The Secret to Working at Amazon? Passion, and "Plain Old Smarts" (Video)


I've forgotten just how long that has been around, but it's long enough that people now just call it Amazon, and no one thinks of them as a company that just handles books anymore.

Yes, Amazon has grown a lot since it launched back in 1994, and it's now knocked out Walmart as the largest American retailer, with revenues of $107 billion last year.

Getting big -- and building a big, controversial culture

Clearly, CEO Jeff Bezos has been doing something right.

I was a vice president for a pretty well-known Internet company in San Francisco that Amazon invested in back during the turn-of-the-century dotcom boom, so I got a slightly closer look at Amazon than the average Joe. What I learned is what you know now too -- that Bezos has built a team at Amazon that is relentless in constantly building, growing, and moving ahead.

The Amazon management team is so relentless, in fact, that Amazon got dinged big time last year when The New York Times dug into Amazon's "bruising" workplace culture, and frankly, it wasn't a pretty picture.

Bezos disagreed with The New York Times, of course, but even before the story broke it was pretty clear that Amazon is looking for a specific kind of employee, and that's why this video of Jeff Bezos is so instructive because you can hear him talking about what he looks for long before Amazon became uber-successful.

This video splices together a number of different talks that Bezos has made, it jumps around a lot, and some of the clips are fairly old, but I still think that the qualities he looks for in the people he hires is pretty relevant and instructive.

Looking for passion and "plain old smarts"

Here's one bit, and you can find it at the 8:05 mark in the video:

When we are looking for people, we're looking for intense, hard-working, smart people who want to be part of what we're doing. Passion is a part of it ... just plain old smarts -- you know, sort of high IQ, brainy people -- we really like that. ... and people who can hire other great people.

When I interview somebody, I actually spend about a third of the interview asking questions designed to ascertain whether or not they can hire great people ... different businesses have different criteria, but in this business, we've reached an interesting inflection point where I would say (that) 70 percent of the risk now to is execution risk, so it's inside the company, it's our ability to stumble.

We've basically gotten past the point where 70 to 80 percent of the risk was external, where we needed a huge amount of luck to get to where we are now. Now, all we need is a clear, consistent vision, and the ability to execute on it very, very well at high speed. And that second piece comes from having large numbers of talented employees with lots of executive bandwidth to guide them."

Looking to Microsoft as a role model

There's a lot more to the video, of course, and it's interesting in how it splices together Bezos talking t different points in time about hiring and building a culture.

If you watch the video you'll also see him talking about the importance of teams, and, of having lots of smart, dedicated, hard-working people at the top of the organization, and then more people below them "waiting in the wings to take on that kind of responsibility." He points to Microsoft's ability to do that as an example, but he adds, "we're trying to build that kind of team at"

One word of warning about the video: whoever put it together has dropped a number of intrusive ads that pop up as you watch it and seem to almost gag Bezos mid-sentence. I'm sorry about that, and they are easy enough to click away from, but they are a it of a pain to put up with.

But, I think hearing what one of America's most successful CEOs has to say about hiring, culture, and team building makes it well worth such minor inconveniences.

Editor’s Note: The Talent Insider blog is fueled by Checkster, and Checkster has some really great tools — like the Reference Checkup, the Interview Checkup, and the 360 Checkup — that can help you to make better decisions about people who can really fit your company culture.