What do Jeff Bezos and Barack Obama have in common? They're both incredibly good at leading for the long-term.
It's tough to imagine two public figures more dissimilar than Barack Obama and Jeff Bezos. Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize, while Bezos has been described as ruthless and his personal motto translates to "stepping ferociously." Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir that worry about financial inequality kept her husband awake at night. There could be a lot of things keeping Bezos up at night but it's safe to say financial inequality isn't one of them. He's the world's wealthiest human, but many of Amazon's employees were resorting to food stamps, right up until senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation to tax companies whose employees earn so little that they use public assistance to get by. It was only then that Amazon raised its company-wide minimum to $15.
And yet, they do have one important leadership trait in common, according to Jay Carney, Amazon's senior vice president for global corporate affairs and former press secretary to Obama, and it's a trait that may explain why both of them are so successful: They don't manage for the short term.
For both men, taking a long-term view has often meant shrugging off advice and criticism from many sources, Carney explained during a session at the recent GeekWire Summit in Seattle. [Disclosure: I am also a GeekWire contributor.] "They're, obviously, different in so many ways, but they're very similar in one particular way, which is they are both very long-view focused," Carney told GeekWire co-founder Todd Bishop in an onstage interview.
Obama's ability to focus on the long game partly resulted from his status as a Washington outsider, Carney--a Washington insider--told Bishop. "He was a phenom who had risen from nowhere to become a candidate for president," Carney said. "He wasn't part of the Washington game. He hadn't been running for president for most of his adult life and he hadn't been on the national stage."
That meant he didn't see things the way most Washington insiders did. "He wouldn't do things that I, and some of his other advisers, would tell him that he absolutely had to do because this is what one does to win the day, or win the week in the media cycle," Carney recalled. "He'd always listen, sometimes agree, but often just say, 'No, I'm not doing that.' And we might pay a price in the near term politically, but it was very consistent with the way he saw things."
Bezos looks at things through the same long-term lens, Carney said. Do you remember that for many years, so-called financial experts argued that Amazon was a bad investment because it didn't report a profit? In case you've forgotten, here's an Inc. Q&A with Bezos from 1997, shortly after Amazon went public. Amazon took flak for many years over its unprofitability. Some of those years, the company could have recorded a profit and maybe even paid a dividend, but Bezos poured revenues back into Amazon, improving its technology and widening its scope.
"Jeff has, historically, been willing to not do the things that typical companies, their CEOs, do when it comes to managing by quarter and maximizing share, all that stuff that he was criticized for in the early days," Carney said. "Investing to scale and staying frugal to reward customers, all these things and he was willing to take some heat for it."
It seems clear that this approach is largely responsible for Amazon's dominance today. Bezos kept to his focus and continued stepping ferociously and steadily toward the long-term objectives he knew his company could reach. To do that, he had to ignore the general norms by which most public companies operate. He made investors and analysts wait seven years, from Amazon's IPO in 1997 until 2004, the first year the company reported a profit. For an ecommerce business, seven years is a very, very long time. For those years, Bezos had to refuse to follow the advice of financial experts, and stay focused despite repeated criticism that the company's stock was a terrible investment. Operating in one of the world's most fast-changing industries, he was able to plan for the very long term and then stick to that plan.
Next time you have to choose between following your long-term strategy or reacting to skeptics and critics, it's worth taking a few moments to ask yourself: What would Obama do? What would Bezos do? What's the right decision for seven years from now? It just might help you make the right choice.