The news this month that Jeff Bezos is stepping down as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Amazon has shocked many. After leading the company for more than a quarter of a century, he will now vacate the role and become Executive Chair.

His replacement? The somewhat unknown Andy Jassy. Well, I say unknown – to anyone who follows Amazon Web Services (AWS), he is anything but. Jassy is credited with building AWS to become the cloud juggernaut it is today.

Is he right for Amazon?

Jassy is incredibly astute, strategic, and effective. With 24 years’ experience at Amazon, he also knows and aligns with Bezos’ vision. Perhaps more importantly, he also offers a clean slate for Amazon’s communications team.

Bezos has been a love-hate figure for the last decade. To some, he’s the definition of success. To others, he represents everything wrong with capitalism and the growing wealth divide. Over the past few years especially, his quest for growth has faced increasing criticism. His reputation has been especially damaged by claims of wealth hoarding. This is at a time when Amazon warehouse staff are allegedly working in very poor conditions.

Jassy, on the other hand, is not burdened by these issues. The average person doesn’t know who he is, let alone have a perception of him. With effective executive communications, Jassy really can be the figure that Bezos never was. Amazon’s comms team is probably relishing shaping Jassy’s reputation. I would be.

An executive communications opportunity?

I’m interested in seeing how visible Jassy will be. His time leading AWS has been more behind the scenes, but that may not be possible as CEO. As the head of Amazon, he’ll be under the same media scrutiny as the other big tech giant CEOs, such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Tim Cook at Apple.

Often, it was Bezos’ vast wealth that was used as a weapon to demonise him and Amazon. That’s a very unique situation though; Bezos’ wealth was due to him being the biggest shareholder in Amazon. Jassy will have shares, but not on the same scale as his predecessor. And while he’s already worth an estimated $440m, he’ll be the least wealthiest of any tech giant CEO when he takes up the role. You’d think for this reason then that much of the negativity towards Bezos won’t transfer to Jassy.

While Jassy aligns with Bezos on many matters, he’ll know Amazon isn’t perfect. He is his own man and, like every successful CEO, he will run the company how he thinks best. His challenge is to balance growth with tackling the many criticisms Amazon faces. In addition to the warehouse issues, this includes allegations around its environmental record, antitrust, and competition. These topics are increasingly in the media, so will pose a challenge to Jassy’s reputation as the company’s leader.

The challenge ahead

Given that Amazon continues to grow year-on-year, it would be reasonable to think his reputation as a businessperson is safe in the short-term. And how much of a long-term is there with Jassy at the helm? The average lifespan of a CEO is five years. If Jassy were to double that, he’d be 63 by the time he steps down. The average age when CEOs step down is 62 years old.

The most important factor in the reputation that Jassy develops, then, is around those troublesome factors mentioned above. Working conditions and the environment are the two most significant, in my opinion at least. We will certainly have our eyes on Jassy, assessing how he addresses these challenges and the repercussions on his reputation as CEO. Our recommendation would be to start with his employees, spending time getting the communication right there, and bringing them on-board with his vision for the company. This will then create the right platform to build confidence with investors and customers.

Two urgent matters to address – or not?

Amazon has taken a more proactive stance on climate change recently. It created a $2bn climate innovation fund last year, for starters. It’s expected to be running on 100% renewable energy by 2025. It’s also making its delivery fleet electric. This green trend will likely continue at Amazon; it doesn’t really have a choice though, considering how consumers are increasingly demanding companies improve their environmental credentials. If this trend does continue, it’s an easy win for Jassy to earn plaudits. The comms team can associate progress on the matter with his leadership, regardless of his level of involvement.

The topic of working conditions, on the other hand, looks like it will continue being a problem. The latest on this is that warehouses are attempting to unionise. Poor public handling of this in coming years could be a banana skin for Jassy. It’s unlikely we’ll see him come in and vow to revolutionise working conditions though. That would be great for his executive communications strategy, but it would add legitimacy to allegations that Amazon currently rejects. It would also create new costs and liabilities for the company if they changed their operations, which would affect the bottom line. I suspect he’ll be distanced from this topic in public, even if he’s involved behind the scenes.

New CEO, same company

It’s important to remember that Jassy is joining Amazon off the back of its best ever year. He isn’t taking on the role as fire fighter or saviour. His brief will be “onwards and upwards”. For this reason, it would be surprising if we saw major changes at Amazon.

It will continue as the behemoth it is now, with a safe and ever-growing market share. But I really do think Amazon has an opportunity to position Jassy as a CEO who moves the company forward reputationally. Good executive communications will be critical to achieving that. I’m excited to see how it all plays out.

If you like this piece, download Firefly’s Guide to Reputation Shaping. We analyse the reputations of CEOs and businesses and provide guidance on how to manage them. Your free copy is available here. Alternatively, read about our executive communications services here.

I really enjoyed listening to this Guardian podcast on ‘reasons to be cheerful’ despite the glum economic environment. A key topic was Tony Hayward’s departure from BP, and with it, the end of some truly lamentable public statements. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll know that Mr. Hayward plus the word ‘gaffe’ have gone hand-in-hand since the explosion at the Macondo oil well that triggered this human and environmental tragedy.

What I found interesting was one of the podcaster’s comments which suggested that Hayward’s many PR failures (the key reason he’s going) may have seriously overshadowed fundamentally ‘OK’ managerial decisions he made during the crisis. There are two different but related themes at work here: ‘good’ PR can define leaders. In the case of Hayward and his predecessor, ‘bad’ PR also has the ability to also take them down. Secondly, I personally don’t believe PR is enough to paper over, or indeed, obscure (business, ethical, environmental) cracks of as profound a nature as those which led to the Gulf oil spill. Which also raises a third question: what is your best asset when fighting a crisis of BP-sized proportions?

The incoming CEO, an American, will have a major job on his hands in helping repair the ocean-sized reputational damage to BP. Let’s hope he and his advisors understand that good communications, as part of a bigger whole that includes accountability and  responsible action, are not mutually exclusive.

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