Today is a historic day for four CEOs of the most powerful companies in the world: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai. Each of these men will be answering questions from U.S. lawmakers. And each will try to defend their companies’ business practices.
In advance of the hearing, each executive was given the opportunity to present a written statement. Both Tim Cook’s and Sundar Pichai’s statements were a tad over 1,300 words long. Mark Zuckerberg’s was more than double that, coming in just short of 2,800 words (complete with subheadings).
But Jeff Bezos’s statement blows the others out of the water:
It’s a whopping 4,540 words long.
Maybe it’s because this is the first time Bezos is testifying. (Pichai, Zuckerberg, and Cook have all appeared before Congress previously.) Or maybe it’s because Bezos has a special fondness for the written word.
But as I read Bezos’s statement this morning, which he published on Amazon’s official blog, I couldn’t ignore the lessons it teaches in emotional intelligence–both for good and quite possibly for evil.
Here are some of the highlights, along with my comments.
It’s a masterpiece in storytelling
Amazon’s chief begins by telling the story of his mom, who gave birth to Bezos as “a 17-year-old high school student in Albuquerque.” Bezos talks about his mom’s determination to finish her education, attending night school with little baby Bezos in tow.
He follows with the story of his dad, Miguel, a Cuban immigrant who adopted Jeff when he was 4. “He didn’t speak English and didn’t have an easy path,” writes Bezos. “What he did have was a lot of grit and determination.” Bezos’s father ended up studying in Albuquerque, where he met Bezos’s mother.
Bezos then speaks of his grandparents, focusing on his grandfather–a civil servant and rancher who taught Bezos the lesson of self-reliance and resourcefulness. “When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t pick up a phone and call somebody when something breaks,” Bezos writes about his grandfather. “You fix it yourself.”
Bezos tells of the many “seemingly unsolvable problems” his grandfather was able to resolve, from “restoring a broken-down Caterpillar bulldozer” to “doing his own veterinary work.”
“[My] grandfather taught me that you can take on hard problems,” writes Bezos. “When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.”
Each of these stories helps to humanize Bezos. They paint the picture, not of the person who would become the richest man in the world, but of a man with humble roots.
Next, Bezos talks about the beginning of Amazon, an idea that began simply: “an online bookstore with millions of titles.”
When Bezos told his boss at a New York City investment firm that he was leaving to pursue this dream, his boss responded: “You know what, Jeff, I think this is a good idea, but it would be a better idea for somebody who didn’t already have a good job.”
The boss persuaded Bezos to think things over for two days before making a decision. This was very emotionally intelligent advice: You don’t want to make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion. But, for Bezos, there would be no turning back.
“When I’m 80 and reflecting back,” writes Bezos, “I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have in my life. And most of our regrets are acts of omission–the things we didn’t try, the paths untraveled. Those are the things that haunt us. And I decided that if I didn’t at least give it my best shot, I was going to regret not trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a big deal.”
Grit and resilience
Bezos goes on to detail Amazon’s many stumbles through the years. Cumulative losses of nearly $3 billion by the year 2001 (the first year Amazon produced a profitable quarter).
“At the pinnacle of the internet bubble,” writes Bezos, “our stock price peaked at $116, and then, after the bubble burst, our stock went down to $6. Experts and pundits thought we were going out of business.”
Bezos and company stuck with it, and Amazon eventually reached financial success.
But it took a lot of risk-taking to get there
“In addition to good luck and great people,” writes Bezos, “we have been able to succeed as a company only because we have continued to take big risks. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”
For example, analysts couldn’t understand why a company known first as a bookseller would get into the business of selling digital storage and server capacity, the backbone of Amazon Web Services (AWS). And while AWS eventually turned out to be a smashing success, it was alongside the many risks that didn’t work out. (Remember the Amazon Fire phone, anyone?)
“Amazon has made billions of dollars of failures,” writes Bezos. “Failure inevitably comes along with invention and risk-taking, which is why we try to make Amazon the best place in the world to fail.”
