New book documents how Amazon’s success is linked to CEO’s mercurial style

Amazon’s 49-year-old CEO, Jeff Bezos, declined to participate for a book on the 20th anniversary of the behemoth online retailer.

But Bezos did allow friends, family and senior Amazon executives to speak to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Brad Stone for a revealing book that characterizes Bezos as a brilliant-but-intolerant CEO whose style has driven Amazon to excel beyond its reputation as an online book retailer into “the Everything Store, a company with around $75 billion in annual revenue, a $140 billion market value.”

According to a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story headlined “Secret Amazon,” Stone retells anecdotes that illustrate how Bezos’ impatience has generated fear in under-performing underlings while driving Amazon to new heights.

“Amazon has a few well-known peculiarities—the desks are repurposed doors; meetings begin with everyone in the room sitting in silence as they read a six-page document called a narrative. It’s a famously demanding place to work. And yet just how the company works—and what Bezos is like as a person—is difficult to know.”

But Stone attempts to pierce the veil of uncertainty.

Bezos’ drive and boldness, Stone writes, “trumps other leadership ideals, such as consensus building and promoting civility. While he can be charming and capable of great humor in public, in private he explodes into what some of his underlings call nutters. A colleague failing to meet Bezos’s exacting standards will set off a nutter. If an employee does not have the right answers or tries to bluff, or takes credit for someone else’s work, or exhibits a whiff of internal politics, uncertainty, or frailty in the heat of battle — a blood vessel in Bezos’s forehead bulges and his filter falls away. He’s capable of hyperbole and harshness in these moments and over the years has delivered some devastating rebukes.

“Among his greatest hits, collected and relayed by Amazon veterans:”

“Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

“I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”

“Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”

“Are you trying to take credit for something you had nothing to do with?”

“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

“We need to apply some human intelligence to this problem.”

[After reviewing the annual plan from the supply chain team] “I guess supply chain isn’t doing anything interesting next year.”

“[After reading a start-of-meeting memo] “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.”

“[After an engineer’s presentation] “Why are you wasting my life?”

Bezos “surprised the world in August when he personally bought the Washington Post newspaper, saying his blend of optimism, innovation, and long-term orientation could revive it,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “One day a week, he moonlights as the head of Blue Origin, his private rocket ship company, which is trying to lower the cost of space travel.”

The piece goes on at length about how Bezos’ email interactions with customers belies Amazon’s carefully constructed matrices to measure customers’ buying habits and look ahead to potential markets.

“Jeff Bezos has a public e-mail address,jeff@amazon.com. Not only does he read many customer complaints, he forwards them to the relevant Amazon employees, with a one-character addition: a question mark.

“When Amazon employees get a Bezos question mark e-mail, they react as though they’ve discovered a ticking bomb. They’ve typically got a few hours to solve whatever issue the CEO has flagged and prepare a thorough explanation for how it occurred, a response that will be reviewed by a succession of managers before the answer is presented to Bezos himself. Such escalations, as these e-mails are known, are Bezos’s way of ensuring that the customer’s voice is constantly heard inside the company.”

Bezos is also famous for an unnerving laugh that’s not intended to share in good humor, according to the article:

“The one unguarded thing about Bezos is his laugh—a pulsing, mirthful bray that he leans into while craning his neck back. He unleashes it often, even when nothing is obviously funny to anyone else. And it startles people. ‘You can’t misunderstand it,’ says Rick Dalzell, Amazon’s former chief information officer, who says Bezos often wields his laugh when others fail to meet his lofty standards. ‘It’s disarming and punishing. He’s punishing you.’

“This is not somebody who takes pleasure at tearing someone a new a-‍-hole,” says Kim Rachmeler, an executive who worked at Amazon for more than a decade. “He is not that kind of person. Jeff doesn’t tolerate stupidity, even accidental stupidity.”

 

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