America's Best Leaders: Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com CEO

The founder of the massive online retailer is a true Internet pioneer.

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Jeff Bezos

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Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com in 1994 as an online bookstore. As CEO, he has built it into the largest retailer on the Web, selling everything from groceries to electronics and shoes. Amazon consistently succeeds with risky new ventures, which Bezos credits to tenacity and an obsession with customer needs. U.S. News's David LaGesse asked Bezos about leading an Internet pioneer. Excerpts:

My own view is that every company requires a long-term view. If you're going to take a long-term orientation, you have to be willing to stay heads down and ignore a wide array of critics, even well-meaning critics. If you don't have a willingness to be misunderstood for a long period of time, then you can't have a long-term orientation. Because we have done it many times and have come out the other side, we have enough internal stories that we can tell ourselves. While we're crossing the desert, we may be thirsty, but we sincerely believe there's an oasis on the other side.

You're also going to have to have a willingness to repeatedly fail if you're going to experiment. For a certain kind of person, that is a very exciting, very motivating culture. So, we attract those kinds of people.

Cultures, for better or worse, are very stable. When new people come into the company, some may self-select out of it. Others opt in. Over time, you build up this momentum around a culture that is self-perpetuating.

We wanted to have a customer-focused culture. We consciously tried to get that. Part of a culture is also who the early employees are. Part of company culture is path-dependent—it's the lessons you learn along the way. One piece of the culture here that is true of my personality is that I have never believed that you couldn't be serious and have fun at the same time. It's perhaps most important to have fun when stumbling. It is harder.

A different way to organize your energies that can be very effective is to be competitor-focused. If you're competitor-focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer-focused allows you to be more pioneering. We have found that, on the Internet, "me too" strategies seem not to work very well.

There are many decisions that we make that we can make with math. For those kinds of problems, if you used gut intuition, that would be foolish. But a lot of the decisions that you have to make around consumers are not that kind of thing. You can't put into a spreadsheet how people are going to behave around a new product.

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