I had dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot since my folks took my sister and me to an air show in my home-state of Montana when I was 7 years old. I saw the jets flying and knew that's what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I was fortunate that my dream turned into reality. Before joining Amazon, my 12-year career in the U.S. Navy took me around the world, serving my country, flying fighter aircraft, operating from aircraft carriers, and experiencing new cultures.
My Naval career taught me many important leadership lessons, and I reflect fondly on my time in the U.S. Navy and the people with whom I served. Eventually feeling content with the flying I’d done and with my active duty service to my country, I decided to pursue opportunities outside of the military, and a leadership role at Amazon translated into an exemplary next step.
An image of a pilot flying a jet with a big window above them with a view of the blue sky. The pilot's face is covered with a large helmet, large black googles, and a breathing mask.Rhoads piloting an F/A-18F Super Hornet.
I started at Amazon as an operations manager in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2011, then gradually moved up through fulfillment center leadership roles in Texas, Wales, and London over the years. I moved back to the U.S. after my time in the United Kingdom to accept an amazing opportunityto ultimately lead the build out of our air haul network, Amazon Global Air. I spent the last six years building and leading an exceptional team that truly made history. While challenging, this role was also an absolute blast.
An image of a Prime Air plane being loaded on the runway. The sky is dark and purple behind the plane with a large lightening strike moving through the clouds.Photo by Ryan Barta
The timing was right to then take on a new role as vice president of Amazon’s Global Workplace Health and Safety, an impactful role covering a global workforce that totals more than 1.1 million employees across six continents.
Everything my teams have accomplished over 12 years at Amazon has come with a long lead time of planning and preparation. We recognize that things can and will change, but having a baseline plan is always a good place to start.
The ability to effectively plan and mitigate risk is especially critical in my new role as I help make decisions for the company’s number one priority—the health and safety of our employees. We want to set the global standard for workplace health and safety excellence, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about developing a vision and effectively executing it. This perspective is grounded on a Japanese proverb I absorbed on an assignment to Japan while serving in the Navy: "Vision without execution is a daydream, execution without vision is a nightmare."

Page overview

Crawl, walk, run

Crawl, walk, run
Set your priorities
Nail the job at hand
Crawl, walk, run

Effectively executing on a long-term vision isn’t like a light switch you can simply turn on and off. It’s important to be methodical and develop a thorough plan with test runs, when possible, before charging ahead at full speed.

My team takes a "crawl, walk, run” approach to nearly everything we do, and we build plans with reversible phases incorporated. We typically run trials before we actually deploy a new technology or process broadly, which helps set us up for long-term success. For example, we may test a new technology in a single fulfillment center (crawl), then if we see positive results, we look to scale it to several facilities in the same country (walk), then we eventually introduce it worldwide across our operations (run).

This "crawl, walk, run” approach was also commonly used during my time in the Navy. There’s about a year and a half of training between flying an aircraft by yourself for the first time (aka “solo”) and landing on a moving ship at sea. Student naval aviatorsstart with a single-engine propeller airplane, operating from land only. Then they work their way up to flying a jet, learning complex tactics and maneuvers, landing on a moving aircraft carrier, and breaking the sound barrier. It’s a gradual process that takes some time, but the thorough training is important since safety and excellence is critical, just like it is at Amazon.

An image of Sarah Rhoads smiling in front of a large, white structure that says "Stay safe, beware of jet blast" at an Amazon Air Hub. She is wearing a safety vest and a hard hat.Rhoads at the Amazon Global Air Hub while under construction at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport, KCVG.
Set your priorities

Clear priorities are an essential part of an effective plan. I’ve found that you’re more likely to achieve success when you and your team have a solid understanding of the priorities guiding your decisions. I like to think of prioritization using a term we used in Naval Aviation: “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.”

An image of Sarah Rhoads in the cockpit of a jet plane. She is smiling and wearing her full pilot's uniform. There is text on the side of the plane that reads "Lt. Sarah Rhoads 'Diamond'"Rhoads in an F/A-18F Super Hornet.

As a pilot, you're taught to fly the aircraft first—airspeed and altitude will keep you alive—then navigate to figure out and validate where you're going, and finally, to communicate (talk on the radio when necessary). This helps me think about how we prioritize things at Amazon. “Aviate” equates to safety and engagement with our employees as the top priority. Then we make sure we're taking care of our customers, so that would be the “navigate.” Third, we make sure we're taking care of our costs, which would line up with “communicate.”

This practice has helped me effectively prioritize important decision making on everything from flying a jet in harsh conditions to launching new programs to help keep employees safe at Amazon.

Nail the job at hand

It’s important to have ambition, but a big part of accomplishing your long-term goals is working hard to nail the job at hand. Sometimes, people can become too focused on the next thing down the road and lose sight of the important work in front of them. Effective planning is about more than just your vision for the future, it’s also about taking care of what’s in front of you—and doing it really well.

A good example of this in practice comes from our work to keep employees safe at Amazon. While we are thinking big and long term to develop new technologies to make the workplace safer and deliver for customers, we’re also working hard to ensure employees feel safe and confident in their current workplace.

An image of Sarah Rhoads standing inside a fulfillment center with two other Amazon employees talking and laughing.
Amazon is such a welcoming place to put long-term vision and effective execution into practice. When a team has a plan and keeps chipping away at that plan, it’s incredibly rewarding to see the successful results of that long-term view come to fruition.
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