Role Models matter. Ask Google!

Navleen Girdhar
12 mins
February 24, 2021

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree - a phrase commonly used to describe how a child is very similar to its parent. It refers to similarities that are beyond physical appearance and is often used for behaviour patterns too. Remove genetics from the equation, and it is still very common for children to model the behavioural patterns of their caregivers. Aristotle said, "We learn by practice and the best practice is to follow a model of the virtuous person." Different people express differently, but the essence remains the same – human beings emulate values, culture and even habits from those we are surrounded with and those we look up to. The term used to describe a person who serves as an example, whose behaviour is modelled by other people, is ‘role-model’.

50 years ago, the draw-a-scientist study (DAST) was first conducted. Elementary students in US and Canada were asked ‘What does a scientist look like?’ Only twenty-eight of the 5,000 students (0.06%) drew a female scientist. Given the times, it was definitely not surprising. When it was repeated with a similar group of American students in 2018, 24% of the students drew a female scientist. Why? Role models, of course. Role models matter.

As adults, we tend to underplay having a ‘role model’, as we believe this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. But no matter the stage of life we are at, our role models directly impact not only how we perceive ourselves, but, and perhaps more importantly, how others perceive us. Choose a role model with questionable morals and before long, you would find yourself stepping away from even the most morally upright values you acquired as a child.

It only stands to reason that the older we get, the less effect our childhood role models will have on us and the more powerful will be the role models we have in our work. In fact, the importance of role models at work cannot be overstated. People in positions of leadership are always seen as role-models, even if they themselves are unaware of it. Simple stories or acts can change the paradigm in which others operate. Imagine receiving a standard ‘Out of Office’ mail from your boss. It is only natural that it would change your belief of always being available for your work – even on holidays. With leaders being the default role models in any organization, their actions can often impact the direction and the overall success of any company.

Take the example of Google. A company so successful, its name has become a verb! In 2009, Fortune magazine ranked it as the best place to work in the U.S., which was seen as a tribute to the company’s leadership and people-management practices. It is also not surprising that in 2017, Comparably named Google as the tech company with the best corporate culture. The award hardly came as a shock -- even those outside the industry have heard of Google's unparalleled employee perks and sprawling Silicon Valley campus. While amenities have their own charm and can amp up a workplace, the largest and most direct effect on company culture comes from its leadership, which revolves around employee engagement, environment, atmosphere and overall success. So, what has the leadership at Google done right?

How does the leadership at Google build a culture to suit a such a diverse group? What secret formula is blended to cater to the needs of some of the most highly qualified people on the planet? Is it by memorizing the rules taught in Leadership 101? Or it is by practicing the principles learnt in management workshops? The answer is head-smackingly simple. By living, and therefore, by extension, modelling the very behaviour that you want to see. For example,

You do not want Google to be run by organizational gurus? Easy. Step away from being one.

You want Google to continue innovating? Have something as simple as a 20% rule. Google encourages employees to dedicate 20 percent of their time to projects that interest them. Innovation guaranteed.

Leaders at Google have always modelled the qualities that they believe in and the results speak for themselves. Named as Fortune’s 2014 Businessperson of the Year and lauded by Forbes as being one of the ten most powerful people , the co-founder of Google, Larry Page is undoubtedly a success. But what speaks much more for Page’s success, is the culture his company has built, much more than the numbers.

It all starts with Larry’s own personality. In addition to having the obvious qualities like intelligence and creativity, he is most admired for his approach to innovation. After all, a person whose work philosophy is ‘to build great things that don’t exist’. Page has led his company to take on what projects that often seem radical (see Google Moon-Shots).

If Fortune’s Miguel Helft is to be believed, there’s a well-loved joke circulating the Google offices. The joke goes something like this: “A brainiac who works in the lab walks into Page’s office one day wielding his latest world-changing invention—a time machine. As the scientist reaches for the power cord to begin a demo, Page fires off a dismissive question: ‘Why do you need to plug it in?’” The joke highlights Page’s demand to move much ahead of technology, and this in turn serves to remind employees to aspire for greater leaps in innovation. There is no doubt that Larry Page has been quite inspirational for Google employees.

