I had the pleasure of interviewing Eugene Wei on the Rad Awakenings Podcast. Eugene worked at Amazon from 1997 to 2004 as a strategy analyst and shares these juicy gems about observing Jeff Bezos’ as both master communicator and visionary. Don’t miss Eugene’s excellent post Compress to Impress and how he reads.
Jeff Bezos the Communicator
Compression as a form of business leverage
He understood that you had to do a good job of encapsulating company strategy in a succinct and memorable way because the company was just so large and sprawling that it was so easy for the message to dissipate as it traveled from person to person. He did a good job of encoding the message and using rituals to ensure that the message was always emphasized.
Encoding a message
Amazon had different themes for different years [like in Infinite Jest]. One year, we had studied different companies in history and discovered that at $1 Bn in revenue companies go sideways or topple over due to scaling. Jeff was conscious of heading that off. We had a year called “Getting our House in Order” and the acronym was G.O.H.I.O. There was a contest to name the year and this was the most memorable name. You ask anyone at Amazon who was there at that year and they’ll say “Oh there was that year of G.O.H.I.O. with a concrete set of projects.” You go to most companies today and ask them, what’s our theme this year and they’ll have no idea. It seems silly to have a contest to name a theme, but it really hit home with every group of the company. You’d have that repeated at every meeting.
The power of rituals
An example of a ritual was that Jeff was worried that in organizations, as they get larger, they get slower moving. People spot problems but don’t feel the same impulse to fix a problem as they did when it was a small company. We had an award called the “Just Do It” Award and he’d announce it at every all-hands meetings, he’d give out any number of awards. And you could nominate people for this. And the rule was that it was something that you did on your own, without asking for permission, it didn’t have to work. You just spotted a problem, you tried to tackle it in some way. And you would get a single Nike shoe on a plaque. That was just reinforcing the idea that “Hey, we’re a culture that constantly tries to spot and fix problems.”
Bezos as visionary
He was very good at separating the company from the business. The company is Amazon, a bunch of capabilities, people, organizations and processes and then there’s Amazon.com the retail business and he knew that these were two separate things. You had to work at the organism of the organization and the culture, processes. And sometimes you had to think about basic business strategy at Amazon.com. We’re very attached to a model of the tech CEO as a “product visionary,” the Steve Jobs model of rolling up your sleeves, nitpicking the product details; we probably underestimate Steve Jobs the company-builder.