Is Jeff Bezos the New Jack Welch?

I don’t usually read the Harvard Business Review because it is inconvenient to read for free, and expensive to pay for, but I happened to dip into the latest issue and was really impressed with the Jeff Bezos interview. Every generation in business is defined by one or two CEOs who manifest and model the defining qualities of the age. With this interview, I think Bezos is in contention for the 2000s.

Here is a link to the article, An Institutional Yes. You can probably find it in your local corporate or university library, or pay a latte to read it at Barnes and Noble. Some highlights (no direct quotes since I didn’t have pen and paper with me when I read the thing)

Memorable strategic idea: paraphrase: many people ask what will change in the next 5-7 years, but you need to ask what will stay the same and build your business on that. You can ‘spin up your flywheels’ around such ideas.

Credibility-building anecdote: Bezos recounts how Amazon had the courage to let sellers compete with their own product buyers on price. The inside story of the courage it took to make that decision is revealing.

Signature Reframing: When Amazon allowed negative reviews early on, publishers didn’t like it and pressed Amazon with such ideas as “maybe you don’t know your business; you make money when you sell products.” Bezos reframed as, “No, we make money when we help buyers make choices.”

Memorable move: Amazon Web Services. We just had one of the AWS evangelists give a talk at Xerox, and my, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and insight driving their strategic moves. By contrast, the other big Internet brands look like flashy noise in what they do.

Model personality: Though Amazon started as a Web 1.0 company, and Bezos doesn’t blog, he projects a model 2.0 personality. No, I don’t mean flashy and self-aggrandizing. That’s the dark-side version. I mean down-to-earth, friendly, thoughtful and philosophical, and at the same time conversational. With a sense of fun, rather than the Masters of the Universe attitude projected by prototypical CEOs of the previous generation.

Tactical Insight: Information quality and completeness is increasing. This means marketing ratios must switch. Previously you might have spent  twice as much on talking up your product as you spent developing it. That will turn around. This is a deeper way to frame the insights about Marketing 2.0 than very specific ideas like “blogs are about naked conversations.”

Lots more good stuff. Get hold of the thing and read it.

Remember Jack Welch

Remember, Jack Welch built his reputation on a similar set of highlight leadership displays. He is best known for defining the core competency movement with the “be among the top 2 in the market or get out of the business” rule-of-thumb and the idea of the stretch goal to drive out-of-the-box performance. Not quite fair to reduce long hard-fought careers to sound bytes, but then many CEOs fade away without even sound bytes.

Just for fun, my short list of CEOs who defined the spirit of their ages: Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch,  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and now Jeff Bezos. A complete list starting from the robber barons and up to the Web 2.0 archetype would be interesting. There is an interesting counterpoint view, developed in Good to Great, that great CEOs are the quiet unassuming types. Somehow, I don’t quite buy that bit. These biopic-worthy CEOs also have/had substance behind their oversize reputations.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Here is a TED Talk by Jeff Bezos. Good presentation on drawing parallels between the internet boom / bust and earlier events / eras in the history of business.