- Amazon is going through the biggest leadership change in company history.
- In addition to CEO Jeff Bezos’s resignation, Amazon saw more than 45 top executives leave since the start of 2020.
- Former VPs say better pay, bigger roles, and Amazon’s slowing culture contribute to the departures.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Jeff Bezos’s resignation may be the biggest news of the year for Amazon, but a broader sea change has been unfolding at a layer below.
At least 45 vice presidents and senior executives have departed Amazon in the past 15 months, according to public announcements, LinkedIn profiles, and people familiar with the matter. Two additional SVPs — Jeff Blackburn, who ran the video streaming business and corporate development, and Steve Kessel, who oversaw the physical stores unit — also left during that span, as well as Jeff Wilke, the former retail CEO who was long considered Bezos’s right-hand man.
Given Amazon has roughly 350 total VPs, that’s a turnover rate of more than 10% in the VP and above level — rare for a company that once prided itself on the loyalty and long employment history of its most valued senior leaders. Nine of the departed executives spent over 20 years at Amazon, while another 11 of them were there for more than a decade. Collectively, their tenure translates to almost 450 years of Amazon leadership experience (see the chart below for 38 of the executives we were able to identify).
It’s one of the most dramatic management upheavals in company history. One former VP called it a “huge” exodus, while another said it’s “highly unusual” for Amazon to see this much executive turnover in such a short period of time. As Amazon looks to a post-Bezos era, the departures present incoming CEO Andy Jassy with the dual challenge of having to work with less familiar faces while maintaining the company’s unique culture.
“The risk-reward isn’t there for big leaders to stay at Amazon right now,” one former Amazon executive who left in the past year told Insider. “It would not surprise me if 2021 has more VP attrition than 2020.”
Insider spoke with seven of the executives who have left Amazon since the start of last year, almost all of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press about the company. While most of them said they weren’t necessarily “unhappy” in their respective jobs, they cited an opportunity for better pay, a chance to join a c-suite, and a generally slowing culture at Amazon as reasons among others for their departures.
In a statement to Insider, Amazon’s spokesperson said the company reviews and updates executive compensation annually. It also said more than 150 of its executives have returned to Amazon throughout the years, and that a recent internal survey showed 84% of senior executives (director and above) agreeing “they are able to innovate in their role.”
“We have remarkable retention and continuity of leadership at Amazon. The average tenure is 10 years for our vice presidents and more than 17 for our senior vice presidents. Like with any company, people leave from time to time for personal or professional reasons—many return to the company over the course of their careers,” Amazon’s spokesperson said in a statement to Insider.
Other companies offer better pay
Several people pointed to better pay as reason for their departure.
Amazon executives are in huge demand by companies looking to build a similar culture of success, especially by late-stage startups or young public companies that want to make the jump toward the next phase of growth.
Those companies are offering attractive compensation packages that can easily multiply the existing salaries for these people. Amazon, on the other hand, generally won’t use raises to try to retain people, one person said, as compensation-driven people are often frowned upon and criticized for being “mercenaries, not missionaries,” a Bezos-favored idealism.
“Amazon is not making it hard to leave when the other options are all likely to compare better,” one of the people said. “Amazon isn’t trying hard to keep people.”
Amazon’s former VP of robotics, Brad Porter, was one of the high-profile executives who left last year after his push to expand the pay range for VPs didn’t materialize, as Insider previously reported. Two people said Porter’s case is a prime example of Amazon’s rigid compensation structure working against them. Amazon’s base salary caps at $160,000 a year for most employees, and the stock rewards are heavily backloaded. On top of that, Amazon typically doesn’t provide additional stock rewards, even when an employee is eligible for a raise, if the stock price grows to push total compensation past a position’s pay range. Porter ended up joining Scale AI, a data startup that’s now worth over $7 billion, as its first chief technology officer.
In an older case, Gene Farrell, former Amazon Web Services VP, told AWS CEO Andy Jassy that he expected his total compensation to jump up to six-times when he joined Smartsheet in 2017, shortly before the software company went public. One person said Amazon VPs were typically paid in the $1 million to $2 million range, but their pay could easily jump to over $5 million by joining a faster growing company.
Tim Collins, who was most recently VP of Amazon’s Global Logistics, left the company in February, according to people familiar with the matter. It’s unclear what his next job is, but one person said he was in talks for a position at goPuff, the delivery startup that more than doubled its valuation to $8.9 billion last month. Other companies that Amazon executives have joined in the past year include Stripe, Uber, and Ripple.
