Rick Nielsen, a former U.S. Navy captain, was just a few years ago at the helm of the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship designed to help Marines stake out beachheads on hostile shores. When deployed, the vessel’s crew could reach some 1,700, and carry about 2,000 Marines on board.
Now, the 51-year Nielsen, who retired from the Navy in December, has joined a different type of army: Amazon.com, where he’s leading a team of about 70 people at a fulfillment center in Columbus, Ohio.
He’s one of the first cohort of former military leaders to embark on a fast-track leadership program, similar to the one Amazon has created for grads from top business schools. It’s expected to put him on a path toward the top ranks at the e-commerce giant’s ballooning empire.
Nielsen says the leadership skills he fine-tuned in his 29-year Navy career apply at Amazon too. “It’s the same people,” he said. “They have a smiley-face logo instead of a Navy uniform.”
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Launched in January, Amazon’s Military Leaders program is the company’s latest effort to bring veterans into its fold. It’s a popular cause – many companies, from Starbucks to Microsoft, do it. A year ago, Amazon, which has a major distribution center in Lexington County, committed to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses over the next five years (Amazon said it has hired “thousands” but won’t give more details.)
But this program represents an interesting twist. It seeks to directly leverage the leadership skills acquired by officers and cutting-edge specialists in the military forces to give structure to its fast-growing logistics operations.
“When they come to Amazon they’re super-successful, they have a bias for action and have proven their ability,” said Rachel Lessard, a former nuclear submariner who is now a recruiter for the Military Leaders program.
“When you’re in a submarine your environment is so complex, and there’s so much extra going on that if you can be a submariner, we think you can be a good fit for the complex environment in our operating centers.”
The program is modeled after a similar track within Amazon’s logistics unit for graduates from MBA programs, which puts young hires on an accelerated course for promotion. Dave Clark, the senior vice president for worldwide operations and customer service at Amazon, is one of 844 people to have gotten their start through that so-called Pathways program.
In the Military Leaders program, recently hired former military staffers start out as “area managers” – each Amazon warehouse has dozens – who coordinate the assembly of customers’ orders. At this point they oversee between 50 and 200 people.
Once they nail down the basics, which Amazon expects to occur after six months, they can become operations managers at a warehouse – meaning they oversee area managers, a role they’re expected to hold for a year and a half.
They progress to senior operations managers, and after four to five years, they become the general manager of the warehouse, a job that can oversee thousands.
Lessard said Amazon plans to hire 75 former military staffers into this program this year, and 150 in 2018.
So far five, including Nielsen, have started working and another 14 have accepted offers. They’re being deployed in warehouses from South Carolina to California. According to MWPVL, a consultancy that closely tracks Amazon’s operations, the company has about 240 U.S. logistics facilities.
The idea for the Military Leaders program was inspired by the success of various Amazonians with service backgrounds, said Kathleen Carroll, the Seattle-based executive who leads recruitment for the company’s North America fulfillment and logistics operations and who herself served in the Marines for nearly 10 years.
Carroll pointed to the example of Sara C. Rhoads, a U.S. Navy ace pilot who in 2011 became an operations manager at an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky and rose to increasingly senior positions in the U.S. and the U.K.
In March, she relocated to Seattle to lead the aviation operations of Amazon Air, the company’s growing fleet of air freighters.
“If you think about the amount of training and responsibility that’s given to an F-18 pilot … that’s two or three years of really robust and challenging training, and academics and crucial moments,” Carroll said.
Other high-ranking Amazonians with military backgrounds include Jeff Helbling, a former U.S. Army captain who is now the technical adviser to CEO Jeff Bezos, one of the highest-profile roles within the company. Jim Adkins, the vice president for automotive, tools, home improvement, lawn and garden, sports and outdoors, is a former Navy officer. Ardine Williams, one of the lead recruiters for Amazon Web Services, is a former Army captain as well.
There’s also the leadership experience many former military members bring to their jobs, critical to an increasingly diverse and expanding workforce.
“Working on small teams, rapid deployments … building in ambiguous environments,” Carroll said. “I experienced that myself as a 24- to 25-year-old, leading a platoon of people of all different demographics and ages.”
Looking to the military also expands the sources of potential talent Amazon can tap. Harvard or other top business schools are “great proven space for awesome brains and potential leaders. But where else do you get high potential, emerging leaders?” Carroll said.
While there are some similarities between Amazon’s fast-paced work culture and the military, former military officers have also had to deal with a few adjustments to the civilian world.
For Nielsen, the former Navy captain, part of the novelty was seeing people with beards at work. Another was wearing jeans and a T-shirt on the job, as opposed to a uniform.
“My wife, she’s just laughing at me every day: ‘Alright, big boy, so what T-shirt is it going to be today?’ I used to wear a flight suit every day.”