Incoming AWS CEO Adam Selipsky shares leadership lessons from pandemic in first public appearance since leaving Tableau

Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky speaks at Tableau Conference 2016. (Tableau Software Photo)

Adam Selipsky has years of work experience to draw upon, from stints as a vice president at RealNetworks and Amazon, to leading Tableau Software as CEO for five years.

But as a leader, that didn’t matter when the pandemic hit last year.

“My body of experience actually became dangerous to me,” said Selipsky, speaking at a Technology Alliance event this week. “As you get further and further on in your career, you tend to rely a lot on pattern matching. To some extent you expect the past to be informative on the future — and there was nothing familiar about the situation.”

Selipsky made his first public appearance since announcing in March that he was leaving Tableau to be the new CEO of Amazon Web Services. He’ll replace longtime AWS chief Andy Jassy, who will take over from Jeff Bezos as Amazon’s CEO on July 5.

Selipsky is a familiar face at Amazon as a former AWS executive who spent 11 years at the Seattle-based tech giant. He left to join Tableau as CEO in 2016.

Tableau was one of the first Seattle-area companies to send their workers home when the pandemic began spreading in the U.S. early last year. Selipsky said he learned to lean on data — data on the virus’ spread; data to help customers; etc. — rather than intuition that comes from experience.

“In the absence of intuition … you really look to data,” he said.

Incredibly grateful for the warm welcome (back) this week – made sweeter by colleagues, customers/partners & friends. #AWS

— Adam Selipsky (@aselipsky) May 21, 2021

For Selipsky, the pandemic was also a reminder to have empathy as a leader — truly understanding the various situations that employees and customers were dealing with. Some of his employees were dealing with kids at home; others were taking calls from the bathtub. And customers also had their unique challenges.

“Each customer had different problems — some industries were in total meltdown,” he said. “If you take a long-term view — which I always do and it’s one of the great things about Amazon — how do we think about where we’re going to be with these customers in three, five, 10 years from now? What do we do now to really deepen those bonds of partnership?”

Amazon’s leadership principles are still deeply ingrained in Selipsky. Asked about the acceleration of digital adoption amid the pandemic and being able to identify trends, Selipsky said he “always retreats” to Amazon’s principle of working backwards from the customer.

“Customer focus really means two things: a deep, deep, deep understanding of what your customers actually want and actually need and where they’re actually headed. Some of those things they can express; some of those things you have to express on their behalf.

“The second piece — which proves to be hard — is to actually take that understanding and bury it right in the center of every critical decision you make as a company,” he added. “Don’t leave it at the door when you decide what’s going to make your company successful.”

Learned so much from today’s State of Technology Luncheon with @TechAllianceWA ???????? Thank you @hrhmedia for the invite! And I won some cougar gold! ????

— Ahn the Scene (@IAmJeanAhn) May 26, 2021

While leading Tableau, Selipsky helped drive growth for the Seattle data visualization pioneer, which had a market capitalization of around $3 billion when he took over as CEO. Selipsky oversaw the company’s acquisition by Salesforce for $15.7 billion in 2019, the second-largest in Salesforce history, and he was instrumental in pivoting the company from a traditional software product to one tied in the cloud with subscription offerings.

Selipsky, interviewed by HRH Media Group President Hanson Hosein at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, wasn’t asked about his transition from Tableau back to Amazon or why he took the gig. His return to AWS comes as the market-leading cloud business is firing on all cylinders, with $45 billion in annual revenue and representing 63% of the company’s operating profit.

“Adam brings strong judgment, customer obsession, team building, demand generation, and CEO experience to an already very strong AWS leadership team,” Jassy wrote in a memo to employees in March. “And, having been in such a senior role at AWS for 11 years, he knows our culture and business well.”

When I first started at @AWScloud 16 years ago, #cloudcomputing was not even in it’s infancy. Today, it’s inspiring to see how #AWS customers, partners, employees have embraced & driven this movement – though it’s early days. Thrilled to be back for this next chapter. #DayOne

— Adam Selipsky (@aselipsky) May 18, 2021

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