Recently Jeff Bezos announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Amazon and taking a role on the governing board. Why would a man, who founded and built one of the largest most successful companies in the world, decide to step away? On the outside it seems to make no sense and indeed it made news with many people asking the same question. But this is a question that all business founders must ask themselves, when do I step down and who do I turn the company over to?
A family business is frequently built with the idea that it will stay in the family, being passed from one generation to the next. This does not happen by accident. With one in three family businesses not making it past the first generation it is important to realize that this doesn’t happen naturally or magically. Jeff Bezos planned ahead. In a 2014 interview with “Insider” he said that there was a succession plan in place for him and all the executives at Amazon. Six years before Bezos announced him leaving the role of CEO, he had already decided not only how he would move on but all of his top leaders.
Bezos spent time investing in the people around him. He hired Andy Jassey in 1997 to lead their Cloud division. In 1999 Bezos hired Jeff Wilke who ended up leading the e-commerce division. It was rumored for years that one of these men would take over as CEO. With a succession plan in place Jassey has stepped in as CEO and Wilke has announced his formal retirement with a successor to his role already announced. Bezos took the time to hire good people, train and empower those people within the business which made them ready to take leadership roles when the time came. Planning the succession of the company almost a decade in advance has allowed Bezos to make a relatively calm transition – during a global pandemic no less.
Part of Bezos transition plan included what his personal next steps would be. He has been clear that he isn’t retiring from the business but moving to the governance board, giving himself space to pursue other initiatives. He wants to spend more time running the non-profit organization Amazon Blue Earth Fund, the Blue Origin Spaceship Project, as well as be more involved with the running of the Washington Post. By no longer focusing on the day-to-day operations of the company Bezos is now free to pursue other aspects of his business. For a family business founder and owner succession planning might mean looking at ways to expand the business or lead other initiatives that there was just never time to pursue.
Bezos could have let his ego get tied to his business. Instead of the business defining him he was able to see the business as an entity outside of himself, a place that belonged to his employees and customers. By seeing his business not as his whole life but an important chapter, he gave himself the freedom to explore interests and opportunities outside of the business. This also gave people from within the organization the knowledge that their hard work would be rewarded, and promotion was possible.
What the future will now hold for Amazon is anybody’s guess. They are facing anti-trust lawsuits from the government, and employee issues at the distribution levels. On average most founders stay in the role of CEO for 24 years, Bezos has been running Amazon for 27 years. Will he be able to stay out of the CEO seat? Will he allow his appointed leaders that authority and space to do their jobs?
As you look to establish your own succession plan it is never too early. By planning in advance, you give both your new leaders and the business the best opportunity to succeed in your absence. Plus, don’t you want to explore a new chapter in your own life? At REGENERATION we have decades and decades of experience helping families develop a succession plan that sets both the family and the business up for growth.