For most of Google’s history, and especially in the early years, it took a laissez-faire policy toward leadership. The company hired smart engineers, promoted the most brilliant into leadership positions and then pretty much left them alone. The assumption was that they were smart and would figure it out or ask questions if they needed help.
As Google evolved, it became apparent that some managers thrived in this environment more than others. In a recent article, Laszlo Bock, Google’s innovative SVP for Human Resources, made the observation:
“Our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better. So the biggest controllable factor that we could see was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen. The question we then asked was: What if every manager was that good?”
This touched off an internal research project in search of the traits and qualities that make up a great leader at Google. After analyzing reams of data consisting of performance reviews, surveys, feedback and interviews, the statisticians zeroed in on 8 key qualities, ranked in importance:
- Be a good coach
- Empower your team and don’t micromanage
- Express interest in your team members success and well-being
- Be productive and results-oriented
- Be a good communicator and listen to your team
- Help your employees with career development
- Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
- Have technical skills so you can advise the team
Although there is nothing on this list that you can’t find in the leadership 101 course of any Fortune 500 company, there is something refreshing and new about it. By limiting the list to 8 qualities and ranking the competencies from top to bottom, Google helps leaders focus their improvement effort in areas with the greatest return on investment.
Furthermore, Google went against its own cultural bias toward the importance of technology expertise and followed the data when it ranked this trait least among the eight. Yes, it is important, but other qualities matter even more. I imagine this came as a shock to more than a few leaders at Google.
Then there is the simplicity to the traits. They don’t require major changes to personality, and incremental progress is possible. Laszlo Bock boils it down nicely:
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.
And finally, there is the fact that Google took the time and effort to determine the leadership qualities that are most important in their culture. Yes, they could have borrowed a list of competencies from the latest leadership best-seller, but they didn’t. They tackled this challenge the same way they improve their search results; by analyzing their own data and drawing their own conclusions.