Yesterday, for the first time in more than two decades, Jeff Bezos woke up without the title he had held since soon after Amazon’s founding: CEO.
But while Bezos has handed over Amazon’s keys to new CEO Andy Jassy, he hasn’t left the company. His new (official) job title is “executive chair.”
So, what does mean? What will Bezos actually do?
A review of Bezos’s correspondence from the past year shows that Bezos is embarking on a new mission. It’s a mission that could change the trajectory of the company–and even save it from eventual demise.
Why Jeff Bezos stepped down
You might think it strange to hear about Amazon’s demise, considering its value has skyrocketed over the past year, and it’s currently one of the most valuable companies in the world.
But that’s exactly what Bezos himself spoke about in his final letter to shareholders, which was published just a few months ago.
As parting words, Bezos said that he had “one last thing of utmost importance” that he felt compelled to teach, and that he hoped all employees would take to heart.
Bezos then quoted from Richard Dawkins’s book The Blind Watchmaker. Bezos described the quote as a “basic fact of biology”:
Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself–and that is what it is when it dies–the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment … if living things didn’t work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die.
“While the passage is not intended as a metaphor, it’s nevertheless a fantastic one, and very relevant to Amazon,” writes Bezos.
“The world will always try to make Amazon more typical–to bring us into equilibrium with our environment,” he continues. “It will take continuous effort, but we can and must be better than that.”
This isn’t really a new concept; in fact, Bezos has long preached that Amazon employees should consider it “day one”–to work as if Amazon is still an early-stage company, relentless in its efforts to stave off death.
And this is why Bezos now leaving his post as CEO is so pivotal.
“Being the CEO of Amazon is a deep responsibility, and it’s consuming,” wrote Bezos in a separate letter to Amazon employees, when he first announced he’d be quitting his job. “When you have a responsibility like that, it’s hard to put attention on anything else.”
Bezos next gave some insight into what he’d be focusing his time on–speaking first about going back to his role as an inventor, and that he would continue working on “Amazon initiatives.”
Then, in that final shareholder letter, Bezos gave us more clues.
He addressed head-on what has become a very strong criticism of Amazon in recent years, namely, that the company doesn’t take good enough care of its employees. And while Bezos defended Amazon and the way it looks after its people, he also admitted that the company needed to do better.
“Despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success,” wrote Bezos. “We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition. We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”
Wow. Talk about ambitious goals.
Bezos went on to remind shareholders how Amazon had already raised its employee minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also shared that Amazon has invested more than $300 million in safety projects in 2021, some of which include:
- WorkingWell, a coaching program that focuses on improving body mechanics, proactive wellness, and safety in the workplace
- New staffing schedules designed to decrease repetitive motion and help protect employees from risks related to musculoskeletal disorders
- An initial $66 million investment to create technology that will help prevent collisions of forklifts and other types of industrial vehicles
“If we want to be Earth’s Best Employer, we shouldn’t settle for 94 percent of employees saying they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work,” explains Bezos. “We have to aim for 100 percent.”
Bezos has his work cut out for him. The idea of Amazon becoming the world’s best employer is laughable to many. After all, isn’t this the company with a reputation for employees who cry at their desks because of the stress? The company whose warehouse workers are afraid to use the bathroom lest they be punished for it?
Still, it’s an intriguing thought.
The thing about building a company is, you can’t solve every problem at once. You have to work on a few things at a time, with the goal of incrementally getting better. And only once you solve one major problem, can you move on to the next. If you’re successful, you end up beating the odds.
No one could have predicted that what started off as an online bookstore would be the world’s largest online retailer. Just as no one is now predicting that Amazon will become the world’s best employer.
No one except for Bezos and his team, that is.
Either way, one thing is for certain: By stepping down as CEO, Bezos has more time to focus on solving Amazon’s biggest problem. If he’s successful, he will have done more than improve the company’s reputation. He will have altered the company’s future.
And in the end, he just may save himself–and his company–from what he fears most: becoming just like everyone else.
AUTHOR: JUSTIN BARISO
DATE PUBLISHED: July 8, 2021
PHOTO CREDIT: inc.com