Why It Pays to Be a Jerk Like Jeff Bezos
When my two sons were adolescents, they were always leaving a mess in our basement. "Please clean up after yourselves!" I would sternly call down at them. "I don't want to get rodents." They would say "Okay Dad," roll their eyes, and then, of course, blow me off. This went on for a couple of weeks. One night, I went down to the basement and found two plates of half-eaten macaroni and cheese and two glasses of juice left in front of the TV. The boys had gone up to bed. I took the plates and the glasses up to the room they shared, flicked on the lights, and while they watched in astonishment and ducked for cover, threw each plate and each glass, one after another, in a loud shattering against their bedroom wall. After the debris finished raining down on them, I yelled: "Clean up your f--ing mess and don't let this happen again!" It never happened again.
Sometimes you have to be a jerk.
Right after Steve Jobs passed away, I wrote that he was a jerk and many people were furious. Looking back on it, maybe I spoke too harshly too soon after his death. But only a few weeks later, reports about Jobs' arrogant behavior towards Apple employees, customers, suppliers and others began appearing and a year after that, Walter Isaacson's biography affirmed that yes indeed, Jobs could really be a jerk at times. So can Jeff Bezos. This week, excerpts from a new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon were published and many people have been motivated to tell their Bezos stories.
In the book, Bezos is quoted as saying things like "Why are you wasting my life?", "I'm sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?" and "This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don't want to waste my time with the B team document." Or my personal favorite response that Bezos gives when someone resists him: "Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I'm CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?" Geez, what a jerk.
There's more, but you get it. Like Jobs, Bezos doesn't seem to suffer fools lightly. And, like Jobs, he can frequently be a jerk when he needs to be. But you know what? I can relate to that.
The other day I had a tense meeting with a client. We were implementing a sales and marketing software system and it wasn't going well. Usage was way below what was hoped. When the CIO and I were sitting in the CEO's office with a few other key management people, I was a jerk. Fortunately, no macaroni and cheese was involved this time, but I stood up and berated the four men because they weren't doing what I thought they needed to be doing from the beginning in order for everyone to embrace the system. No need to go into the details, but no one left that meeting very happy. I may lose this client because of my jerky behavior. But given the road we were on, I was likely to lose them anyway. I had to be a jerk. This was only a few days ago. It will take weeks before I find out if my behavior actually has an effect.
So I can be a jerk too. And sure, I'm a short, bald man who is also interested in space exploration, but that's about where my comparison with Jeff Bezos ends. This is a guy who was high school valedictorian and served as the President of the Princeton chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. Need I say more? He was born with brains, balls and confidence. He embraced technology at an early age mainly because he saw the opportunity to sell books online and avoid state sales taxes. He's a ruthless competitor and salesman. He has a business model, knows what he wants and, more importantly, knows what his customers want.
At some point, there is a limit to political correctness. You can scold a six-year-old boy again and again, but sometimes it takes a little smack on the rear-end to snap him out of his behavior. You can tell your adolescent sons not to leave food down in the basement, but sometimes you have to throw it at them, plates and all, to get the message across. And when you run a business, big or small, sometimes you have to say to your employees: "Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I'm CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?"
Jeff Bezos can be a jerk sometimes. So could Steve Jobs. They have to be in order to get what they want to grow their businesses. Maybe we should all be jerks sometime too.