Jeff Bezos built Amazon into a tech behemoth and “everything store” that’s now worth $1.6 trillion.
He did it by being “arguably the most unusual business leader of our era,” current Amazon CEO Andy Jassy told Fortune in a recent interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Jassy, Bezos’ longtime deputy, took the company’s reins after the Amazon founder stepped down in 2021. He was “lucky” to have learned from Bezos’ unique leadership style, which continues to influence the way he and other Amazon executives operate, he said in Davos.
He went into further detail, explaining what made Bezos “so unusual” as a boss, in a 2017 speech at an event for the Pacific Science Center, as reported by GeekWire at the time. Specifically, Jassy highlighted these four traits:
Few ‘bigger thinkers’
One of Amazon’s 16 leadership principles, which Bezos crafted during his time leading the company, is “Think Big.” Jassy pointed to countless times he witnessed teams of developers and executives bringing “really good ideas” to Bezos, only to have the Amazon founder suggest they push the concept even further.
“There aren’t too many other bigger thinkers than Jeff Bezos,” Jassy said, adding: “He always had a way of getting teams to think bigger.”
Even in Amazon’s early days, Bezos was already thinking about expanding beyond books into a broader e-commerce space. “This is Day 1,” Bezos said in a 1997 interview, just three years after launching Amazon. “This is the very beginning. This is the Kittyhawk stage of electronic commerce.”
Jassy thought he had high standards, until he watched Bezos interact with the people around him. Even when a piece of critical feedback seemed unreasonable at first, Bezos found a way to inspire employees to meet his expectations and produce the best work possible, Jassy said.
“Watching Jeff, I have never seen anybody with higher standards,” said Jassy.
Bezos faced criticism for those exceedingly high expectations, which reportedly took a consistently intense toll on workers’ physical and mental health. Jassy nonetheless touted Bezos’ approach for inspiring great work from employees that helped fuel Amazon’s success.
“Really smart, motivated, talented, ambitious people will stretch to those goals,” Jassy said. “[Bezos] had a way of having really high standards, and then having everybody really stretch and aspire to those standards.”
Long-term strategy and patience
Jassy marveled at Bezos’ ability to be “strategically patient and tactically impatient.”
“His conviction about long-term vision and where he wants to take something, and even when people tell him it is not possible … [he] believes it is possible, and is stubborn about that vision,” Jassy said. Yet he still had a knack for making smart decisions quickly, because “speed always matters a lot” for tech companies.
That’s a tricky balance to strike. Bezos may have planned to expand beyond books from Amazon’s early days, but it took years for the e-commerce giant to gradually add enough new product categories to become the “everything store.” It didn’t launch cloud computing unit Amazon Web Services, which is now the company’s most profitable segment, until 2006.
“Big things start small. The biggest oak starts from an acorn,” Bezos said in a 2017 interview. “You’ve got to be willing to let that acorn grow into a little sapling, and then finally into a small tree and then maybe, one day, it’ll be a big business on its own.”
‘Open and curious’
Amazon’s leadership principles say good leaders should “seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.” Relatedly, Bezos is known to wait until the end of meetings to voice his opinion.
“I have never met someone who learns the way he does,” Jassy said, describing Bezos as “open and curious about learning about new areas and new topics and opinions.” That means comfort with the idea of failure, particularly as a natural result of experimentation and innovation.
“Failure comes part and parcel with innovation. It is not an option,” Bezos wrote in a 2013 letter to shareholders.
“Great leaders keep listening to additional inputs — people inside of the company and outside the company — and keep adjusting their opinions and their ideas as they learn more,” said Jassy, adding: “You shouldn’t have one opinion, and stick with that forever.”
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