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What Google can teach us all about leadership skills

May 30, 2011 Business Daily, Leadership

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. (Laszlo) Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

…Managers also had a much greater impact on employees’ performance and how they felt about their job than any other factor, Google found.”

ADAM BRYANT New York Times (12 March 2011)

Google is everywhere. Apart from its legendary search engine algorithms, Google has become the world’s mapmaker, software provider and information organizer. But there’s one thing we didn’t really expect Google to do for us: build better leaders.

Adam Bryant reported on Google’s Project Oxygen in the New York Times recently. He tells us that in 2009 Google embarked on a major data-mining exercise: it began analyzing performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards. The Oxygen team correlated phrases, words, praise and complaints – more than 10,000 observations about managers – across more than 100 variables. Then they spent time coding the comments in order to look for patterns.

Bryant points out that for much of its 13-year history, particularly the early years, Google has taken a pretty simple approach to management: “Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff. Deep technical expertise propelled them into management in the first place.”

But what the project uncovered was fascinating: that technical expertise ranked dead last among Google’s top eight traits of successful managers. So what do employees value most? “Even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

In other words, the Google data are validating the consistently held beliefs long trumpeted in this column: attitude beats technical skills; character is more important than strategy; the quality of your managers’ people skills will make or break your organization.

HR has long run on gut instincts more than hard data. But a growing number of companies are trying to apply a data-driven approach to the unpredictable world of human interactions. And so we must pay attention to the hard work Google has done for the rest of us.

We populate our organizations with very skilled people – engineers, accountants, salespersons, scientists and the like. We select them on the strength of their qualifications, and we value them on the basis of their expertise. And then we ask them to lead and manage people: teams, departments, whole operations. More often than not, they are woeful at the basic competences of understanding, motivating and inspiring human beings. Technical wonks have often had charisma bypasses, and veer from silence to shouting, with no in-between setting.

So if we want to make a stab at creating great organizations, we have to turn all our top people into people managers, fast. Nothing is more important. The more managers you have who actually care about other people, and coach and mentor them, the better your organization will become. On the other hand if you persist with sullen bullies and manipulative politicians, you will stagnate.

In the words of Laszlo Bock, Google’s people head: “You don’t actually need to change who the person is. What it means is, if I’m a manager and I want to get better, and I want more out of my people and I want them to be happier, two of the most important things I can do is just make sure I have some time for them and to be consistent. And that’s more important than doing the rest of the stuff.”

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