The High Standards of Jeff Bezos

Every year since 1997, Jeff Bezos has penned an annual letter to shareholders that provides a glimpse into the leadership stylings of the Amazon CEO. This year, the letter turned to the subject of high standards, which Bezos says have been instrumental to Amazon’s success.

In some areas, high standards are easy to recognize. Hit this or that KPI, and you’re good. But in my career as a creative and marketing professional — and as a manager — I’ve found that high standards are often hard to pin down. You feel them in the work itself or in the standards and expectations that emerge among members of a strong, cohesive team.

A high-standards team is shown reaching for a new bar, while a low-standards team slacks off because they've already done what's expected.

Bezos’s letter provides a model for moving such abstract notions of high standards into the fabric of how a team works every day. For Bezos, high standards are composed of four elements. “They are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope,” he writes. Let’s explore them further.

High Standards are Teachable

From the start, Bezos poses a foundational question about high standards, asking whether they are truly intrinsic or teachable. If the former, someone either has them or they don’t. But if the latter is true, individuals will rise to the occasion. Bezos asserts that high standards are in fact teachable. “People are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure,” he writes. “High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they’ll quickly adapt.”

High Standards are Domain Specific

For Bezos, high standards aren’t universal, but are domain specific: having high standards in one area doesn’t mean you’ll have them everywhere else. “Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble,” Bezos writes. “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 High Standards and Coach Realistic Scope

With this understanding, Bezos turns to the task of explaining what’s required to achieve high standards in a particular domain. “First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain,” he writes. “Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result — the scope.”

Bezos illustrates this concept through an anecdote about a friend who wanted to do a perfect handstand. Such a handstand is recognizable: the individual is stick straight, doesn’t need support, and can hold the handstand for some time — in sum, a high standards handstand.

After making little progress on her own, Bezos’s friend hired a handstand coach, who gave her some critical advice: “Most people 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.”

While high standards are easily recognizable with handstands, the scope of effort to achieve the standards is often unrealistic. “Unrealistic beliefs on scope — often hidden and undiscussed — kill high standards,” Bezos writes. “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.”

For me, this is the rub. High standards take time to master. And as managers, they take time for our team to master as well — so we must scope our expectations accordingly. High standards are hard work. But anyone who has worked in a high standards culture knows it’s work worth doing.

For Bezos, high standards are the magic of Amazon’s success. Here’s a final thought from Bezos’s letter to close us out this week: “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.”

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Originally published at Manager Companion.