Google and High Performing Organizations

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How Google Searches for Success
6/26/2008
By Desda Moss
CHICAGO—When Laszlo Bock got an offer more than two years ago to head human resources
at Google, he was surprised to learn that his title would be vice president, people operations.
“I thought, it’s human resources, why do they call it ‘people operations’? Someone told me that
it would fool the engineers into thinking [the position] was technical,” he told an audience in a
June 23 “Senior Practitioner Spotlight” presentation at the SHRM Annual Conference.
Bock quickly learned that job titles weren’t the only things Google did differently. The company,
which prides itself on innovation and experimentation, takes the same approach to managing
people.
“We really want to do the best for our employees because we believe that if we trust them and
give them the freedom and tools to do their jobs, they will amaze and delight us,” Bock said.
While everyone knows about Google’s reputation for the generous benefits and perks it lavishes
on its staff, Bock said that’s not the whole story.
“Yes, we do have 18 cafes and car washes and day care and dogs on campus and free laundry
service. But that’s not who we are.”
Instead, Bock said the company’s 19,000 employees—called Googlers—are some of the best and
brightest technical minds in the world who enjoy solving complex problems and care deeply
about contributing to the organization’s mission of making information accessible and useful to
all. The company has such an appealing employer brand that it receives more than 7,000
applications a day. In 2007, Google hired 5,000 new employees.
“We start from the assumption that people are good. And if you believe that, you don’t
micromanage, you listen to everyone and you make people feel comfortable enough to make
suggestions that may be a little off-the-wall.”
Bock, a member of Google’s Executive Management Group who joined the company in 2006
after working at General Electric and McKinsey, outlined his company’s strategy for attracting,
retaining and developing its global workforce.
His advice on how to build a stellar workforce:
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Hire learners. “Hire people who want to learn, who are curious and inquisitive. When a learner
encounters a problem, they’ll keep working until they solve it.”
Trust them. “Give them freedom, information and tools to do their jobs.”
Small projects, small teams. “Having a team of four to six people is about the right scale to
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have a meaningful conversation. Any more, and it changes the group dynamic,” Bock said.
“When you have a big problem, carve it into smaller pieces.”
Create a flat structure. “You need information to flow upwards as well as downward, and
having fewer layers makes that easier to do.”
Discuss everything in public. “It’s always better.”
Be meritocratic. “We have pay for performance and we don’t use forced distribution. We
evaluate employees’ objectives and results quarterly. And we use calibration to make sure the
ratings mean the same thing across the organization.”
Reward success, but don’t penalize failure. “You have to take risks if you want your
organization to stay at the top of its game.”
“Some of you may be thinking this would never work at your company, but, in HR, we are the
ones who can make the change.”
Desda Moss is managing editor for HR Magazine.
At Google, It Takes a Village To Hire an Employee
7/14/2008
Aliah D. Wright
ORLANDO, FLA.—Want to work for Google? Be prepared to handle the crowd.
The $167 billion company with more than 19,000 employees uses “crowd sourcing” when it
comes to making hiring decisions. So said Google’s Manager of HR Technology and Operations
Melissa Karp during the recent International Human Resource Information Management systems
conference.
The company’s web site states: “Virtually every person who interviews at Google talks to at least
four interviewers, drawn from both management and potential colleagues. Everyone’s opinion
counts, ensuring our hiring process is fair while maintaining high standards as we grow.”
Released in June 2008, a Universum IDEAL Employer Survey found that nearly one in five
undergraduate students (17 percent) chose the web’s leading search engine as their ideal
employer.
And why not?
According to its job site, not only does Google provide excellent benefits, it also pays for lunch,
dinner and snacks, offers on-site oil changes, car washes, dry cleaning, massage therapy, a gym,
a hair stylist, fitness classes and bike repairs, and it even offers new parents a “take-out benefit”
through which they can expense up to $500 for take-out meals during the first four weeks that
they’re home with their newborn. Tack on back-up child care, tuition reimbursement, movie day,
holiday parties, a ski trip—there’s actually too many perks to mention.
So with a work culture unlike any other—it stands to reason its hiring processes are unique, too.
Wisdom of the Crowds
Google’s hiring premise is based on James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many
Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies
and Nations (2004), which, in short, states that any given group of people is always smarter than
any given expert. Google also uses the basic premise behind the creation of Wikipedia that
“people are willing to contribute to the collective knowledge, especially if they receive
information in return.”
Google’s not the only one using crowd sourcing to get things done. According to Wired.com,
Lego encourages customers to design robot operating systems and Lego sets; Zazzle.com allows
users to place their designs on mugs, shirts, posters and the like and gives the designers a cut if
people buy them. Even the Beastie Boys’ latest concert movie, whose name we can’t divulge,
was shot by 50 fans using Hi8 cameras.
Still, Google believes that it has them beat hands down.
According to Karp, Google uses technology to create “wise, collaborative crowds that include a
diversity of opinion, independence of members from one another, decentralization, a good
method for aggregating opinions and return for contributors’ investment.”
What that translates to is this: At Google it takes a village to hire an employee.
