HBR magazine has released a fascinating case-study on Google’s journey in regards to management and leadership. In 2002, they had experimented with a completely flat organization and eliminated managers, but they realized that wasn’t working because too many people went directly to the founders with nitty-gritty issues. Being a Google manager is a unique ballgame because managers are working with almost all “A” players who do not need day-to-day oversight but need someone to support their personal needs, development and career planning, with occasional advice and feedback.
They added some more layers of management but they still had to crack the management puzzle. So they did as Google did and turned to data. Prasad Setty, who heads up their “people operations, or people ops,” hired several PhDs to launch Project Oxygen, a multiyear research initiative. Their research showed that high-scoring managers saw less turnover on their teams and higher levels of happiness reported by team members, and that there were eight key behaviors that they all shared:
1. Is a good coach
2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage (e.g. eliminates roadblocks for them, gives advice that helps them, etc)
3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being (e.g. makes sure team members get all the credit they deserve while taking responsibility for the team’s mistakes).
4. Is productive and results-oriented
5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
6. Helps with career development
7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team
They also break down each behavior into specific activities, best practices and sample comments, providing “toolkits” for managers. They create assessment tools based on these behaviors that are meant to be less as a performance metric and more as a developmental tool. Taking surveys to evaluate your manager, for instance, is optional, but most people fill them out.
From 2010 to 2012, median scores rose from 83% to 88%, as low scorers were given constructive feedback on how to improve. Great Manager Awards are handed out to 20 recipients every year. When interviewed by HBR’s Ideacast, Eric Clayberg, winner of a Great Manager Award, talks about how the most important thing he does as a manager is to treat his team has individuals as well as engineers.
Google still retains lean managerial ranks. It has 37,000 employees with 5,000 managers, 1,000 directors and 100 vice presidents. It’s not uncommon to find managers with 30 direct reports as that prevents micromanaging.
If a company like Google takes management or leadership seriously, then everyone should, because engineers are notoriously hard to convince that the “soft stuff,” beyond the technical skills, matter. This bias has turned out to Google’s benefit as they have employed a data-centric approach to management. All of the eight behaviors, except for the fourth and eighth, are elevated behaviors, and they generally amount to giving trust away, transparency, and caring for colleagues as full humans with future career plans.
They do a couple of specifically interesting things. First, they take the time to break down each behavior into activities, practices, and sample comments so as to equip managers with “next steps.” Secondly, they don’t explicitly tie managerial test scores to financial compensation, and as a result, the tools are seen more as developmental tools than performance metrics. This alleviates the pressure to be dishonest in reporting as stakes are lower, but it would only work in a culture where people pride themselves on being high-achievers or who are invested in being good managers.