Jeff Bezos found a leadership lesson in a friend’s quest for the perfect handstand

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is turning business on its head.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is turning business on its head.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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In his annual letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos addressed the subject of high standards, including the importance of knowing what they look like, and how much work is required to reach them.

Since Amazon’s customers are never satisfied—”divinely discontent” in his words—he said the company’s 560,000 employees should be constantly striving to improve. But they also need to fully understand what it takes to up their game. To illustrate the point, Bezos offered the example of a friend who wanted to master a perfect free-standing handstand. “No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good,” Bezos specified.

According to Bezos, she hired a coach, who instructed her about the danger of unrealistic expectations:

On 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.

Bezos then translated the lesson of the perfect handstand to something core to Amazon’s business culture: the six-page memo.

Before meetings, in lieu of delivering PowerPoint presentations, Amazon executives prepare memos which get read by the assembled group and are used to spark discussion. The quality of the memos can vary widely, Bezos said, because executives don’t always understand how much work is required to master them.

“They mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right,” he wrote.

The lesson, Bezos concluded, isn’t that all Amazon employees need to be great memo writers—but they do need to learn how much work it takes to become one.