Bezos Must Redefine Value for Amazon

Twenty-two years ago this month, Jeff Bezos launched Amazon. Has the company been a success? The company clearly delivers on measures such as revenue, market share, and new product growth. Amazon has tremendous influence on shaping the way business works today – across every industry. Yet it has some serious shortcomings. If Amazon wants to be around to celebrate its 100th birthday, it must expand its definition of value.

Higher Ambition: The Path to Longevity

The company’s stated purpose is: “To build Earth’s most customer centric company.” Does Amazon live up to this? Sure. They continue to amaze customers with what they can do and plan to do. But is the company a higher ambition company? No. This is where there is a lot of work to be done.

A higher ambition organization considers all stakeholders and their welfare in every aspect of its operations. It’s a broader definition of purpose that includes taking care of employees, having a positive impact on the Earth, and building value with a long-term view, for not only shareholders, but for our communities and partners. These organizations focus on high performance and having a positive impact. Research shows this orientation sets companies up for long-term success. 

Amazon’s Intense Culture

The brutal and demanding culture of Amazon is well-known and has been widely reported. Life balance is not a priority. Meetings have been characterized as confrontational. Former employees have said people regularly cry in the office. And Amazon consistently has high turnover. A 2013 PayScale survey ranked Amazon nearly at the bottom -- 464th out of the Fortune 500 -- for employee turnover.

Bezos has publicly disputed this picture. In response to a negative article in The New York Times, he wrote an internal memo that disagreed with the portrayal, stating that anyone working in such an environment would be crazy to stay. He ended by saying, “Hopefully you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”

Pockets of the positive culture he described do exist at Amazon, but the stories of burnout and high turnover persist. And Bezos’s own behavior is sometimes at odds with meaning and purpose. He has been criticized for being "stingy" when it came to charity. Even with Amazon Smile and the Bezos Family Foundation run by his parents, Bezos’s own charitable giving and Amazon’s strategy around philanthropy and community outreach are miniscule and immature given the size and influence of Amazon. 

The Evolution of Bezos

But I’ve seen some signals that indicate that Bezos is evolving. 

In May, Amazon said it would donate more than 47,000 square feet of space within its newest Seattle headquarters as a permanent location to house homeless people. In June, he tweeted a request for ideas for Amazon’s philanthropic strategy. He indicated that he is drawn to ideas focused on “right now,” “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” 

Bezos loves to build things, he’s a bit introverted, and he can come off at times as a nerdy engineer. He also demonstrates a tremendous capacity to learn, something I saw first-hand at the early TED conferences we both attended. Bezos asked questions on a broad range of subjects. He listened. He saw the value of stepping out of his routine to think about the world from a different perspective.  

Today I see Bezos growing, developing, and challenging himself. 

Time to Refresh Amazon’s Leadership Principles

The leadership principles Bezos established at Amazon are worth analyzing. They focus on performance and risk taking and keep the customer in the center. They include Customer Obsession, Invent and Simplify, Bias for Action, and Think Big. You don’t hear much about harmony, valuing others, cultivating joy at work, or committing to the larger community where leaders live and work. Instead, the principles reflect the work hard, work smart world that has built Amazon. For Amazon, it’s a game of winning and anyone who wants to play better get focused.  

It’s time for a refresh of these principles. 

Bezos and his team have a greater responsibility to build sustainable brands, reinvest in their communities, and deliver long-term work-life balance and development for employees. The world is watching. If they don’t change, the world will push back.   

Amazon has the capacity to find a way to achieve the higher ambition goals simultaneous to the customer-centricity, innovation, and excellence the company is known for. Its leaders must motivate and develop employees, collectively engage in their communities, and examine the larger eco-system of which Amazon is a part. This is how Amazon will evolve from young adulthood to full maturity.