Here’s what happens:
A prospective employee applies for a job at Google. The company uses its applicant tracking
system (ATS) to ask its workers to weigh in on applicants who have submitted their resumes
online.
Information collected about where they went to school or worked previously is parsed and stored
in the ATS, which matches that information to data about their existing employees—say, an
applicant who graduated from Temple University is matched to an employee who might have
graduated from there.
When a match is found, an e-mail is sent automatically to employees asking them for an internal
reference. Employees can respond back via e-mail, and the ATS is updated. Karp says this
system allows them to tap into the employees who best understand the demands of the jobs and
the nature of their culture in assessing the fit of potential hires. It allows current employees to
build the community—even if they are not part of the formal interview process.
“Google people love this stuff,” Karp said. “It goes back to our culture, and culturally people like
the fact that we’re asking their opinion.”
Evaluations With a ‘Twist’
Up for an evaluation? Google says it puts a “twist on 360-degree feedback by providing
functionality for managers and employees to nominate ‘peer reviewers’ from anywhere across
the organization.”
“People are fairly candid in their feedback,” Karp noted.
But 360-degree feedback, which involves collecting perceptions about an individual’s job
performance and the impact of that behavior in the workplace from peers, supervisors, direct
reports, internal and external customers, and suppliers can have its drawbacks.
According to the International Personnel Management Association, more than 90 percent of
Fortune 1000 companies have used “multi-source assessments” (or 360-degree feedback).
Yet participants might feel threatened by the feedback and less amenable to the criticisms
contained in it. Then, too, respondents might not be as honest knowing that the information
they’re providing is going back up the chain of command. In addition, there might be a fear that
such feedback might affect working relationships directly—not to mention compensation.
And according to Watson Wyatt’s 2001 Human Capital Index (HCI), a study of the linkages
between specific HR practices and shareholder value at 750 large, publicly traded companies,
360-degree feedback programs were associated with a 10.6 percent decrease in shareholder
value.
So what happens at Google when people write “unconstructive comments?”
Karp said managers are encouraged to use that as a “coachable moment” to talk to the person
who wrote something unconstructive. However, at Google “this hasn’t been too much of a
problem.”
What’s Next?
Professional development is another HR priority at Google. Its engineers are encouraged to
spend 20 percent of their time developing products or service offerings. But their newest
application, which is in development, would allow employees to self-direct their career
development activities. They would build their own professional networks, develop their skills,
understand potential career paths and pursue internal opportunities, Karp said.
“The idea here is that employees can build their own professional network.”
The company also takes full advantage of its own products that focus on collaboration, such as:
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Google Sites, which allows people to create web sites to share information.
Google Docs, which allows people to share documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
Google Calendar, which lets users arrange meetings, set schedules and publish event
information.
Google Talk, an instant messenger program that allows pc-to-pc voice calls for free.
Start Page, which lets users preview their calendars and documents, add gadgets and search
the web from one place.
“We look at all of this as a collaborative and productivity enhancer,” Karp said.
Although Karp encouraged those at the symposium to “let go of the notion that a single
individual knows best and that the crowd won’t actively contribute in a candid and useful
manner,” not everyone thought leveraging the wisdom of crowds is wise.
Sri Sankaran, a global process excellence manager for Corning, said, “I think it is viable for a
company like Google” whose culture encourages it. “But to translate that to a large company like
Corning, which has 26,000 employees [rolling] out HR systems in eight to 10 languages … well,
we can’t afford to build a custom application like Google that has such a broad scope.”
“What I found really fascinating about this application, however, is how they’ve taken complex
software and made it easy for their employees,” she said.
“When you think of Google, you think cool, high-tech, young. And looking at their
applications—it speaks to their internal corporate culture.”
Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
The making of a Great Place to Work® – the story of Google
India
“For me, after working with Google, it has become easier to believe that the concept of a
‘dream job’ can exist. And I would like more and more people passionate about work to
know that a company/professional life that they dream of actually exists.” – Employee
comment, Google India
Google is number 3 in our list of Top 25 Best Workplaces in India. In US, it is number 1
in Fortune’s 100 Best Employers study done by Great Place to Work® Institute. With
just around 10,000 employees globally Google receives 1300 applications each day in US
alone. Google’s success story is well documented. At less than 10 years of age Google is
worth more than 125 Billion USD.
When some my colleagues first studied Google, they found it difficult to believe that
such an Organisation exists. Keep in mind that they study hundreds of different
Organisations every year. So they spent an inordinate amount of time studying Google
India’s practices, employee comments and, of course, the anonymous survey feedback.
There is no doubt. Google India is a great place to work®.
It is also one of the most successful new age companies, creating more wealth in less
time than any other Organisation in the world.
So is Google a Great Place to Work because its stock is $ 483 or is it one of the most
valuable companies of the world because it is a Great Place to Work? I spent one full day
at Google in their Hyderabad campus recently to ask a few questions to a cross section of
employees.
Stories of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google are popular across the
business press. (Read David vise’s The Google Story in case you haven’t). So by the time
Google started their operations in India, it was already a well known name, especially
amongst the internet users. Employee after employee talked about joining the
Organisation attracted by the power of the brand and the opportunity to work with really
talented people. It was therefore, fascinating for me to discover first hand the Google
employer brand, and more importantly how they make it work. Here are some of the
things I discovered.
1. Create significant entry barriers at recruitment stage
Considering that some of the best brains choose to apply to Google, the recruitment team
should have it easy. Strangely, one of the few gripes in the Organisation is about the time
it takes to get the right person. Input control in Google is so strong that even today each
employee’s profile and interview comments go to one of the founders before he or she is
recruited!
Google’s core values start with the statement “We want to work with great people.” Back
in the early years, when the Organisation was yet to make money, the founders were busy
recruiting the best talent when many others were busy letting them go.(Remember the
technology companies meltdown in 2000-01). All Google wanted at that time was to
make a great product that would enable the entire world’s information to be accessible to
everyone at any time. They were not sure how it would help them make money. But they
were sure they could not do it without the best brains. And if the best brains come
together, money will follow. What Google could not offer in money, they made up in
stocks and in dreams to change the way the world accesses information. And as the
comment of the employee quoted above indicates, some dream jobs do come true.
It is not unusual for each candidate to have from six to even eleven interviews! One of
the senior most managers in Hyderabad, Roy Gilbert Director of Online Sales &
Operations confesses to spending 50 per cent of his time on meeting candidates. He is not
alone. All managers who interview candidates go through Interview workshops. As one
employee said, “The managers who interviewed me were genuinely interested in me as a
person. They were taking notes. One even made a cup of coffee for me.”
Google is reputed for its mathematics conundrums during recruitment screening. For
example, how would you solve the cryptic equation WWWDOT-GOOGLE=DOTCOM,
knowing that values of M & E could be interchanged. Or you may simply be asked what
is the most beautiful math equation derived.
No wonder, the Recruitment team in India boasts of working for one of those rare
companies that does not hold them accountable for filling vacancies in specific time. And
once an employee joins there is a “Buddy” to make him feel right at home. But what
makes many employees stay is the next point.
2. Trust, Empowerment and Freedom
Once an employee joins Google she experiences a pleasant change from many a previous
employer. There is rarely a boss who continuously looks over her shoulder to figure out
what the employee is doing. In fact, officially the employee is told that 20 per cent of her
time is free to do what she pleases. Heard of Google Talk, Google News, Google Finance
and gmail? They all started as a “20 per cent project”!
Google’s philosophy is simple, “Get the brightest people in and create an environment
that enables them to perform.” Employees seem to reciprocate this trust by being
obsessed about innovation building great products and services. All new products are
launched internally, so that employees get a chance to give their vote of confidence or
lack of it before customers do. Employees keep developing their expertise and
consequently roles keep changing to keep pace with the employee’s development.
Something traditional HR experts with rigid job descriptions will find difficult to adjust
to. The beauty of working for a Google is that one rarely gets caught in an endless routine
job. None of Google’s products remain the same even in the short term. (Unknown to
many, Google’s search quality keeps improving continuously)
The environment at Google is akin to a successful University. Sergei Brin is quoted as
saying, “We run Google a bit like a university. We have lots of projects, about 100 of
them, from molecular biology to building hardware, being done by teams of three or so
people.” (The Google Story – David A. Vise)
Google realizes that a key to this culture of empowerment is accepting mistakes and
failures. No project is rejected by its inability to predict viable cash flows. Indeed, viable
cash flows can never be the primary criteria for making a business decision, as
advertisers who want to influence Google’s search results have found out.
The relationship of trust that Google has with its employees is also reflected in the
relationships it has with its users. Which is why, when Google decided to accept
Government censorship laws in China (Google, however, notifies users when results have
been censored) it was a major letdown for many people. While most of its competitors
were already complying with the law of the land in China, it seems that when it came to
Google, people put it on a higher pedestal. We trust Google to give us access to
information in an unbiased and transparent manner.
With so much of trust on employees, what happens to the bad eggs? A few who might be
tempted to be freeloaders? Surely, there must be some kind of forced ranking to weed out
non-performers? The answer I received from senior executives and a cross section of
employees was a clear No.
This brings me to the third aspect of the Google’s employer brand.
3. Feedback, feedback & some more feedback
Want to challenge a recent business decision or simply ask a question. TGIF (Thank God
it’s Friday) meetings could be the forum for you. If you think there are others interested
in your pet topic start an email group. TGIF is done religiously in all locations including
in Global HO where the Founders do it themselves whenever they are present. The
quarterly targets of any employee are available in the intranet. Google believes in taking
stretch targets, and the targets and their achievement are transparent for all to see. When
you have recruited some of the best brains, an open objectives and key results could be a
powerful motivator. This is also a good antidote to inflated egos which some of the best
brains are likely to develop in an environment where they are not surrounded by equally
bright or brighter colleagues.
Working with great people can have its pitfalls. Many Organisations have found to their
peril that internal unhealthy competition can quickly kill ideas and initiative. Google
India seems to have succeeded in avoiding this. One key reason is the personal feedback
process. Once in six months all key stakeholders for an employee gives feedback on her
performance and th …
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