Known for the harshness of their management, these leaders have created special universes where only excellence takes precedence. Without vision, their natural authority would probably not have given such spectacular results. But when the course is set and the directives clear, they work miracles…Ferdinand Piëch, Jack Welch, today Jeff Bezos, are among those bosses who swear only by discipline and performance, and whose “ability to direction” has marked recent economic history. “They are transformational leaders, who in their own way have revolutionized the way of doing business, of thinking about economic relations and the world of work,” comments Sylvie Deffayet, director of the leadership development chair at Edhec Business School.
In this closed club of five-star bosses/generals, common characteristics appear: the obsession with control, the measurement of efficiency, the central place of the customer in the culture of the organization. Another shared point: these bosses hate uncertainty, mediocrity and, as the eternal dissatisfied, they always aim higher. Sometimes in the literal sense of the word! A year ago, didn’t Jeff Bezos inaugurate the first manned flight into space for his company, Blue Origin?
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Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, wrote his own little red book, 14 principles of (rough) management
In February 2021, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, created a surprise by announcing that he was going to take a step back and leave his position as general manager. A successor was already designated in the person of Andy Jassy, faithful lieutenant and boss of AWS, the very lucrative cloud computing activity of Amazon. According to Bezos, this step aside would allow him to devote more time to his other activities: from Blue Origin, the tourist travel company in space, to the Washington Post, through its foundations. But we don’t redo each other. The bald-headed entrepreneur also specified that he remained executive chairman of the board. In other words, he would keep a watchful eye on strategy. And on the strict application of the methods that transformed the start-up created in 1994 in a Seattle garage into a world leader in e-commerce…
“For Jeff Bezos, the ideal manager… it’s him!”
After graduating from Princeton University in 1986 with a degree in computer science, Bezos cut his teeth on Wall Street before going online, fascinated by the growth prospects offered by the network. Well done: with its 1.6 million employees, the company should achieve 522 billion dollars in turnover this year and see its market capitalization exceed 1300 billion. Initially a simple online bookstore, Amazon.com has been transformed under the leadership of Bezos into a formidable market place with unequaled power, where everything is sold. Insatiable, the boss, who has become one of the richest men in the world (171 billion dollars in 2022, according to Forbes), has also diversified his company in the cloud, logistics, health, audiovisual production, intelligence artificial… Great art.
Testing, pressure, evaluation… the implacable management of Amazon
This exceptional success owes nothing to chance. Its mainspring? “Bezosism,” as Wall Street Journal reporter Christopher Mims called it. Or a kind of Taylorism 2.0, a scientific organization of work based on algorithms. “It’s a mixture of monitoring, performance measurement, psychological incentives, goals, hard work slogans and a series of smart technological devices,” summarizes Mims. “Control freak” par excellence, Bezos has consumer satisfaction as its imperative. To the point that at the beginning, during meetings with his teams, he set up an empty chair in the room to embody the client. He made this goal the first of the “jeffisms”, a list of 14 indisputable principles that constitute the code of conduct of the “Amazonians”.
Among these dogmas: consider that Amazon is still living its “first day”. Clearly, we must constantly aim for performance and innovation and avoid bureaucracy. Another imperative: “frugality”, an obsession of the boss, maniac about cost control. Thus, Amazon rolls on gold but its employees travel in economy class and frequent low-end hotels.
If the system imagined by the genius of the Web is extremely efficient, it is also implacable. At Amazon, employee unions are not in the odor of holiness. And in offices as in warehouses, lackluster results are quickly sanctioned. This harshness is not without consequence: in 2020, the turnover in the company’s more than 800 American storage sites reached 159%. At this rate, an internal report leaked last year warned that Amazon may have exhausted its US labor pool by 2024. Watch out, Jeff!
Ferdinand Piëch, Chairman of Volkswagen AG (1937-2019)
When you are born the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, creator of the Volkswagen Beetle and founder of the sports car brand, it is difficult to escape your destiny. Born in 1937, Ferdinand Piëch joined Porsche at the age of 26 after brilliant engineering studies. Raised rough, he is a go-getter who quickly demonstrates unparalleled engine skills. He quickly climbed the ladder at the expense of his Porsche cousins. But his strong character and his expensive side (boss of R & D, he wants ever more expensive programs) forced him to leave the company in 1972.
