Ardine Williams knows a lot about job interviews.
She was an HR leader for years at Intel before briefly retiring in 2014. She soon joined Amazon Web Services and went on to become vice president of worldwide people operations at Amazon.
But even Williams, a U.S. Army veteran, got tripped up a couple of times during Amazon’s famously vigorous interviewing process.
“In each of the interviews I did I eventually got to the point where somebody asked me something that I had no clue how to answer,” Williams said at Glassdoor’s Recruit conference in Chicago. “And I had this panic, like, ‘I don’t have any clue how to answer that question.’ And then I thought maybe I didn’t prepare enough, and that whole narrative that goes along with it. And I said ‘I don’t know. I don’t know how I would solve it, but here is how I would approach the problem.'”
The lesson she came away with, and one she wants to share with others is, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” No one has all the answers, she said, and what’s more important is showing the hustle to go figure out the things you don’t know.
At the conference, Williams spoke with Glassdoor Co-founder and CEO Robert Hohman, who agreed with the importance of being willing to admit not knowing something.
“Those three words are so powerful because what they say to people around you is that you are self-aware to know that you don’t know, which is a big, big deal, and that you have the courage to admit it,” Hohman said. “And that you will go off and get an answer.”
Amazon’s interviews are more about establishing how someone fits in the culture rather than specific credentials, Williams says. However, the company wants “bar-raisers,” or as Williams describes it: “Are the people we are hiring better than 50 percent of the folks we already have?”
This emphasis on behavior, decision-making and culture in interviews is important because Amazon likes to empower people to make tough calls, sometimes without approvals from above. This, Williams said, comes into play with a concept called one-way doors and two-way doors.
Two-way doors are smaller decisions where the company can always walk back through the door and reverse them. With one-way doors, there’s no turning back on these decisions, the kind that have major implications for the company.
Williams recounted updating Amazon’s job board and how she struggled to figure out who should approve it. Eventually, a co-worker asked her why it was taking so long. Why did she need someone to approve it? Could it be reversed if it didn’t work? Yes, Williams answered to the final question, so the co-worker told her to push the button on this two-way door decision.
“Reaching out and clicking that mouse was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career,” Williams said. “Because it forced me to make that decision and put myself out there without the safety of a governing body or a steering committee to approve the change. The good news I didn’t get fired, so I think it turned out OK.”