Evaluating Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post letter

David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

I've written before about notes that CEOs send. There have been the ones that backfire (like Reed Hastings's email to Netflix customers), and the ones that delight and surprise (like David Karp's post to Tumblr employees). Today, I'm writing about another tech CEO's letter--the catch here is, this time I was among the people addressed.

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, has agreed to buy The Washington Post. And while it's hard to write anything about a potential owner without having readers question whether you're compromised, I'll follow in my typical tradition of assessing these notes from the C-suite and offer you my leadership take on this one as I would any other:

To start, Bezos is known as a patient and long-term thinker. He's an innovator who reinvents old industries. And he, perhaps more than any other CEO in America, has developed a reputation for his uncanny way of tuning in to what customers need and want, often before they even know it themselves.

He also appears to be a particularly able communicator. Bezos' letter to Post employees Monday had all the usual elements one would have expected a new leader to include at such an apprehensive time: assurances that key values would not change, optimism over the innovation that will be needed, and acknowledgement of the "touchstone" place readers will continue to hold under his ownership. Most of that could have been written by anyone.

But it also had two things--humor and sincerity--that often go missing from leaders' communication and that made the letter far more personal. Bezos could have simply said "I will support the Post's tradition of courageous reporting." Instead, he conjured up an amusing image of himself in order to show both his admiration for the paper's history and his apparent intentions to continue its reporting traditions. Alluding to then-attorney general John Mitchell's famous response when he heard what the paper planned to publish amid its Watergate reporting, Bezos wrote that "while I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready."

Finally, Bezos ended his letter with a very simple and sincere remark about Donald Graham, the CEO and chairman of the Washington Post Co. He didn't sound like a buyer, or a business mogul. He simply sounded human: "I want to say one last thing that’s really not about the paper or this change in ownership," the letter closed. "I have had the great pleasure of getting to know Don very well over the last ten plus years. I do not know a finer man."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

An open letter to Jeff Bezos

A family synonymous with the Post

Graphic: Media analysts react to the sale

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · August 6, 2013