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View from Washington: Same old tune

Amazon's 'surprise' CEO switch is timely and not as unexpected as you might think.

Like many of you, I have spent the last few days trying to come to terms with a foundational figure of our times announcing that he is stepping back from his massively influential role in public life. Even though the decision is entirely understandable in many ways, it has still come as a shock. A genius has retired and as a result live music will be much poorer without Kris Kristofferson.

But, hang on. You want to talk about Jeff Bezos.

I suppose his decision does share one thing in common with Kristofferson’s in that, on reflection, the timing seems more surprising than the act itself. For their own reasons, both men were likely to move on about now. Kristofferson is 84 years-old; Bezos has assembled so many interests that he’s arguably been trying to pack 84 years of work into one. There are limits.

A notorious micromanager, Bezos's ability to maintain a consistent level of insight into Amazon’s operations as well as ventures such as Blue Origin in space, The Washington Post in media, philanthropy and a host of others through his personal venture capital fund has therefore long appeared superhuman. His letter to staff makes it explicit that he is passing the reins as Amazon CEO to free more time for those interests.

But another reason why Bezos is relinquishing the CEO job may be that some of the biggest challenges Amazon faces today are in arenas where he himself does not feel comfortable.

The company is under challenge for its competitive and working practices, and alongside the other technology titans of the age faces the prospect of further regulation and anti-trust probes. Meanwhile, Bezos has never been that enthusiastic about the ‘public face’ part of his job description even when it comes to quarterly results calls. So, one can imagine how he may feel about testifying before hostile politicians and becoming a piñata for ambitious attorneys general.

To that end, handing the job to Andy Jassy, current CEO of Amazon Web Services, makes a lot of sense – as it does in many other respects.

Jassy is already one of technology’s most polished keynote performers – he really can handle a room. Add to that his role in moving Amazon into cloud computing (and before the pandemic, not only was AWS very profitable, there was even talk of it being worth more if spun out of its parent at $500bn (£366bn)). And then there is the fact that he has long been seen within Amazon as Bezos’s ‘shadow’, the man who was alongside the boss’s entourage at key moments and events.

As the promotion was unveiled, it was noticeable that other former senior Amazon executives came forward to describe him as not just the most appropriate but also the inevitable successor to Bezos. The founder CEO is said to have been grooming Jassy, an employee of more than 20 years' standing, for a long time – and you suspect that many of those execs now commenting on him from outside Amazon left because they already knew how the succession would pan out.

Going back to Kristofferson though, maybe there is one more thing worth adding.

After Jassy formally takes on the CEO job sometime in Q3, Bezos will remain Executive Chairman as well as Amazon’s largest shareholder. It looks as though he is also keeping his title as President. So this looks like more a retreat than an exit.

So let's remember that while Kristofferson sure could write and carry a great song, if I mention ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ or ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, chances are most of you will start thinking of the many classic covers. But who provided the words and the notes?

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