With my last blog “Warren Buffett – Not your average billionaire”, I kicked off a series of posts we are dedicating to some of the most successful leaders of our time.
There has been a lot of media coverage lately regarding the imminent launch of an Australian branch of Amazon.com – the world’s biggest online retailer. Not surprisingly, the talk of them setting up shop here has sent local retailers into a spin.
Given its power to disrupt markets and change the way the world shops, I thought it would be timely to take a look at the founder, Chairman and CEO of this tech giant – Jeff Bezos.
Worth an estimated $72.7 billion, Bezos is painted by biographers as part dreamer, part quantitative analyst. As a teenager he imagined himself becoming an astronaut but instead went on to major in computer science at Princeton, before putting his skills to use on Wall Street. In 1994, despite having a successful career and a six-figure salary, he left Wall Street behind to create Amazon.com, a start-up retail business in the emerging and largely uncharted world wide web.
Jeff Bezos quickly proved himself a ‘wunderkind’ with great instincts. He survived the dot.com bust of the late 1990’s and continued building Amazon on the back of his own ingenuity, self confidence, and propensity to think big.
Think like the Chief
As he transitioned from a start-up boss into a leader of tens of thousands of people working across multiple businesses, Bezos became renowned for demanding nothing short of excellence from everyone around him. His expectations are captured in Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, and it is said that those who do best at Amazon are those who have internalised these principles and think like Jeff. And when they don’t meet his exacting standards, Bezos doesn’t mince words. For your horror (or amusement) I have included some examples of brutal one-liners that have been attributed to him
- “Are you lazy or just incompetent?”
- “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”
- “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
- [After reviewing the annual plan from the supply chain team] “I guess supply chain isn’t doing anything interesting next year.”
- [After an engineer’s presentation] “Why are you wasting my life?”
Survival of the fittest
Under Bezos’s direction, Amazon is reported to ‘manage out’ a certain percentage of its work force annually, with leaders required to rank staff and dismiss the least effective performers. 
Bezos has been accused by critics of lacking empathy and treating workers as expendable resources, but he has also never hidden the fact his priority is and always has been to create value for the customer.
Cohesion – the enemy of innovation?
A questioning and analytical atmosphere is characteristic of Amazon’s culture. Bezos expects his leaders to openly disagree and argue their perspectives, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make them may feel.  To this end, Amazon were early adaptors of an agile feedback system they call the “Anytime Feedback Tool” that enables staff to receive real time input from colleagues who have something to say about their work.
At Cognology we know from our own research that team sizes are expanding and companies are striving to find ways to facilitate greater connection, collaboration and sharing of ideas. In this respect, Amazon seems like a bit of an anomaly. Bezos is famous for his two pizza rule: no team should be larger than can be fed with two large pizzas. Bezos believes that smaller teams guard against groupthink and promote innovation. He has also suggested that cross-team communication can be disastrous for innovation as agreement between teams can limit the creative tension required for new ideas. 
Keeping his fingers on the pulse
Sharing his time across various ventures, Bezos cannot physically be present for every key decision Amazon makes. Being a number cruncher at heart, he puts his faith in the company’s enormous data resources and analytics, and expects leaders to use metrics to make almost every important decision.
But Bezos doesn’t just rely on cold hard data. The entrepreneur is also said to regularly scan random customer emails for feedback and complaints. And when an email is forwarded to a leader accompanied by a simple “?” from Jeff, the recipient knows to act. 
The heart of a Warrior
Adventure and discovery appear to be in Jeff Bezos’s very DNA. However, his passion for progress goes far beyond selfish interests or the financial benefit of shareholders. Bezos seems driven by a self-imposed higher calling to advance the welfare and development of the whole human race. His vision for the future has compelled him to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a number of ambitious yet noble ventures like carbonless energy, advancements in neuroscience, and Blue Origin – an enterprise aimed at making space travel accessible to millions of people so that they may one day live and work in space.
Leadership involves choices. Jeff Bezos understands that to be truly great, you must be prepared to make choices that are neither popular nor easy. Without apology Jeff challenges his people to use their gifts, follow their convictions, and walk the path less travelled.
It is perhaps unfortunate that we get many of our insights into business leaders through the media, who (let’s face it) have a tendency to emphasise the sensational aspects of a story. Bezos has certainly received his share of bad press in recent years and if you believe the anecdotes of former staff who claim bad experiences, Amazon is a tough place to work. But given Bezos’s accomplishments and endeavours I can’t help but wonder how balanced the narrative has been.
I watch with interest for if and when Amazon.com comes to our shores.
- B. Stone, 10 10 2013. [Online]. Available to subscribers: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-10-10/jeff-bezos-and-the-age-of-amazon-excerpt-from-the-everything-store-by-brad-stone
- D. Baer, 18 03 2014. [Online]. Available: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-strategies-jeff-bezos-used-to-build-the-amazon-empire-2014-3.
- R. Sanghani, 15 10 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/amazon/10379912/How-Jeff-Bezos-rules-his-Amazonian-empire.html
- Jeff Bezos image by Yolo0906 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons