This week, after more than a quarter of a decade at the helm, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced that he will step away from his role as chief executive later this year and transition to the role of executive chair. Since its founding in 1995, Bezos has overseen the company from an online bookseller to a $1.7 trillion global retail and logistics behemoth, which has also made Bezos into one of the world’s richest people.
Bezos wrote in a letter to employees:
“This journey began some 27 years ago. Amazon was only an idea, and it had no name. The question I was asked most frequently at that time was, ‘What’s the internet?’ … Today, we employ 1.3 million talented, dedicated people, serve hundreds of millions of customers and businesses, and are widely recognized as one of the most successful companies in the world.”
Bezos didn’t use the words “disruptive mindset” to describe what fueled his success, but I will.
At the end of 2019, using the principles of the late management guru Peter Drucker, The Wall Street Journal announced his picks for the best-managed companies of the year. From 820 companies, Amazon.com Inc. took first place, and Microsoft rose to the number two position, followed by Apple Inc. in third place.
A team of researchers compiled the list using dozens of data points to evaluate companies on five performance dimensions. They are: customer satisfaction, employee engagement and development, innovation, social responsibility, and financial strength.
The performance dimensions describe these top-ranking companies, but they do more. They give us a glimpse into the mindset decision-makers shared. That is, we can infer that senior leaders and board directors held some common beliefs about what success looks like. And that they had the requisite talents, skills, and confidence to get the results they wanted.
We can also conclude that an unprecedented number of challenges continue to differentiate leaders who embody a disruptive mindset from their competitors who do not. At the same time, we can extrapolate that the way we have traditionally assessed an organization’s ability to grow through innovation and transformation is outdated.
Bezos’ Disruptive Mindset
When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, he didn’t assemble retail experts to advise him about how to do something no one had done before. Taxi drivers didn’t start Uber, and horse breeders didn’t start the Ford Motor Company. Rather, these successful companies exist because of innovative solutions that came from those with disruptive mindsets.
Amazon catapulted to the top of the 2019 list by earning an off-the-charts ranking in innovation. Its score in that dimension of performance is more than double that of any other company. Amazon outpaces others in patent applications, trademark registrations, and spending on research and development. Amazon also abandons patent applications at a higher rate than others. This is a sign of its commitment to move past obsolete technology.Discover how Jeff Bezos' disruptive mindset has transformed Amazon and grown it to what it is today. Disruption alone doesn't create growth, growth creates disruption. Click To Tweet
Bezos has long shunned lengthy slide presentations. Instead, employees present a memo that may not be longer than six pages. Everyone reads it prior to starting a meeting. Bezos praised the memo process in one of his letters to investors: “Some have the clarity of angels singing.”2 This succinct summary sets up the meeting for high-quality discussions, a fast pace, and agility—the opposite effect of cumbersome Power Point presentations in most other organizations.
Disruption alone doesn’t create growth.
Instead, growth creates disruption. Disruption for the sake of disruption would earn a low-ranking score among the companies the Wall Street Journal evaluated. For instance, Facebook Inc. received a low score on customer satisfaction, a score based on customers’ unwillingness to recommend Facebook to a colleague or friend.
“Borat” star, Sacha Baron Cohen, attacked Mark Zuckerberg in a speech in November 2019 at the Anti-Defamation League’s International Leadership Summit. He said the social media giant’s resistance to fact-checking ads relies on “twisted logic” that would have had it selling spots to Nazis in another generation. Many would argue Facebook experienced its share of disruption in 2019, but that disruption led to a sullied reputation, not growth and admiration.
A disruptive mindset involves more than innovation, cutting-edge technology, pace, and risk-taking—but they help.
Disruption can happen slowly and methodically, causing so little discomfort that few would choose the word “disruptive” to describe the transformation. More often, however, disruption shows up dragging a breathless sense of urgency—if not crisis—with it. Bezos taught us what it takes to develop and encourage others to develop a disruptive mindset.