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How to Be a Leader of High Standards

Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards many people may think these standards are unreasonably high…

— from Amazon Leadership Principles

 
Do you have high standards?
 
As a leader, do you expect the best from yourself and your team?
 
Your immediate answer might be, “yes, of course!” But most of us have lower expectations that we realize.
 
There is a video of a Tony Robbins workshop where he asks people to raise their hands as high as they can. Then he has them pull down their hands. Then he says, “Okay, raise your hands a little bit higher” and, of course, they do.
 
It’s a bit of a simple example, but true nonetheless. Most of us don’t think big enough. Our goals are too small. We’re too reasonable.
 
We don’t really have high standards. We have achievable standards and rationale goals.
 
This occurred to me reading Jeff Bezos’ recently released shareholder letter. I recommend that every leader take the time to read his 20th-anniversary letter. At the bottom, you’ll see Bezos’ first shareholder letter from 1997, which he includes every year.
 
The letter gives you a clear understanding of Amazon’s success, such as the company reaching 100 million Prime members this year! This letter also speaks to the power of a consumer-focused vision over 20 years, and what the future holds.

A culture of high standards
It’s a field manual for leaders. It focuses on the company’s high standards, which are fundamental to Amazon's Leadership Principles. In Bezos’ words:
 
Building a culture of high standards is well worth the effort, and there are many benefits. Naturally and most obviously, you’re going to build better products and services for customers – this would be reason enough! 
 
Perhaps a little less obvious: people are drawn to high standards – they help with recruiting and retention. More subtle: a culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company. I’m talking about the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching. In a high standards culture, doing that work well is its own reward – it’s part of what it means to be a professional. 
 
And finally, high standards are fun! Once you’ve tasted high standards, there’s no going back. 
 
So, the four elements of high standards as we see it: they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope. For us, these work at all levels of detail. Everything from writing memos to whole new, clean-sheet business initiatives. We hope they help you too.

Let me summarize the key ideas of Bezos’ letter:
 
Intrinsic or teachable?
This is like the “nature vs. nurture” debate. Bezos asks whether people are born with high standards or are they teachable. To have a high-standards team, do you need to find those people and hire them? He believes they are teachable. He writes: 
 
In fact, people are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure. High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt. The opposite is also true. If low standards prevail, those too will quickly spread. And though exposure works well to teach high standards, I believe you can accelerate that rate of learning by articulating a few core principles of high standards, which I hope to share in this letter.
 
Universal or domain-specific?
In a similar way, there’s the question of whether high standards in one area will transfer to another. Bezos doesn’t think so:
 
When I started Amazon, I had high standards on inventing, on customer care, and (thankfully) on hiring. But I didn’t have high standards on operational process: how to keep fixed problems fixed, how to eliminate defects at the root, how to inspect processes, and much more. I had to learn and develop high standards on all of that (my colleagues were my tutors). 
 
Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood.

Recognize and have realistic scope
Bezos believes it’s critical to focus on a realistic scope defining what are high standards. He cites a close friend who wanted to be able to do a handstand without the support of a wall and started practicing in her yoga studio:
 
She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists.
 
In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. ‘Most people,’ he said, ‘think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.’ 
 
Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.
 
Can be coached
There are certainly skills necessary to achieve high standards, but Bezos believes that in the context of a team people can be coached on skill development to achieve high standards:
 
The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope….Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you. 
 
What about you?
Do you hold high standards? Are they truly high standards or just good enough?
 
Do you hold yourself and others accountable to these standards?
 
Think about your standards and whether they might benefit from a more realistic scope and some clear coaching.
 
Amazon’s example is a great model in a world of disruption. In the end, it’s clear that our standards and execution dictate our ultimate results.