Amazon’s new CEO will need to be more than Jeff Bezos 2.0

Twenty-seven years to the day after founding Amazon in a Bellevue garage, Jeff Bezos has relinquished control of his company. Bezos’ trusted deputy, Andy Jassy, stepped into his new role as Amazon’s CEO on Monday.

Jassy, 53, is an Amazon culture keeper, those who know him say. He joined the company in 1997, and spent 18 months early in his career shadowing Bezos in a chief-of-staff-like role. Colleagues say that like Bezos, 57, Jassy pays close attention to details and has a keen business acumen. Since 2003, Jassy has helmed Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud-computing wing and most profitable division.

“Clearly with Jassy, Bezos has chosen a person, if not the person, most well-suited to be Jeff 2.0,” said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington historian whose research focuses on the technology industry.

But rather than preserve the Age of Bezos in amber, Jassy’s job in the months and years ahead will be to walk a fine line: Change Amazon enough to appease its loudest critics, without losing the characteristics that have propelled its meteoric rise.

Bezos will remain executive director of Amazon’s board, and has said he still intends to exert considerable influence over the company in that position — though his plans to jet off to the edge of space later this month suggest he likely won’t be micromanaging Amazon’s affairs.

It’s not uncommon for organizations with a strong, founder-led culture to elevate new leaders from within, in the hopes they are “imbued with the way of doing things” and can emulate the founder’s vision, said Stanford School of Business professor Charles O’Reilly.

David Glass worked at Wal-Mart for more than a decade before replacing Sam Walton as CEO; Steve Ballmer was one of Microsoft’s earliest hires in 1980 before taking over the CEO job from Bill Gates in 2000.

Like Ballmer, who took the top job at Microsoft just four months before a federal judge ruled the company had violated antitrust laws, Jassy will inherit a company beset with challenges.

The changing of the guard at Amazon, one of the world’s best-known, most-valuable companies coincides with a reckoning of the collateral effects from Amazon’s race to, in Bezos’ words, “get big fast.”

What 27 years ago was a scrappy startup has morphed into the nation’s second-largest employer, and the world’s largest online retailer and cloud-services provider. Now Amazon is under scrutiny from lawmakers, regulators, media and the public for its labor practices, surveillance technologies and alleged anticompetitive actions.

Last week, the company implicitly acknowledged just how profoundly public perception of Amazon has shifted by adding two new standards to the set of so-called “leadership principles” articulating Amazon’s corporate culture and against which employee performance and new product ideas are evaluated.

The two new leadership principles — “strive to be Earth’s Best Employer” and “success and scale bring broad responsibility” — describe a vision for Amazon as a benign corporate citizen, conscious that it must look beyond the effect of its actions on customers and shareholders.

“We started in a garage, but we’re not there anymore,” notes the description of that second principle.

Amazon did not respond to questions about why the company chose to announce the new leadership principles days before Bezos stepped down as CEO. But the timing was likely tied to the executive transition, said University of Washington marketing professor Jeff Shulman.

“With this happening just before transition, it’s showing there’s buy-in with the old guard and the new,” Shulman said. “It wasn’t released after Jassy was installed as CEO, it wasn’t released months or years before.”

From Amazon’s earliest days, Bezos molded his company’s culture around his hard-driving personality. As Amazon grew in the mid-1990s, Bezos rejected job applicants “who made the mistake of talking about wanting a harmonious balance between work and home life,” journalist Brad Stone wrote in his history of Amazon, “The Everything Store.” The founder used to tell employees that at Amazon, they would work hard, smart and long.

Bezos began codifying Amazon’s leadership principles in 1998, in part as a way to articulate Amazon’s worldview to companies it had acquired. Since then, the principles have become dogma: Employees, who usually have them memorized, cite them in conversation without irony. Some, like “customer obsession” and “frugality,” are well-known even among laypeople. Though the principles have undergone several rounds of revision, their focus has largely remained on maximizing value for customers and shareholders.

The two new principles, in contrast, look far beyond the confines of the company. They emphasize empathy, humility and a need to be “thoughtful about even the secondary effects of our actions” — values that so far, have not typically been associated with Amazon’s corporate culture, which some employees have described as driven to the point of being combative.

Amazon employees and industry watchers reacted with some skepticism to Amazon’s pledge to begin considering its actions outside the context of its bottom line.

Bezos originally pledged to work to turn Amazon into “Earth’s Best Employer” last April, after the conclusion of a heated but unsuccessful unionization campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama.

Since then, the company has announced few concrete steps to address warehouse workers’ concerns over injury rates, pay and promotions. Amazon launched a worker wellness campaign in May, and last month said it would help establish a task force on musculoskeletal injuries, but has declined to lower its expectations for the speed at which warehouse workers are expected to complete tasks.

Corporate workers have complained that Amazon in recent years reinstated a controversial talent-management system that some have said resembles stack ranking.

“Let’s see how [the new principles] translate into actual business operations,” said O’Mara. “Any grand gestures are also brand-building and have a business purpose. They’re there to make money, not to be ambassadors of goodwill.”