Jeff Bezos; Speaker at SXSW; Unicorn in forest

Digital Storm/Adober Stock Better Everyday/Youtube (Licensed)

‘Agreeableness is a problem’: Jeff Bezos’ former subordinate reveals 13 traits to spotting a ‘unicorn’ boss. Do you have one?

'Never lose site of the finish line.'


Ramon Ramirez


Posted on Mar 9, 2024   Updated on Mar 9, 2024, 2:48 pm CST

LinkedIn users get it: If you want to get ahead in life, fill downtime with self-help podcasts about growth mindsets. Audiobooks only in business class. Keep your social media footprint in check, hobbies reasonable—just try not to get canceled out there.

And take horizontal iPhone pictures of quotes from tech CEOs that get projected on-screen during a convention.

Business leaders did this in spades Saturday at SXSW when Ann Hiatt told them about the “DNA” it takes to become a “unicorn leader.”

She’d know. The author, consultant, investor, and former direct report to both Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Eric Schmidt of Google has an elite perspective on the matter. And she’s systematized the lessons into actionable advice.

This reporter expected tone-deaf hubris from rich men and came away inspired. Here are the 12 keys to being a “unicorn” leader that Hiatt passed along, many of which she learned on the job.

1) “Agreeableness is a problem for innovation.”

This quote comes from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Hiatt shared it. You know, break all the rules and don’t let the haters keep you from being who you are. Bet on yourself. But with guardrails…

2) Assemble a world-class team.

“I did have direct access to Jeff and he was close about the team he had around,” Hiatt said.

His key to bringing in new workers? “I will only hire people that I have to hold back, not push forward,” Hiatt attributed to Bezos.

So be disagreeable in the right ways, be a rebel, but surround yourself with people who are willing to do things that others aren’t.

Hiatt also said that Bezos framed an article that wrote off his business acumen and took their haterade as inspiration.

3) “Avoid the trap of short-termism.”

Hiatt said that Bezos always played the long game. He invested in ideas that would ideally take 7 years to materialize. Investors want easy wins, but, “He never looked at horizons that were less than 2 years,” Hiatt said. 

This included streaming service Amazon Prime and Amazon Kindle. Bezos regularly said that Prime was about “digging a moat around customers so that they would have this relationship of trust.” He didn’t view his business as just selling books; he welcomed user reviews that could be negative so that his customers would “make educated purchase decisions.”

4) Clustering.

This is a social science principle, Hiatt said, and it makes sense: Cluster with a scene that pushes you forward. Both the Greek philosophers and Queensbridge rappers all hung out. As she said via a quote by neuroscientist Dr. Robert Malenka: “Get into rigorous environments that challenge you and will build up a thick skin.”

5) Unicorn leaders are smart, but in a specific and learned manner.

But Hiatt defined this as being able to “process massive amounts of information, distill it down to unique observations… [and] see opportunities that others have missed.”

That’s the game. So don’t “be all over the place and get paralyzed by over-analyzing” too much data.

6) Don’t be a know-it-all. Be a learn-it-all.

Hiatt borrowed this point from a quote by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella… which is essentially Socrates’ “a wise man knows nothing” quote. But you get the point.

7) A unicorn leader gets that aptitude and access are two different things.

Hiatt took this one from IBM CEO Ginny Rommity who overcame tremendous professional challenges. Today, she creates “non-traditional access” for hiring so that it isn’t just Stanford grads walking into her company.

And diversity matters not just for inclusion, Hiatt said, but because “future opportunities inevitably lie outside of our current expertise.”

8) Unicorn leaders understand that you have to challenge your mind.

Per Hiatt, we learn best at a 15% error rate. We fail, our neurons fire off, and in this moment we can best pick up the pieces and adjust. So walk boldly into that karate class.

9) Mind the gap.

The gap effect, that is. Broadly speaking, Hiatt said leaders should understand how their mind works so they can subvert the bad parts.

The gap effect is when you get upset because you feel the distance between where you are and where you plan to be. But let your brain spin in this space and learn from these moments, she suggested.

10) Unicorn leaders are open. Like the Stanley cup CEO.

This should be obvious, but it’s astonishing how often people hire buddies who won’t challenge their setup. The perspectives in our huddle need to be outside our own and that way, we get the best ideas out the door. And as Hiatt put it, remember that confidence can peacefully coexist with humility.

The Stanley leader knew this and looked to interns. When Terence Reilly was first CEO of Crocs, one told him to target hip-hop star Post Malone, who helped make them suddenly cool. At Stanley, Reilly’s subordinate recommended he understand why suburban moms in Utah were suddenly into his blue-collar steel thermos. The rest is viral history.

11) Work well with others.

Protect your time for curating the people and ideas around you, Hiatt said. Be emotionally regulated. Plan ahead.

Remember that the unhinged, creative male genius is a bad archetype from a bygone era. As the Pixar co-founder put it once, creativity is “not a mysterious solo act.”

In these moments, you can recognize “crucible” breakthrough moments and help realize them.

12) Unicorn leaders are always in “pursuit mode.”

Melanie Perkins, CEO of Canva, was regularly rejected by investors. She eventually learned to kite surf just to get some face-time with them. It worked.

Hiatt says it’s key to “never lose site of the finish line.”

“Our mindsets literally can create physiological changes in the body,” she added. 

13) Unicorn leaders aren’t special.

You know how the Rian Johnson Star Wars is universally hailed as the only good one? It’s because he took the Force stuff off a pedestal. It wasn’t a chosen, Christ-like savior who would save the good guys; it was the hardest worker.

As Hiatt cited in one final slide by former Nike CEO Greg Hoffman, that the audience stopped to photograph, “Greatness isn’t a gift reserved for a chosen few.” 

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*First Published: Mar 9, 2024, 3:30 pm CST