December 9th, 2021

At Athena’s recent CHRO Perspectives event—a monthly gathering of CHROs, heads of learning & development, and Athena members discussing hot-button HR issues—Databricks CHRO Amy Reichanadter candidly shared her insights on developing your company’s leadership bench strength during hyper-growth.

As the ninth-ranked unicorn globally and fifth-ranked in the U.S., Databricks is experiencing more than 100% growth year-over-year. Since Amy joined the company in mid-2019, they’ve grown from 600 employees to a projected 3,000 by the end of 2021. They’ve completed two rounds of funding, growing their valuation from $3B to $28B. And they’re onboarding 40-50 new team members every single week.

Below, read Amy’s top tips to build an HR function from the ground up, how to build a strong team during periods of intense growth, and how to define hiring excellence for your organization.

Three steps to build your people function from scratch

1. Assess the current situation

When Amy joined Databricks, the “people” function of the 600-employee company had been split among individual teams with no centralized leadership. Her first step was to assess the current HR climate and how well it was working.

“While the people function is often invested in later than the company needs it to be, in this particular case, it had been almost completely abandoned,” she said. “The reality is there was almost nothing there, and what was there was needed to be deconstructed and rebuilt for scale.

2. Build for scale

She added some key hires to her team who shared her vision. Together, they set off “basically trying to build everything at once.”

They tackled “everything about the employee lifecycle, from the overarching talent strategy to the talent acquisition function, to fixing the comp and benefits, to putting systems in place,” Amy said. But building these structures quickly didn’t mean cutting corners. “I told my team, ‘We’re never going to have time to build anything twice, so everything had to be built for scale.’”

3. Meet people where they are

How do you get new leaders to understand how your company operates? How decisions are made? Your philosophies? How do you ensure new talent works effectively and contributes at their highest level of impact?

In the absence of a formal onboarding program, employees joined Databricks with assumptions from their past work experiences. Empowering managers to understand that context helped Amy reach and educate employees more effectively.

“Educating people while we were building became more and more important,” Amy said. “Ultimately, we needed every manager in the company to really understand how we operate here, what’s important, how we make decisions, what our priorities are, and what our values are so they can make good decisions every day without needing direction from us.”

Defining what hiring excellence means for your organization

It’s critical to establish common language around what quality looks like in the hiring process and how to hire excellence at scale. Before investing in their HR function, Databricks’ hiring happened at a fast pace to get people into their roles as quickly as possible. But that led to a dilution in the quality of talent.

They created three hiring principles and trained every manager in the company on them:

  1. Raise the bar. “If this person isn’t better than 50% of the people on your team, you shouldn’t be hiring them,” Amy detailed.
  2. Demonstrated longevity. Growing an organization 100% year-over-year takes a different level of commitment. Databricks intentionally hires employees who’ve proven longevity in a position, more than the average of two years.
  3. Experienced great. The candidate could have gone to a great school, overcome extraordinary circumstances, or built something great themselves. “We’re looking for something that shows they’ll also have the ability to make an extraordinary commitment and contribution to the company,” Amy said.

Put inclusion at the forefront of your hiring practices

It was critical for Amy to create a culture where everyone felt they belonged and contributed.

“We focused on creating an inclusive candidate experience and thinking about diverse hiring second, because my feeling was if we didn’t create an environment where people felt like they really could find their communities internally and… felt like they belong, we were never going to be able to retain talent anyway.”

To accomplish this, she leveraged existing micro-communities (like ERGs) to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion across the company. They wrote more inclusive job descriptions, and were intentional about gathering inclusive panels and interviewers. And their efforts were effective, with over 85% of employees reporting they felt they belonged at the company in their annual culture survey.

Join us for the next CHRO Perspectives—part fireside chat, part Q&A discussion—focusing wholly on executive development trends, workforce management, and human capital thought leadership from top HR leaders. Athena members can watch the full recording here.



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