Given the hot startup market and growing demand for Amazon executives, it’s not hard to see more people jump ship in the coming years, according to Esther Colwill, president of global technology industries at executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry.
“In general, that’s a high turnover,” Colwill said, referring to the recent executive departures at Amazon. “Amazon is going to be an academy for talent, not just in the tech industry, but across all industries.”
It’s easier to get a C-suite job somewhere else
For some, their departures had more to do with the lure of joining the c-suite and making decisions that can have a more direct impact on a company’s overall direction.
At least 15 of the people who left went on to get a c-suite role in their new jobs. Ariel Kelman, former AWS marketing VP is now Oracle’s chief marketing officer, while Greg Hart, ex-VP of worldwide Amazon Video has become Compass’s chief product officer. Scott Pitasky, a former HR VP at Amazon, and Luis Felipe Visoso, former VP of AWS, are now chief people officer and chief financial officer at Unity Technologies.
“I want to do a CEO job at some point,” one of the people said. “At some point, you become irrelevant because you’re so specialized at Amazon that you need to get back to the ‘real world.'”
Not everyone left to pursue broader ambitions. Tim Bray, a VP and distinguished engineer for AWS, stepped down last year with a very public protest of Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers, calling the company “chickens—“ for firing workers who criticized it.
At least two other former VPs who spoke to Insider said they’re now retired, and their decision was purely based on where their stage of career was and how Amazon’s stock has performed in recent years. Several executives, including Wilke and Kessel, also announced retirements. Amazon’s stock grew more than five-times since 2016.
“I’m 55 now, a reasonable age to retire. And the stock has appreciated a lot the last few years,” Allan Vermeulen, a former VP and distinguished engineer who left last month after 22 years at Amazon, told Insider.
Still, the changing of the guard reflects a broader shift in the overall profile of the senior leaders at Amazon, a problem Jassy will have to grapple with once he becomes Amazon’s new CEO later this year. Many of the people who have recently left had joined Amazon when it was an upstart, meaning Amazon had a lot of “entrepreneurial builders” during its rapid-growth period of the past decade, two of the people said.
But now Amazon is the incumbent, resulting in the replacement of growth-minded people with operators from bigger — and slower — companies. David Carbon, formerly a Boeing VP, replaced Gur Kimchi as VP of Prime Air last year, and Alexa’s new COO and president is Debra Chrapaty, the former chief technology officer of Wells Fargo. In the past two years, Amazon made rare updates to its S-team, a group of about two dozen top company leaders that work closely together on key business decisions, adding nine new members, including VP of global customer fulfillment Alicia Boler Davis, a former GM executive.
“It isn’t clear where they go outside and find this kind of entrepreneurial leadership,” one of the people said.
Amazon has a history of passing over candidates with more conventional experience for promotions, one person said. Matt Garman was last year promoted to senior vice president of AWS sales and marketing, despite having relatively little sales experience compared to the more seasoned AWS sales executives Teresa Carlson and Mike Clayville.
Carlson, who ran AWS worldwide public sector for 10 years, became Splunk president in April, and Clayville, who ran AWS field operations for more than seven years, became Stripe chief revenue officer last September. Two former VPs suggested Garman’s promotion was a factor in Carlson’s and Clayville’s departures.
“You’re the two people leading sales, and all of a sudden, you are effectively demoted a level, and the person who took over for you doesn’t have sales or marketing experience,” one of the people said. “It’s not surprising both of them are gone.”
Meanwhile, the high-level people Amazon recruits from other companies don’t always last long, one former VP said. Amazon hires people for their expertise, but then requires them to conform to the company’s way instead of incorporating that expertise to change Amazon processes. “The culture is, ‘We know how to do this, let us tell you,” the person said. “Many people who left were not ‘grown’ at Amazon.”
To an extent, the departures could be a result of Amazon’s monolithic presence. Amazon has roughly doubled the size of its workforce since 2019 to 1.3 million employees worldwide.
But another former VP had an even darker view of the departures. This person said Amazon has become too bloated in recent years, and as a result, the company’s culture has slowed down, adding needless bureaucracy in its decision-making process. That makes work less interesting, and moves the company further away from its “Day 1” mentality — Bezos’s famous leadership principle that stresses the need to stay fresh and adapt to change as if it’s the first day of the company.
“People are voting with their feet, not their mouths,” this person said. “This is what ‘Day 2’ looks like — it definitely feels like Amazon just entered their version of the ‘lost decade.'”
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