The Three Superpowers Of Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos’s run as CEO of Amazon is over, but his accomplishments in that role are unparalleled. Less than thirty years after he founded the firm, the e-commerce giant is number two on the Fortune 500 list with 1.3 million employees. Not only did Bezos’s vision and energy drive success in online sales, his firm became the biggest player in cloud computing
I asked former Amazon executive Colin Bryar what Jeff Bezos’s superpower was. Bryar is the author of Working Backwards and served as “Jeff’s shadow,” so he’s had plenty of time to observe Bezos first-hand. Instead of naming one, Bryar offered three.
“Smarts off the charts”
The first superpower should be no surprise. Bezos is very, very smart. He sees things and makes connections that others don’t. Back in 1998, he correctly saw that minimizing customer effort, making ordering and other processes frictionless, would drive growth and loyalty. Bryar points out that Bezos says a high IQ is merely a gift. One shouldn’t be proud of it, but rather of one’s actions.
In an era when every CEO claims to be customer-focused, Jeff Bezos really is. Bryar says that Bezos never compromises on his obsession with the customer. Faced with a choice between higher current profits and a better customer experience, Bezos will always choose the latter. That’s easier said than done when at many companies bonuses and even job security depend on profit goals.
What really sets Bezos apart, Bryar says, is his ability to think long-term. In growing Amazon, his decisions were never guided by current-period results. He has periodically cautioned shareholders to expect a bumpy ride. He invested in projects which wouldn’t pay off for years. Surprisingly perhaps, investors never punished Amazon in the way they would normally treat consistently unprofitable companies. Bezos delivered growth and, eventually, profits.
Learning from Bezos
We think of superpowers as innate, like Superman’s abilities that manifested on Earth but were derived from his home planet. Of the three described by Bryar, though, only raw intelligence fits the mold of a personal ability that isn’t learnable. That’s the wrong way to look at it.
Companies can recruit smart people. The puzzle-solving interview questions favored by some tech firms are meant to highlight smarter candidates. Those questions may not be great predictors of job success, but they likely serve to boost the average IQ in a firm.
Learning may not increase raw intelligence, but it definitely gives decision-makers better perspective and knowledge. Who is “smarter” - a 140 IQ manager who spends little time learning, or a 110 IQ boss who reads and internalizes a couple of dozen business books annually and always keeps up with industry thought leaders and futurists?
Customer obsession is an attitude that can be learned and adopted. That doesn’t mean achieving true customer-centricity is easy. Managers have been trained to balance priorities. Customers are stakeholders, but so are employees, communities, and shareholders. What if a minor improvement in customer experience was costly enough to impact profits and reduce the firm’s share price? Or, what if meant closing one operation and expanding another one, potentially impacting employees and the community? Many leaders will find it difficult to become truly customer-obsessed when other goals are sacrificed.
Long-term thinking is another attitude that can be learned and adopted. And, like customer-centricity, it’s not easy in today’s corporate world. CEOs are rewarded handsomely for boosting the firm’s share price, and are often punished when profits don’t meet expectations. Few have the latitude to say, as Bezos did, the the firm would have many unprofitable years ahead because they were investing for the future.
Lower-level leaders may find long-term thinking to be even more challenging. When managers are rotated through assignments every couple of years and are measured on the results they achieve, there is massive pressure to focus on the short term. Investing time and money in a future that will happen long after those managers have moved on requires a commitment not just by the individuals but by the managers above them.
Developing Bezos-like superpowers isn’t easy. But with a strong commitment from the CEO and other executives to think like Bezos, any organization can develop its own league of superheroes.