Work Rules by Laszlo Bock - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey SchachterLeadershipManagement
March 8, 2016

Work Rules by Laszlo Bock

Bock says the best way to get to the essence of great management is to strip away all the tools on which managers tend to rely, notably power. Bock says a large training budget, however, is usually a sign that you failed to hire the right individuals to begin with.

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If you want to improve your management procedures, search Google. No, don’t put those words in the search engine’s magical white slot. Instead read Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules. The head of Google’s people function shares insights gleaned from the company’s rapid growth and its many experiments with different procedures, to see what works best.

Of course, you may have to breathe deeply and take a risk to follow his rules. Google believes in empowerment. Perhaps you do as well, or claim to. But it takes more than mere rhetoric to accomplish it.

“The power dynamic at the heart of management pulls against freedom. Employees are dependent on their managers and want to please them. A focus on pleasing your manager, however, means it can be perilous to have a frank discussion with her. And if you don’t please her, you can become fearful or resentful. At the same time, she’s accountable for you delivering certain results. Nobody produces their best work entangled in this Gordian knot of spoken and unspoken agendas and emotions,” he writes.

So Google deliberately takes power and authority over employees away from managers. Here’s an example of decisions that Google’s managers can’t make unilaterally:

  • Whom to hire
  • Whom to fire
  • How somebody’s performance is rated
  • How much of a salary increase, bonus, or stock grant to give someone
  • Who is selected to win an award for great management
  • Whom to promote
  • When code is of sufficient quality to be incorporated into the company’s software code base
  • The final design of a product and when to launch.

Such decisions are made instead by a group of peers, a committee, or a completely independent team dedicated to the task. “Many newly hired managers hate this! Even once they get their heads around the way hiring works, promotion time comes around and they are dumbfounded that they can’t unilaterally promote those whom they believe to be their best people,” he notes.

But that’s reasonable, he says, because two managers might define “best people” differently. Or one manager’s worst person is better than his counterpart’s best person, in which case the former should be able to promote everybody and the latter nobody. If organizational fairness and effectiveness is desired, then a manager’s power needs to be curbed.

What do managers do in such situations? They are expected to follow the advice of executive chairman Eric Schmidt: “Managers serve the team.” Bock says the best way to get to the essence of great management is to strip away all the tools on which managers tend to rely, notably power.

Much of what Google does seems counter-intuitive. Take training. If you are spending big bucks on training, you’re probably patting yourself on the back for investing in people. Bock says a large training budget, however, is usually a sign that you failed to hire the right individuals to begin with.

“At Google we front-load our people investment. This means the majority of our time and money spent on people is invested in attracting, assessing, and cultivating new hires. We spend more than twice as much on recruiting, as a percentage of our people budget, as an average company. If we are better able to select up front that means we have less work to do with them once they are hired,” he writes.

It involves hiring more slowly. You want to go through more applicants. Don’t narrow too quickly. Keep looking; go through a lot of interview stages.

In fact, that may even be jumping the gun since the best people probably aren’t looking for a job. So you need to find them and over time sell your unit and possible openings to them, until they take the bait. Karen May, Google’s VP of people development, turned him down for four years until he brought her onboard. “It takes longer to find these exceptional people but it’s always worth the wait,” he insists.

The second big change you must make in hiring is to only hire people who are better than you are. He has done that and in the book shares strengths they have that he can’t match — Prasad Setty, VP of people analytics and compensation, for example, is more analytically astute; May is a more thoughtful counsellor; and Sunil Chandra, VP of staffing and people services is more operationally disciplined and insightful.

Managers, of course, don’t have total power over hiring. The reason is that even the best-intentioned managers compromise their standards as the search drags on. On the first day of the quest for an administrative assistant, he notes, the bar is very high. But by day 90 most managers will take anyone who can answer the phone. So you need to counter that tendency, as well as their biases and desire to help out friends with their hiring.

In hiring, Google tries not to trust the gut, which all-too-often is the deciding factor. The best predictor of how someone will perform in a job is actually a work sample test, so Google uses that with its technical hires, while recognizing that still won’t show how they collaborate with others, adapt to uncertainty, and learn.

The second best predictor of performance are tests of general cognitive ability, although those can be biased against certain demographic groups, and structured interviews. Candidates must be asked a consistent set of questions with clear criteria to assess the quality of responses. But those are hard to develop, so often aren’t used. “You have to write them, test them, and make sure interviewers stick to them. And then you have to continuously refresh them so candidates don’t compare notes and come prepared with all the questions. It’s a lot of work, but the alternative is to waste everyone’s time with a typical interview that is either highly subjective, or discriminatory, or both,” he says.

Google, therefore, combines behavioural and situational structured interviews with assessments of cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and leadership. Interviews are carefully scored in a consistent pattern. And the company consistently checks that its hiring process works, going back to applications of rejected candidates to see if errors were made and how to improve for the future.

He says the key to performance management is calibration. After the manager provides a draft rating he or she sits down with colleagues and they review all their employees together to check assessments are fair. The calibration meetings start with everyone getting a handout listing the most common psychological flaws in assessments, to nudge them to be more open-minded to possible errors. “Calibration adds a step. But it is critical to ensure fairness,” he says.

Google is also intent on finding out who its best and worst people are. The idea is to put top people under a microscope, to learn what makes them exceptional, and figure out how to inject those factors into laggards. Google talks to each of its lowest 5 per cent of performers, not in “shape up or ship out” discussions that became common in many corporations but to collaboratively develop skills further or find a more appropriate role.

Similarly looking at what he calls “the two tails,’ Google has discerned the difference between its best-rated and lowest-rated managers, finding common attributes the top ones had and the bottom didn’t. That led to a feedback questionnaire semi-annually which asks team members to give anonymous feedback on their managers:

  1. My manager gives me actionable feedback that helps me to improve my performance.

  2. My manager does not micromanage.

  3. My manager shows consideration for me as a person.

  4. My manager keeps the team focused on our priority results/deliverables.

  5. My manager regularly shares relevant information from his/her manager and senior leadership.

  6. My manager has had a meaningful discussion with me about my career development in the past six months.

  7. My manager communicates clear goals for our team.

  8. My manager has the technical expertise required to effectively manage me (such as coding in tech, accounting in finance)

  9. I would recommends my manager to other Googlers.

“The survey itself is a checklist. If you perform every behaviour on the list, you’ll be an amazing manager,” he says. And if you read Bock’s book–amazing is a good word to describe its richness–you and your organization will benefit.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...