For nearly two decades at Amazon, Bettina Stix has enjoyed a remarkable double identity. In her core jobs, she’s a nonstop dynamo who has done everything from running the company’s German website to shaping the growth of Amazon Prime. Petite, with an easy smile, Stix radiates the confidence of someone who knows how to steer a meeting in the right direction without ever raising her voice.
Yet at each stage of her career journey, Stix has nurtured a side project that borders on obsession. She loves to interview job candidates. She likes to hear their stories, to draw them out – and to be one of the sentries who helps decide which newcomers are right for Amazon. By her own tally, she has interviewed more than 1,000 job candidates over the years. (“I started in my second week at Amazon,” she says, with a grin.)
Amazon cherishes such people. In fact, the Seattle company grants unusual powers to talent-spotting experts like Stix. They are the company’s bar raisers: standout employees whose sense of cultural fit is so valuable that Amazon wants their voice in the centre of its recruiting decisions. They coach less experienced colleagues about the best ways of running the interview process; they also have the power to veto hasty or ill-advised job offers that could blow up later. Think of them as Amazon’s last line of defence against sloppy hiring that could cause the company’s built-for-speed culture to collapse.
You won’t find Amazon-style bar raisers at many other companies, mostly because their prominence seems outright galling to traditional hiring managers. What boss would want to share control of the hiring process with an intruder from another department, especially if that person carries a lower-ranking title?
But as is so often the case, what looks crazy to the rest of the world is not only standard fare at Amazon; it might even be a competitive advantage. Amazon now has “thousands of bar raisers at all different levels in the organisation,” Beth Galetti, Amazon’s human-resources chief, recently disclosed. “Bar raisers aren’t motivated to hire fast; they are motivated to hire well.”
Amazon’s hiring system – and especially its bar-raiser approach – is about to face its toughest test yet. After a massive 14-month search, Amazon has finally picked two additional headquarters beyond its Seattle base. By choosing the Crystal City suburb of Washington, D.C., and a stretch of Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan, Amazon has committed to adding 50,000 executives, managers and front-line employees in those new sites. How big a staffing spree is that? It exceeds the total headcount at Fortune 500 giants such as Kellogg, U.S. Steel or Facebook.
It’s easy to imagine such rapid hiring collapsing into chaos. Amazon needs to worry about the perils of creating a bureaucratic mess or a rogue new culture in these cities. But Amazon has been rehearsing for this moment for a long time. In recent years, bar-raisers from the Pacific Northwest have parachuted into locations as far-flung as Boston, Vancouver, Bangalore, Brazil and Hamburg, Germany, so they could support (smaller) hiring pushes in those locales.
Getting hiring right is vital for any company, but it’s especially top of mind at Amazon. What began as Jeff Bezos’s tiny startup in 1994 is now the second biggest private sector employer in the United States (after WalMart), with about 560,000 employees. Internal headcount growth has topped 20% in recent years; acquisitions have pushed the total even higher. Most companies can’t grow anywhere near that size without becoming slower and more bureaucratic. Amazon is the rare exception.
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