A former Singapore national swimmer, Jerilyn Teo used to sit poolside before races as a teen listening to meditation CDs on her Discman. The focused breathing exercises centered her in the moment and kept her asthma from flaring up, helping her perform at her best. “Mindful meditation enabled me to overcome debilitating asthma attacks and knee injuries,” she says.
Mindfulness and its value in stressful, high-stakes situations has stayed with her. Today, Teo brings a mindfulness-based approach to her work in human capital management. It’s a philosophy she used at Amazon, where she helped launch Amazon Connections (a real-time, companywide employee feedback mechanism to strengthen organizational capability), managed Amazon’s MBA internship program, and then headed up organizational and people development for Amazon Devices & Services worldwide. In her spare time, she created a mindful leadership development program for Amazonians.
After several years at Amazon, Teo left to pursue a business degree at Stanford GSB. Post-GSB, she was recruited to take on a role as the first VP of People for Productiv, a 160-person SaaS management startup, where she led people strategy and operations across the Bay Area, New York City, Seattle, New Delhi, and Bangalore.
Now, Teo is back at Amazon in a senior leadership role that an Amazon executive she previously worked with created for her. As Amazon’s new Senior Leader of Culture and People Experience, she’s tasked with designing and reinventing the digital and physical employee experience to drive engagement, productivity, and retention across five Amazon organizations: Global Media & Entertainment, Devices & Services, Advertising, IMDb, and Grand Challenge TA. The role is part of Amazon’s current effort to be more people-centric, Teo says.
What are you most excited about with your new role and what are some opportunities you’re anticipating?
Part of what drew me back to Amazon was its newest leadership principle: “Strive to be Earth’s best employer.” It’s one of our north stars. My overarching mandate is to lead innovations that improve Amazon’s culture, drive organizational effectiveness, and redefine the employee experience in an evolving hybrid work environment. This is an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I’m a builder at heart — of people, programs, and purpose. I’m looking forward to building a culture where employees can do their best work, find meaning in their work, and feel a sense of belonging. Each of the organizations I look after has a unique micro culture. Some teams, such as as Audible, IMDb, and Twitch, were acquired, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, Twitch is part of Amazon Global Media & Entertainment, but they operate pretty independently. Yet, there are aspects of Amazon’s culture that have to be cohesive.
In business, you believe in a people-first approach. Why is that so important?
I believe wholeheartedly that happy employees make for happy customers. People-first work cultures create environments where employees feel valued and encouraged to go above and beyond. This creates a foundation for innovative and exceptional customer experiences. On the flip side, companies that focus squarely on the end customer — Amazon’s old culture is a prime example — do so at the cost of their most important customer: their own employees. When I took Systems Leadership at the GSB, I recall a quote from Rob Siegel’s book The Brains and Brawn Company that spoke to me. In it, SAS CEO Jim Goodnight said, “95% of my assets drive out the gate every evening. It’s my job to maintain a work environment that keeps those people coming back every morning.” Leadership is not just about setting direction and priority; it’s about unlocking potential in people to enable scalable change. Putting people first can be a company’s ultimate competitive advantage. The question is: are your employees your biggest brand advocates or biggest critics?
For so many employees, burnout is a major concern. What are some ways managers and companies can alleviate this?
At the macro level, companies can create mechanisms and benefits that help teams foster work-life harmony. Most companies have health benefits that tend to be more reactive than proactive. But the latter is a more cost-effective approach for employers looking to reduce overall healthcare costs. At Productiv, my team introduced a range of proactive benefits such as coaching and therapy. While these were simply a first step towards staving off burnout, normalizing therapy opened the door for honest conversations across the company about burnout.
At the micro level, there are numerous, proactive actions that managers can take. To begin with, managers should be having regular, transparent conversations with their direct reports about their career as well as communication expectations — for example, if I send a late email, when do I expect you to reply? Give them a say on matters that concern them so they can bring their best selves to work.
Tell us about the mindfulness program for leaders you developed during your first stint at Amazon.
I saw an opportunity to bring mindfulness to the most unlikely of places: a fast-paced company with minds full more often than mindful. If companies like Google could harness the effects of workplace affect through their successful Search Inside Yourself mindfulness training program, why couldn’t Amazon? The question was where to start. Drawing on my years of mindfulness coaching, I developed an Amazon-wide program called Mindful Leadership for Mind-Full Leaders. With over 800 participants a year, 84% reported that they had become better listeners, were better able to manage stress, and responded with increased empathy amid pressure.
How did your time at the GSB influence your work?
The GSB helped me disrupt myself to become a better leader in service of others. Thanks to “Touchy Feely” [Interpersonal Dynamics], I’ve become more self-aware when connecting across differences and more cognizant of the Four Horsemen when resolving conflict. Roleplays in Managing Growing Enterprises and Conversations in Management helped me navigate difficult leadership conversations and deliver tough feedback with more kindness and grace. Relatedly, one of my most memorable GSB moments was when I had the opportunity to interview Jeff Weiner [executive chairman at LinkedIn] as part of the GSB’s Equity by Design. Jeff shared that it’s hard for leaders to make quick decisions without empathy and that one of his most profound learnings was understanding the difference between empathy and compassion: compassion equals empathy plus action. In my work, instead of simply saying, “I understand how you feel,” I now ask, “What’s my contribution to the situation? What can I do today to help?” Finally, vicarious learning through countless case protagonists, guest speakers, and classmates has equipped me with the tools to make better people decisions in our new norm of hybrid work.
How have mindfulness and yoga helped you over the course of your career?
As a competitive swimmer growing up in Singapore, I could perform at local competitions. But anxiety sometimes got the better of me on the international stage. My Dad introduced me to guided meditation, which he affectionately called “mental tapes.” When my family emigrated to Vancouver several years later, I stumbled upon Bikram yoga and maintained a consistent practice for almost a decade. Yoga transformed me physically, emotionally, and spiritually, while my mindfulness practice helped shift my “mental tape” — my internal narrative — from “I can’t” to “I can.” In trying situations, a simple mindset shift can turn things around. I often ask myself: What is this situation teaching me? How can I show up as the best version of myself in this moment? People often mistake mindfulness as controlling our thoughts. But I’ve come to learn that mindfulness is simply paying attention to our thoughts and pausing to respond, rather than react.
As the pandemic eases, a lot of companies are bringing employees back to the office. Others, though, have committed to remote work or a hybrid approach. What do you think is the right move?
My humble opinion is that there isn’t a single “right move” for all teams. Remote and hybrid work both have pros and cons, but the question each leader should be asking is, “What works best for this team at this time?”
To that end, I believe leaders should keep five things in mind: flexibility within a framework to give employees autonomy over where and when they work; clarity on expectations and priorities; equitable work experiences — for instance, ensuring managers have equitable one-on-one time with all team members; a focus on purpose and belonging to ensure employees feel supported; and adaptability — actively soliciting real-time employee feedback and embracing experimentation as conditions change.
I believe that crafting a thoughtful, people-first policy that considers the above goes a long way towards engendering trust, driving innovation, and ultimately improving the bottom line. This is what drives me to do what I do — to help leaders and employees do the best work, no matter where they’re working from.
Photos by Nancy Rothstein