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Jeff Wilke
Amazon.com senior vice president Jeff Wilke on stage at Seattle University. 

As the head of Amazon.com’s massive consumer business, Jeff Wilke has an all-consuming job, building the company’s selection of products and making sure everything arrives on time.

But Wilke, who joined Amazon.com in 1999 and has been discussed as the heir-apparent to founder Jeff Bezos, really is most concerned about one thing.

Jeff Wilke (5)In a talk Tuesday night at Seattle University, the former chemical engineer and self-described hacker said the thing that really keeps him up at night is whether the company is moving fast enough as it gets bigger.

“Humans don’t have a great track record of taking small things and making them really big and having them persist (for) long periods of time, and having everybody who is part of them be super proud of them at really large scale,” said Wilke. “There is something about how we are wired as leaders that doesn’t work as well when we get a span of control that is too big. And we we are big now, as you point out, and global, so I worry about this.”

That’s why it is so important for Amazon to build software and business procedures that scale.

“Architecting the company is about making sure that we don’t build too much bureaucracy. That we have people who are working on things that they can own, and deliver with a small team anywhere in the world that scales,” he said. “But I am terrified of this.”

amazon-chart-growth66Amazon now employs more than 165,000 employees worldwide — a 32 percent increase compared to the first quarter of 2014.

Obviously, with numbers like those it is hard to stay nimble and innovative, principles that Wilke said are critical to the company’s success.

“I do think that our leadership principles inoculate us against this problem to a certain degree. I think the fact that they are precise. The language is very Amazonian. It is peculiar…. Some of the leadership principles you’ll see in places that you study will be kind of a beautiful picture of a sunset on a wall, with some motivational words, but they don’t mean anything to the company. And these words mean a lot to us.”

Related: The peculiar traits of great Amazon leaders: Frugal, innovative and body odor that doesn’t smell like perfume… These 20 words show what’s on the mind of this top Amazon executive

(Editor’s note: The quotes in this piece have been updated to more accurately reflect Wilke’s exact words).

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