Last month, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released his annual letter to shareholders. This has become a major news event each year as people both inside and outside Amazon wait to hear the latest musings from the leader of one of the world’s most successful companies.
This year, Bezos tackled a topic that is near and dear to me: the need for leaders to set high standards. A big part of Amazon’s success is due to Bezos’ relentless drive to meet ever-increasing customer expectations.
What I find fascinating about this topic is that it validates global research that my team and I have done over the last two years on leadership accountability. In short, successful leaders not only set high standards, but hold the people they lead to account for their ability to meet those standards.
This concept is so important at Amazon, it’s actually baked into the company’s 12 core leadership principles, which encourages Amazon leaders to set relentlessly high standards for the people they lead. Even if people think these standards are unreasonably high, Amazon culture stipulates that it’s essential for leaders to always raise the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes.
In this year’s shareholder letter, Bezos went further into the whole topic of standards and expectations, asking whether the drive to set high standards is intrinsic, or whether it can be taught. My sense is Bezos believes it’s a little of both.
It helps to hire what Bezos calls “high standards” people. But it’s also important to create a culture that encourages people to strive for high standards in everything that they do. Bezos clearly believes high standards are contagious. So, if you bring someone onto a team where high standards are the norm, that person will be more likely to adopt the same standards as part of a commitment to supporting the success of the team.
Bezos concluded his letter by highlighting some other benefits that accrue from building a culture of high standards.
First, high standards allow you to build better products and services for your customers.
Second, people are drawn to high standards, so it helps to attract and retain the best talent in your industry.
Third, a culture of high standards helps to cultivate what Bezos refers to as “invisible work.” This is the extra effort people put in when the leaders are not around. It’s an indication that your people believe that doing great work is its own reward.
Finally, Bezos insists that high standards can be fun, and that once people accept them as part of their day-to-day work, there’s no going back.
The letter closely relates to experiences in my own career. Whenever I felt I was at my personal best, it was largely because I worked for a leader or was part of a team that strived to achieve high standards. Sometimes, these standards were unrealistic. But the importance is in setting them, and then striving for them.
I would push Bezos’ idea further. High standards are not just about creating better products and services for customers. They are also a guide for how we should treat each other, how we must perform as leaders, and the culture we want to create in the organizations we lead.
Unfortunately, far too many leaders go about their work like zombies, going from meeting to meeting, deadline after deadline, without any thought about setting high standards. Maybe they are burnouts who have lost passion for their work. Whatever the excuse, when a leader fails to set and live up to high standards, everyone suffers.
I believe most people want to be successful at their work. They want to know their work has meaning. Setting high standards is the way for leaders to help the people they lead achieve both goals.
This week’s Gut Check for Leaders asks: Do you hold yourself and others to high standards of performance?
Here are a few other things I’d like to bring to your attention: