Amazon and You: What Independent School Boards Can Learn from Jeff Bezos’ Letters

Lots of people know about Warren Buffet’s annual shareholder letter; indeed, commentary about Buffet’s observations has become a ritual in the business media. Fewer know that Jeff Bezos of Amazon has done much the same every year since 1997, compiling a fascinating and useful trove of business wisdom as Amazon became a US$1 trillion company.

Buried in the original 1997 letter is the following:

“…we want to share with you our fundamental management and decision-making approach so that you, our shareholders, may confirm that it is consistent with your investment philosophy.”

While Bezos was specifically addressing shareholders–in effect co-owners of the company–his wisdom has something to offer independent school board members (and parents), all of whom are counted at stakeholders (those with an interest) and not shareholders (those who own). Because Amazon was and is famously counter-cultural for normal business practice (e.g., not particularly concerned with profitability of share price), Bezos wanted shareholders to be aligned in their investment philosophy. Those not aligned could simply opt out.

Independent schools need to do the same when it comes to selecting new members of the governing board. Much turmoil could be averted if every board member were aligned with the educational philosophy and mission of the school. Waaayyyyy too much time and energy is spent handling trustees who really don’t buy in; in other words, it would be like being an Amazon shareholder and demanding immediate returns.

I can accept the parent in the school who decides that what the school offers no longer is what they want for their child. Find another school–no harm, no foul. What I cannot see room for is the rogue board member who uses his or her seat to agitate for the school to become something other than what its mission dictates. Best to find a school where you can be aligned and offer your talents there.

Bezos’ focus on mission and purpose comes through in the 1997 letter: “We aren’t so bold as to claim that the above is the “right” investment philosophy, but it’s ours, and we would be remiss if we weren’t clear in the approach we have taken and will continue to take.” The Amazon board recruits for alignment; independent and international school boards should do the same.

Business and leadership, Governance, Headship, Strategy  |  permalink

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *