Why Amazon Hires Good Managers, Not Great Ones

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By Blake Thorne

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Really great managers are hard to come by. They’re even harder to hire.

Those who are truly and undisputedly world class are already working. And the company they’re working for will do whatever it takes to keep them. These managers are rarely, if ever, on the market. Even if you’re Amazon.

The top 1 percent of product managers, for example, are so rare that one Amazon director believes he has never encountered one in a job interview.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever met a 1% PM, certainly not one that I identified as such prior to hiring,” Ian McAllister, Director of the AmazonSmile program at Amazon, wrote on this Quora Answer.

So how does Amazon consistently hire world-class managers? Here’s how. Identify the areas a 1 percent manager excels at, and hire someone who excels at some of them, but not all.


“Instead of trying to hire (a 1 percent product manager), you’re better off trying to hire a 10% PM who strives to develop and improve along these dimensions,” McAllister wrote.

Steve Jobs famously hired world-class managers. “Make sure you’re hiring only A-players,” he has said.

But there was a time when even Jobs didn’t have access to the most brilliant candidates. So he found the brilliant underdogs. In 1981 he hired a 21 year-year-old named Bob Belleville who had been working part-time at Xerox. Jobs saw that Belleville had great insights into how a company should operate, an area Jobs considered a priority. Belleville was hired and eventually became head of Engineering for Apple.

Finding your areas of excellence

McAllister outlined nine areas of excellence that he believes the top 1 percent of product managers excel at. They are:

  • Think big
  • Communicate
  • Simplify
  • Prioritize
  • Execute
  • Understand technical trade-offs
  • Understand good design
  • Write effective copy

These topics may seem generic, but for McAllister they aren’t. He put the work in to have a clear, concrete explanation of what each area means in relation to the job. For example, under “communicate,” he wrote:

“A 1% PM can make a case that is impossible to refute or ignore. They’ll use data appropriately, when available, but they’ll also tap into other biases, beliefs, and triggers that can convince the powers that be to part with headcount, money, or other resources and then get out of the way.”

Compare this to experiences you’ve had. You may have interviewed candidates thinking “OK, we need someone with excellent communication skills.” But did you have a specific, concrete understand of what excellent communication meant for your company, and for this role?

"The noblest search is the search for excellence." Lyndon B. Johnson
“The noblest search is the search for excellence.”
Lyndon B. Johnson

The areas of excellence for the role you’re hiring for will be different than Amazon’s. The idea isn’t to copy McAllister’s areas of excellence, but to learn to think this way about creating your own.

After you’ve identified your own areas of excellence, actually write out what each one means.

Don’t simply write “is a people person.” Write “people skills,” then spend a few sentences explaining what excellence in that area looks like in a real and concrete way. How do they use their people skills to move the company forward in a measurable way? What problems are solved and avoided through their their interactions with people? Start asking and answering these kind of questions, and you’ll be better equipped to identify excellence when you see it.

Avoid the seduction of irrelevant excellence

Having these areas of excellence written down (not just in your head, actually written down) before interviewing candidates can help you avoid being seduced by irrelevant excellence.

For example, a candidate might be a world-class negotiator. They will spend the interview wowing you with tales of high-stakes negotiations. And if you haven’t put in the work on your areas of excellence ahead of time, you’ll sense excellence and be seduced by it. You’ll hire the person, and it could be a disaster.

But if you’ve identified your areas of excellence ahead of time, one glance at your document will right the ship. If negotiation skills are not listed on your document, you’ll know to move on.Moby_Dick_final_chase

Overall, your sense for identifying excellence will be sharper because you’ve put the work in knowing what excellence looks like. And, more importantly, knowing what kind of excellence you’re looking for.

As McAllister wrote, you aren’t looking to find someone who excels at every area you’ve identified. That is your white whale, Captain Ahab. What you want is someone who excels as some of those areas, and shows potential to excel in the others. That’s how you know you’re hiring someone good.

You might even hire someone great.

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