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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.

What are Amazon's Leadership Principles?

If you're competitor focused, you have to wait until there is a competitor doing something. Being customer focused allows you to be more pioneering.

– Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO

One of my golf buddies is an Amazon addict.

This guy LOVES Amazon. On the course, he’ll say, “This driver, Amazon. These shoes, Amazon. My bag, Amazon.” He also talks about the stuff in his house and often will instant-order something when we’re backed up on the tee.

Don’t worry, I’m not judging him (or you) because I have my moments, too. This is why Amazon has roiled the retail sector, sending familiar brick-and-mortar stores reeling.

The company’s latest acquisition of Whole Foods, where I happen to be writing this article, is shaking up the grocery business.

Taking over the world
I hear people say Amazon is taking over the world. You can understand that reaction when you think of the company’s broad footprint: Four of every $10 spent online is with Amazon (43%); 80 million American households (65%) have Prime membership; it’s pushing the use of drone delivery; its owner is a pioneer in the space exploration business and owns the influential newspaper The Washington Post.

With this in mind, I was excited when I met an Amazon leader on a recent plane trip. I had been wondering about Amazon’s culture, the secret sauce. In talking about leadership, he brought up the company’s Leadership Principles. He said Amazon stresses the need to use the principles as the basis for all decisions and activities – to actually LIVE the principles.

For instance, he noted that Amazon is a low-margin business that requires frugality throughout the company. “We don’t stay at fancy hotels and our customers know we won’t take them out to expensive restaurants. It’s not who we are.”

I was intrigued and reviewed these principles on Amazon’s employment website.

The simple definition of Amazon's Leadership Principles is that they are 14 principles that focus on how Amazon leaders and employees should create value for their customers, conduct themselves, make decisions every day.

I can see the Amazon customer experience reflected here and find a lot of wisdom and direction for leaders in these 14 leadership principles:

Amazon: Our Leadership Principles
Our Leadership Principles aren't just a pretty inspirational wall hanging. These Principles work hard, just like we do. Amazonians use them, every day, whether they're discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer's problem, or interviewing candidates. It's just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar.

Customer Obsession
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don't sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say "that's not my job."

Invent and Simplify
Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by "not invented here." As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

Are Right, A Lot
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

Hire and Develop the Best
Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards—many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high-quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Think Big
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.

Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.

Learn and Be Curious
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Earn Trust
Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Dive Deep
Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Deliver Results
Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

Amazon’s principles are a simple and clear statement of how its leaders should operate in a rapidly changing world. These principles become even more interesting when you realize they are actually a guide for leaders to be the creators of disruption throughout the world.

Many of my clients have similarly well-articulated leadership principles which they use to influence their cultures.

Does your organization have leadership principles? Do you use them every day to inform your decisions and actions? Do you have your own principles?
These are questions worth considering in a world of disruption across every industry.

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Photo by James Tarbotton on Unsplash