After working for Mercedes, then the Ital Design coachbuilder behind the Golf, he finally joined Audi as technical director. There, he radically changed the image of the generalist brand into a top-of-the-range, sporty and innovative manufacturer (the quattro, that’s him). In 1993, then omnipotent boss of Audi, he joined the VW group, the parent company of which the Piëchs and the Porsches are shareholders. In ten years, he made it the second largest manufacturer in the world behind Toyota and enriched the group’s brand portfolio with prestigious labels, such as Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini…
Ferdinand Piëch (born in 1937), VAG: brilliant engineer and strong manager, he revitalized Volkswagen
Piëch’s style is brutal: as soon as he arrives at the head of VW, he seriously skims the staff, demands greater rigor in terms of quality and cost reduction. It was he in particular, inspired by the example of Fiat, who instituted at VW the system of sharing parts between models to lower the cost price in production. In the 2000s, the German press explained that he gave Wolfsburg, at the company’s headquarters, a very North Korean atmosphere.
In fact, it was not uncommon for heads to roll after a meeting or trying out a model. Even relatives were not immune to the wrath of the boss. Like Martin Winterkorn, whom he had promoted to boss of the VW brand before shooting him down in flames in 2015, judging his results disappointing. Winterkorn was, however, scheduled to replace him as chairman of the group, which he will eventually do after Piëch was disavowed by the supervisory board, the unions and the shareholders, worried about the cantankerous nature of the chairman.
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Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric (1935-2020)
From General Electric, history will retain two names above all: Thomas Edison, its founder in 1889 and inventor of the incandescent lamp, and Jack Welch, CEO between 1981 and 2001. Nicknamed “Neutron Jack” by the gazettes in reference to the infamous bomb that pulverizes humans but preserves infrastructure, Welch is indeed one of the most iconic bosses of the late 20th century.
Coming from a modest background, he joined the group in 1960, with a degree in chemical engineering in his pocket. The conglomerate was then present in around twenty sectors, from toasters to aircraft engines and nuclear power. Welch, him, integrates the division of plastics, of which he will take the direction eight years later. Gifted, the engineer with long teeth will then lead the chemical-metallurgy department, before becoming general manager of the group in 1973, then president in 1977.
Jack Welch (born in 1935), General Electric: he increased his group’s profits tenfold
Under his watch, acquisitions multiplied at breakneck speed and GE’s revenues grew fivefold, topping $130 billion in 2000, when the group had the world’s largest market capitalization.
Clear look, smile Ultrabrite, Neutron Jack concealed under pleasant airs a temperament of killer and cost cutter. He encouraged his managers to fire the 10% worst performing employees each year. He also felt that leaders who did not know how to lay off should leave, just like those who found pleasure in this exercise! But Welch was also a staunch opponent of bureaucracy and everywhere professed the implementation of the Japanese-inspired “six sigma” method: an approach and tools intended to improve process reliability and eliminate variability to reduce defects. and guarantee a standard level of quality. All for the benefit of the customer.
After five years of application, GE claimed to have achieved 12 billion dollars in savings thanks to six sigma… After his departure in 2001 and until his death in 2020, Welsh continued to provide his management advice in books and conferences. On the other hand, the GE-style conglomerate model (or, in Europe, Siemens) has gone out of fashion: last year, the debt-ridden group was split into three separate entities in aviation, health and ‘energy.
Exercise to assert your authority by Guila Clara Kessous, executive coach
“According to the American psychologist Amy Cuddy, the body influences the mind and vice versa. Thus, taking conquering postures helps to strengthen self-confidence. Among the “power poses”, there is that of the superhero (straight body, fists on the hips, legs slightly apart) or that of the CEO (sitting in an armchair, feet firmly on the ground, bust back and hands behind the neck)… Does that make you smile? Try it anyway, it costs nothing. »
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