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Google Wisdom: To Be A Great Leader (or Boss), Learn How To Follow

I've been generally nervous about the recent attempts of major corporations to data mine their way to better management theories and practices, but I'm much encouraged by the way Google is analyzing its own recent, surprising conclusions.  In "Google's Quest to Build a Better Boss," in today's NY Times, Adam Bryant describes Project Oxygen, a Build A Better Boss program begun at Google in 2009 that scans tens of thousands of personnel reports, performance reviews, surveyes, and top-manager prize nominations for keywords, phrases, complaints and praises.   The goal was to find the "Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers."


No one anticipated the results.   They were surprising because they were so banal.   Bryant jokes that the list sounded like it came out of "The Office":  “Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.”  “Help your employees with career development.”  “Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented."


But then Google's Build-a-Boss team stepped back and realized what wasn't on the list:  technical expertise.  It was long held to be the case at Google that, to manage a high tech team, you had to have technical expertise yourself.   Bryant writes: "But Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were 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." 

What intrigues me about this report is, first, it is close to the HASTAC method of "collaboration by difference," where we firmly believe that expecting everyone to be good at everything is a fast route to mediocrity.  Instead, building difference into the management or interdisciplinary style, privileging and rewarding that different skill set, is what keeps everyone more interested and interesting. Bryant quotes one Google executive:  “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. 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.”   Making that connection, and with respect and openness and support, seems the real deal in any complex organization.


HASTAC Scholar Director Fiona Barnett says it best:  "Diversity isn't our deficit; it's our operating system."   Amen. You can run the smartest tech operation at the smartest company without knowing tech.  What you do have to do as a manager is entirely and thoroughly respect the judgment of your smartest coders or programmers or designers and build a system in which their creativity can mesh with that of equally smart people with other forms of expertise so that (here's the bit) the whole is integrated, collaborative, and greater than the sum of the individual parts.  


The second reason this Google report interests me is I hope it will put the end to the mechanistic data-mining and assessment that is increasingly the norm for companies and business schools, where it is thought you can use hard data to make good managers.   The metrics are squishier than that, even at a mega-corporation like Google.  Bryant notes:  "Project Oxygen doesn’t fit neatly into the usual Google story line of hits (like its search engine) and misses (like the start last year of Buzz, its stab at social networking). Management is much squishier to analyze, after all, and the topic often feels a bit like golf. You can find thousands of tips and rules for how to become a better golfer, and just as many for how to become a better manager. Most of them seem to make perfect sense." 


Although the data isolated eight key areas where employees agreed on what makes a good manager, Google leaders insist that it took actual, human reading of the language of the reports to understand the nuances of the patterns and to formulate a Google management method based on those.  "Once Google had its list, the company started teaching it in training programs, as well as in coaching and performance review sessions with individual employees. It paid off quickly.   'We were able to have a statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75 percent of our worst-performing managers,' Mr. Bock says."


I like that merging of quality and quantity into management insights, and the hopeful idea that even a bad manager can become a better one and that certain management skills can be taught.  Playing well with others is a learned skill.   Google's Oxygen study makes me think there is hope for all of us!


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