Google Studies Management and Uncovers…. the Fundamentals

An article in the New York Times today describes Google’s Project Oxygen, a statistics driven research project to study what makes good managers.  Google’s People Analytics team apparently studied the attributes of high-performing teams and published the “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.”  Apparently Google believes that its management style is very unique, so their goal in this effort was to uncover the “secrets” to excellent management at Google.

Well, as you read the article and the eight habits, you are going to be amazingly surprised that the eight habits which Google identified are the same very principles which make up good management at every organization on earth.  In fact I had to smile as I read the article, because this story again confirms how younger, fast-growing companies have to rediscover the principles of leadership which enduring organizations already learned years ago.

This is not to say Google didn’t do a wonderful thing – but it does show how companies like Google tend to believe that their organization is different from everyone else, so they need to learn the principles of management for themselves.  One of the revelations which Google discovered was that “the biggest controllable factor in high performing teams was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen.”  As with many technical organizations (and sales organizations as well), there is a natural tendency to believe that the best engineers (read sales people, recruiters, etc.) should be promoted to management.  As leadership development experts know, leadership and management is a profession in itself – and it takes time and skills to learn to lead well.

What are the eight findings?

1.  Be a good coach. (We couldn’t agree more – in fact the best way to characterize a great manager is to think of them as a coach – someone who brings out the best in people and helps them succeed.  Google’s definition of a coach is a bit more limited.)

2.  Empower your team and don’t micromanage. (One of the biggest findings in our High-Impact Learning Culture research and now one of the biggest new “competencies” in leadership development.  Google mentions “stretch assignments” in this category, as a way of helping the team improve its performance. )

3.  Express interest in the team’s success and personal well-being. (A pretty important factor in any manager’s success, and something new managers in fast-moving companies often have to remind themselves of regularly.)

4.  Dont’ be a sissy:  be productive and results-oriented. (This is a way of stating “manage by objectives” and “focus on results” – which is often a challenge with new, technical managers.)

5.  Be a good communicator and listen to your team. (Again a very important leadership value, and Google specifically recommends that you hold all-hands meetings.  As we all know, listening is a vital leadership skill and I have found that the best leaders are really the best listeners, and they have a unique ability to hear “reality” and then communicate a vision which fits “reality.”  Much harder said than done.)

6.  Help your employees with career development. (Our Talent Management Factbook research found that companies with mature development planning processes far outperform those that don’t – and in fact this is one of the most highly correlated talent management dimensions with business success.  The problem is that doing this is far harder than it sounds – and the entire organization must be enabled for career development.)

7.  Have a clear vision and strategy for the team. (Clearly an important leadership competency.)

8.  Have key technical skills so you can help your team.  (A very important characteristic of strong leadership in a technical company.  In services-related businesses we find this to be far less true – and there is somewhat of a truth to the point that “good managers can manage anything.”  Technical skills are key to leadership, but in many roles less important than you may think.)

Why this kind of effort means so much to all organizations.

While the findings of Project Oxygen may not be that new or innovative, this whole story teaches us two very important lessons.

First, management, like golf or any other sport, is built upon the fundamentals.  If people don’t know or learn the fundamentals, they cannot achieve greatness.  What Google has discovered is that many of the company’s managers need to learn the basics – and all organizations have new managers who fall into this category.

Second, what this story shows is that organizations must go through their own self-discovery about the value of strong leadership.  We talk with hundreds of companies each year, and we find executives in all industries who believe that their success is due solely to their innovative product, sales expertise, unique strategy, or strong engineering prowess.  While these are critical elements to success, over time strong management always wins over strong product and market position.  And every enduring organization we study discovers its own need for management skills in its own special way.

Google is a data-driven culture.  What Google apparently found was that by studying leadership and using data to promote the value of strong management, people took it seriously.   Amen to that!