Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos writes famous annual shareholder letters! His shareholder letter for 2018 was another gem of insight into the fascinating leadership culture of Amazon and it’s success.
You might not agree with Amazon’s culture. It is well known and documented that Amazon is a hard-charging, burn you out, take no prisoners type of work culture. They look to hire people that fit that kind of employee. An employee who doesn’t even think about working 70 hours a week, or coming in on a Saturday and Sunday.
Bezos claims the way Amazon stays ahead of the ever-rising customer expectations is to have ‘high standards’.
That term ‘high standards’ becomes the foundational piece of how Amazon expects their leaders to performance manage their teams. Having high standards is a tricky thing. I think most people if asked, would tell you, “of course, I have high standards”! Bezos is masterful in that he knows this, so he goes into great detail to define what “high standards” means to him.
High Standards are…
– Intristic or Teachable? – “I believe high standards are teachable. 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…”
– Universal or Domain Specific? – “Another important question is whether high standards are universal or domain specific. In other words, if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest…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.”
– Recognition and Scope – “What do you need to achieve high standards in a particular domain area? First, you have to be able to recognize what good looks like in that domain. Second, you must have realistic expectations for how hard it should be (how much work it will take) to achieve that result – the scope.”
High standards have four elements – they are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope.
Benefits of High Standards
“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.”
Powerful stuff, right!?
The one part that Bezos gets that almost no other leader understands when it comes to performance management is the importance of the role that recognition of what high standards look like.
This is the difference between what is expected of a role, to what does truly being ‘great’ look like in a role. We hired you to do a job, that is expected, that is not great. If you want to be great, here’s what ‘great’ actually looks like. Those are two different things, but almost every leader screws this up.
We all want to believe we have high standards. In fact, it’s an afront to our character if you believe I don’t have high standards. The problem is we all define ‘high standards’ differently, and Bezos, as a visionary leader, is ensuring that definition in his organization is one definition.
Go read the full letter because he gives examples and it is awesome! I don’t know if I could or would ever want to work in that culture, but he lays out a model that any leader can use to help raise the bar in their organization.