Amazon’s Wild New Agility Play

The company’s surprising $14 billion acquisition of Whole Foods may require a whole new level of adaptability.




Corporate agility just took yet another leap of faith.

In a deal that caught Wall Street flatfooted, Amazon announced on June 16 that it was buying Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. The purchase is Amazon’s largest acquisition by far—prior to Whole Foods it had never made a deal in excess of one billion dollars. But from a leadership perspective, the real importance centers on just far how companies will need to widened their skill sets and talent to take on totally new businesses in today’s global economy.

“It’s yet another incredible display of agility for Amazon,” said Michael Distefano, president of the Korn Ferry Institute and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific. “Further evidence it’s not about technology taking over everything but working with everything.”

Already, of course, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos’ proved he knew a thing or two about learning agility when he the company into the movie business. Learning agility, as defined by Korn Ferry, is the ability to continually acquire new skills, learn from experience, face new challenges, and perform well under changing conditions.

According to one of Korn Ferry study, executives with high levels of learning agility are five times more likely to be highly engaged. Of the seven different types of learning-agile profiles, Bezos falls into the categories of “trailblazer,” or executives who have a clear sense of where they need to be and are determined to make it there by whatever means necessary, and “energizer,” or achievement-oriented, hard-working executives with iconic reputations.

Amazon’s strong corporate culture is a direct reflection of its leader. In fact, both Amazon and Whole Foods share a similar sense of corporate purpose, one that establishes a motivation for employees that extends beyond working for financial gain for yourself or shareholders. "There is a fundamental difference between Amazon and Whole Foods. It will be interesting to see the degree to which Bezos will keep Whole Foods an independent entity," says Rick Lash, senior client partner in Korn Ferry's Leadership and Talent practice. Elaine Dinos, a principal in Korn Ferry's Global Consumer Market practice, says Amazon will need to sustain "the soul of Whole Foods,"—including its purpose, values and culture—if it wants that business to grow over the long term.  

That Amazon only recently began turning a profit yet its stock price is inching closer to $1,000 per share (it was at around $995, up more than 3 percent after news of the Whole Foods deal broke), is testament to how even cynical investors believe in Bezos’ master long-term vision.

Groceries are just one component of Bezos’ master plan. This is the company, afterall, that just four months ago was competing for a Best Picture Oscar. Indeed, some analysts say Bezos may be making this deal less for Whole Foods itself than for its real estate.

“Amazon did not just buy Whole Foods grocery stores,” wrote Wall Street Journal Financial Editor Dennis Berman in a tweet. “It bought 431 upper-income, prime-location distribution nodes for everything it does.”

The question now, of course, is whether Amazon’s corporate agility allows it to do is sell everything