20 management lessons from 20 years of Google

02 October 2018 -

Google As it marks its 20th anniversary in business, the Google approach to talent management continues to offer inspiration for leaders

Jermaine Haughton

The purpose of Google is to ‘organise the world’s information and make it accessible and useful’. But it has given the business world more than a search tool for knowledge. As Google turns 20, CMI Insights reflects on 20 management lessons we can learn from the tech giant’s culture and leadership practices. 

20 MANAGEMENT LESSONS FROM 20 YEARS OF GOOGLE

1. Hiring? Use the LAX test

Former executive chairman Eric Schmidt looked for interesting people to hire, who he termed ‘smart creatives’. He encouraged managers at Google to think about the ‘LAX test’. That is, would someone be able to keep you engaged if you met him or her during a three-hour flight delay [at LAX Airport]? He explained that intellectually curious people were more likely to engage with their work and perform better.

2. Make work meaningful

Google’s former SVP of people operations Laszlo Bock has been credited with helping the company’s employees to find meaning in their work. He has said: ‘nothing is a more powerful motivator than knowing that you are making a difference in the world’. He advised managers to make the impact of each job personal. At Google, employees who built technology were regarded as those who ‘connected people who needed access to information’.

Read more: the Laszlo Bock interview and The What, The Why and The How of Purpose 

3. Practice open communication

The former SVP of products at Google, Jonathan Rosenberg, has said transparency is one of the important lessons that managers could learn from Google. During his tenure, presentations given to the board of directors were recorded and shared with the company’s 45,000 employees. 

4. Invest in management training

In 2009, Google launched Project Oxygen to collate 10,000 observations about management behaviour and shape its leadership development programme. Traits identified as belonging to great managers included being productive; creating an inclusive environment; and having a clear vision for the company. 

Read more: Develop your leaders with CMI training and qualifications

5. Stamp out toxic traits

As well as positive characteristics, Project Oxygen also identified the traits of toxic bosses. They included tendencies to micromanage employees; overlook career growth; downplay others’ efforts; and a lack of emotional intelligence.

6. Focus on boosting employees’ confidence

In this Google #Iamremarkable workshop, CMI Insights saw that employees are encouraged to state out loud the achievements and attributes that make them unique. The concept was initially developed to help women develop confidence in expressing their skills in the presence of others. 

Read more: support women in business through CMI Women 

7. Identify problems from the outset

When Devika Wood, founder and director of Vida, went behind-the-scenes at Google X and shared her learnings with CMI Insights, she noted that the company celebrated failure. For new projects, teams are encouraged to stage ‘pre-mortems’ where they highlight concerns about the work they are about to do. There are also points during the project where a team is given the authority to decide whether to continue or abandon its work based on its success to date.  

8. Set strict performance metrics

Google uses OKRs – Objectives and Key Results – when it sets company goals. Annual objectives are drawn from the company’s purpose and are usually broken down into quarterly aims with set time-goals and check-in points. Management experts have described OKRs as ‘aggressive targets’. Read more about OKRs here

9. Make diversity a focus

Google has published the diversity statistics of its employee population since 2014 in an effort to recruit a workforce that represents all users. In its latest publication its chief diversity and inclusion officer, Danielle Brown, says: ‘We care deeply about improving workforce representation and creating an inclusive culture for everyone’. 

Publicly monitoring diversity is one strategy for improving inclusion in the workplace. Other strategies for boosting diversity are available in the CMI Delivering Diversity report

10. Create space for innovation

Want your team to innovate? Set aside time for experimentation. Google historically allowed its employees to spend 20% of their time working together on passion projects that they believed would benefit Google. The development of Google News and Gmail are two examples of successful projects that emerged from 20% time. However, the company now has a top-down approach to innovation and sets frameworks for development to help it remain productive. 

11. Don’t overdo the flat structures

In 2002, Google created a flat structure by removing management roles within the organisation: it was a disaster. The founders were soon contacted regarding administrative tasks and interpersonal conflicts, as well as questions about professional development. This affected their productivity so the experiment lasted just months.

12. Ask ‘why’ before you make a change

Google is a business focused on innovation, so in summer 2018 it created and shared a framework for change management. An employee survey had shown that during one group reorganisation, fewer that 50% of teams understood why it was necessary. As part of its new process it asked leaders four questions: why is making a change necessary? What is the desired future state? Who is being impacted by the change? And how will the change be executed?

When this new dialogue was introduced ahead of an automation project, 100% of managers subsequently said they understood the change, as well as 50% of teams.

13. Encourage movement within a company

Staff retention is a priority for many managers but to cope with the demands of a changing business Google encourages its employees to move teams. It does this by posting all available roles on an intranet system three times per year and asking individuals to rank their preferred roles. This stimulates discussions between managers and subordinates.

14. Use tech for recruitment

Google uses algorithms to match internal applicants to new roles. The algorithm organises available posts by position and factors in the requirements of each manager and each applicant. Google has said that the biggest challenge in using this recruitment method is instilling trust in the computerised system.

15. Build psychological safety in teams

A research project into the dynamics of great teams revealed that equally successful teams might work in different ways – or have different norms. However, the concept of psychological safety was common to all successful groups at Google. That is, in each group each participant is free to contribute equally (in whatever way works best for the team) and each individual is sensitive to others’ feelings.

16. Use data wherever possible

Google is famed for its rigorous approach to testing. The shade of blue used for advertising links on Google was chosen after testing 41 almost imperceptible shade differences: the colour chosen was the one that received the most interactions.

17. Don’t make counter-offers

It is said that the tech firm refuses to make counter offers to employees who may have been offered a new role elsewhere. Google believes this incentivises the wrong employees – those who are looking to leave.

18. Managers should listen more, not less

A key part of Google’s management training is active listening. Managers are regarded as coaches who should guide their team members towards decisions rather than telling them what to do. It is said that this helps employees to sharpen their instincts.

19. Do a staff survey

Google invites employees to give honest feedback about their managers so that these managers can improve. The open-ended questions are said to include: what would you recommend your manager keep doing? And, what would you recommend your manager change?

20. Culture trumps strategy

Google has built its reputation on offering a unique working environment in which employees are given freedom and flexibility. Applications to work at Google are said to number 2.5 million a year. The company believes that a positive environment will attract talent and instil loyalty – an approach that is born of the competitive Silicon Valley setting of its headquarters.


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