. I’m going to solve it.”
By the way, that is especially true when you are building your own career. In the past, I have literally written the job I wanted, based upon my own observations about what was and wasn’t working within an organization. Alternatively, you can take a job description that’s there, and you rewrite it, and you say, “I can do all these things, but I can also do these things.”
This type of proactive approach shows to others that you have capabilities that no one really thought about. And some of that is demonstrated because you take initiative.
How can our readers further follow your work?