Ballmer vs. Bezos?

Conservatism vs. Progressivism? Protection of what we were and are vs.  Creation a something new? Looking backward vs. Looking ahead? No, I’m not talking about the dramatic polarization of American politics. I’m speaking of a duality of leadership and corporate culture. And there is perhaps no more instructive a comparison than Steve Ballmer vs. Jeff Bezos (thanks to Adam Hartung of Forbes for this helpful comparison).

For more than 10 years, Ballmer has defended what Microsoft has and is, and has consistently promised that Microsoft will remain relevant and its products, dominant. All this in the face of gigantic shifts in computer usage and evolving devices, which confound Microsoft’s PC-based strength. On the other hand, Bezos has consistently focused on the future, on what’s possible, in defining his brand and his business. Amazon has grown into segments and across devices, driven by Mr. Bezos’ focus on the future. It’s brought Amazon, and its investors, significant growth over the past 10 years, the same time period that Ballmer and Microsoft have stagnated.

Let’s define this a bit further and make it more relevant. “Ballmer” type leaders and cultures are inherently conservative – they fight change. The look backwards at what got them where they are today, vs. looking ahead and asking where can they go. They “manage” what’s been given or achieved already, vs. “leading” development of what doesn’t exist yet and making it possible. And a key aspect of these “Ballmer” companies is they rely on their current experience and expertise to dictate what they do. In fact, you often hear the statement, “that’s not how it’s done around here” at these types of companies – which is, according to a post by Jason Heller in MediaPost, the most debilitating phrase and mindset that exists against progress, creativity and innovation.

Several have written recently of the negative aspects of experience as an inhibitor of creativity and innovation, including the book “The Innovation Killer”, by Cynthia Barton Rabe. They posit that experience and expertise, which tend to be viewed positively by nearly everyone, can actually hurt innovation and development of creative ideas.  That what we “know” puts limits on what we can imagine.  Rabe talks about a “paradox of expertise”, where a deep knowledge of what exists makes it harder to see “what if”.

The digital shift in Advertising and Marketing demands more of a progressive, Bezos-like approach, and less of a reliance on what we know and have already experienced. There is so much new every day, so much uncertainty and unknown, so much to learn. And today’s “norm” is tomorrow’s “out-moded” – so one has to be open to new approaches, new answers, and new ways. So how can one be more Bezos-like?

  1. Inspire Audacity
    This is a recommendation from Steve Farber (a former partner of Tom Peters, one of my current Stratecution heroes) on how to become a “radical and profound leader”.  It involves a disregard for normal constraints, thinking and acting “outside the box,” and inspiring people to set big goals and do something really significant.
  2. Know what you don’t know
    Be open about what you don’t know, vs. always relying on what you do. Certainty and surety are fine in a black-and-white world, but advertising never was, and surely isn’t today. If you’re not certain, then you can question freely – yourself, your assumptions and the way you’ve always done things. But don’t confuse not being certain with tentativeness or fear. Once you make a decision, swing for the fences.
  3. Let “process” be a means to an end, not an end in itself
    Process formality and executional excellence are very important. But never let them be more important than the work or ideas themselves – remember, without these, there’s no need to even HAVE a process. Allow yourself some room to bend process in the service of developing great ideas, or, better yet, develop a bendable, more flexible process.
  4. Add some “fresh thinkers” to your development teams
    Most teams are made up of people with expertise and experience with specific Clients and on particular types of programs. So it’s natural for them to develop a view of the limits of what’s possible, as well as a “right way” to do things. So include a team member whose role is to think of all possibilities, not just those that have worked in the past. Rabe calls these folks zero-gravity thinkers”: “innovators who are not weighed down by the expertise of a team, its politics, or ‘the way things have always been done.’
  5. Embrace mistakes
    If you’re forging new ground, then you’re likely going to make a few mis-steps. Encourage it, and allow for it in your schedules. However, be ruthless in your demand for learning from these mistakes – and how to avoid them in the future.

What are some examples of the leaders you work with? What type of leader do you want to be? How do you maintain a progressive viewpoint?


  1. My fear is that there are not many top managers that are in the Bezos model. I truly believe that most corporations are filled with leaders that are guarding the status quo. It has become nearly impossible to challenge this mentality that fears change. Maybe I am a cynic, but I think the key is to inspire young Bezos prototypes to go out there and start their own Amazon’s.

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