How to use empathy
One of the key reasons Amazon became such a powerhouse is the company’s relentless focus on the customer.
“Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great,” writes Bezos. “Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and a constant desire to delight customers drives us to constantly invent on their behalf.”
It was this focus, says Bezos, that inspired one of the company’s most successful initiatives: Amazon Prime. “No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program,” writes Bezos. “But it sure turns out they wanted it.”
This extreme focus goes beyond what typical companies do; it’s a real-life example of how to use empathy in the business world. Because if you can put yourself in the shoes of your customer, you can better understand them–and better satisfy them.
Business is about winning trust
“Customer trust is hard to win and easy to lose,” writes Bezos. “When you let customers make your business what it is, then they will be loyal to you–right up to the second that someone else offers them better service.”
Bezos continues, “You earn trust slowly, over time, by doing hard things well. Delivering on time; offering everyday low prices; making promises and keeping them; making principled decisions, even when they’re unpopular; and giving customers more time to spend with their families by inventing more convenient ways of shopping, reading, and automating their homes.”
In my book EQ Applied, I compare all relationships–including the one between business and customer–to a bridge. Any strong bridge must be built on a solid foundation–and for relationships, that foundation is trust.
Criticism is a gift–if you allow it to be
Bezos has long made it clear that Amazon makes decisions based on long-term value, not shortsighted gains. But that doesn’t mean the company is always right.
“When we’re criticized for those choices, we listen and look at ourselves in the mirror,” writes Bezos. “When we think our critics are right, we change. When we make mistakes, we apologize. But when you look in the mirror, assess the criticism, and still believe you’re doing the right thing, no force in the world should be able to move you.”
The ability to assess and process all kinds of feedback–even negative feedback–is a mark of emotional intelligence.
I like to compare feedback to a freshly mined diamond. Although unattractive to the naked eye, the rock’s value becomes obvious once it’s cut and polished. Negative feedback is like that unpolished diamond: To the recipient, it’s ugly. But it’s often rooted in truth, providing insight you can use to grow.
And even if the feedback is off base, it’s still valuable–because it can help you understand others’ perspectives. Because if one person feels this way about your message, you can count on others feeling similar. Knowing this can help you clarify your message so that others understand it better, or help you to prepare yourself for future criticism.
Either way, much like a diamond cutter can take a raw diamond and turn it into a thing of beauty, you can turn criticism into a learning experience.
Using emotions to influence–for good or bad
It’s here that Bezos’s statement begins to take a turn.
Knowing that Congress is likely to challenge and criticize Amazon, Bezos attempts to show all the ways his company helps individuals, helps the U.S., and even helps the world. He knows that raw data won’t accomplish that alone; so he combines data with storytelling to try to evoke an emotional response.
For example, throughout several paragraphs of his statement, Bezos highlights Amazon’s:
- Focus on providing jobs within local communities
- Numerous company programs and employee benefits
- Individual employees, including numerous personal names and stories
- Direct and indirect investments into the American economy
- Efforts regarding Covid-19
- Relatively high minimum wage of $15 per hour
- Contribution to shareholder wealth, including investors like fire, police, and school teacher pension funds, as well as 401(k) mutual funds and university endowments
- Contributions to support initiatives focused on reversing climate change
- Opening of Washington State’s largest homeless shelter
To conclude, Bezos gets patriotic, in an effort to appeal to lawmakers’ nationalism. He brings the story full circle, drawing on his father’s immigrant background. He even compares the U.S. to Amazon itself, saying that it’s “still Day One” for America, alluding to Amazon’s philosophy of always thinking like a small company, always striving to keep itself from going out of business.
But it’s here is where I urge readers to be careful. Because, while the use of emotions to persuade or influence others isn’t always bad, it can be used to blind an audience to the truth.
I don’t agree with everything in Bezos’s statement. But I find it’s an excellent case study of how emotional intelligence works in the real world.