So how did it all start? Was Google ‘lucky’ to have a boss as Page or is there more to the story? Funnily enough, you can Google the history of Google! The long of short of it would be a story about the duo – Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who met in the PhD program at Stanford. An idea of a search engine company led them to drop out of their computer science program and like a few other well-known companies, Google Inc was born in a friend’s garage in 1998. Fast forward a few years, the company had grown substantially and there was a need to manage its workforce. However, the academic mindset of its owners and their own preferences for independent thinking had an impact on their leadership style. So much so, that there were pertinent questions around the need and value of managers. The founders managed the company until 2001, with Larry Page as the CEO. By the year 2001, Google had grown to more than 200 employees. It was only then that they brought in a professional manager, Eric Schmidt, as the CEO. While Page and Brin continued to provide the engineering, technological, and product development leadership, Schmidt was responsible providing the organizational and operational expertise and company leadership. Though Eric Schmidt came from a corporate background, his leadership style had many things in common with the existing culture shaped by the founders of Google.

The leadership practices of Page, Brin, and Schmidt flowed through the organization and had substantial impact on all factions within the company. However, most engineers continued to see management as a distraction. To quote a software engineer Eric Flatt, “most engineers, not just those at Google, want to spend their time designing and debugging, not communicating with bosses or supervising other workers’ progress.” As a company that goes to great lengths to hand-pick some of the best engineers, the challenge was two-toned. First was to figure out how to get their employees to spend their time managing others. The second was how to get employees to value their management. The answer to both was simple, though it took considerable rigor and analysis to arrive at it. Being a data-driven behemoth like Google, only a data-driven solution was acceptable. This led Laszlo Bock, Former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, to initiate Project Oxygen. A multiyear research project with one underlying objective: to build better bosses.

After analysing data running into tens of thousands, Project Oxygen revealed 8 qualities required for being a successful manager. In order of importance, these are:

They're good coaches.

They empower their team and don't micro-manage.

They express interest in their team members' success and personal well-being.

They productive and results-oriented.

They're good communicators and they listen to the team.

They help employees with career development.

They have a clear vision and strategy for the team.

They have key technical skills that help them advise the team.

Interestingly, all these traits add up to show a manager’s deep commitment towards the success of their employees and do not require a manager to change his or her personality. The changes required are a matter of behavioural changes. Because these behaviours are rooted in action, they cannot be faked and can only be achieved by regular and conscious practice. While the list seems fairly obvious and without anything that has not already been discussed in TED or best-selling books, it had significant bearings on management within Google for 3 reasons –

It was personalised and based on people analytics – By being derived from the feedback of their own employees, the results had wider buy in and trust.

It provided the management with a checklist of qualities and made it a priority to measure impact - It didn’t just identify desirable management traits in theory; it highlighted specific, measurable behaviours that brought those traits to life.

Technical skills came in last – while it made sense for a company of engineers to value technical knowledge, it came in last on the list hence proving great employees don’t always make the best managers.

As a result of Project Oxygen, Google changed its feedback surveys to mirror these qualities. It created an upward feedback survey (UFS) for employees in administrative and global business functions and a tech managers survey (TMS) for the engineers. Both assessments asked employees to evaluate their managers (using a five-point scale) on a core set of activities—such as giving actionable feedback regularly and communicating team goals clearly—all of which related directly to the key management behaviours. Rather than focusing on the output of a manager, surveys at Google focus of how much time they spend on coaching their teams, how clearly they communicate goals etc. They also developed new management training programs centered around these skills.

It does not come as surprise that Google has been listed the No. 1 place to work for the eighth time in 11 years. The secret to their success is in first finding out what needs to be done and then supporting the findings by making the necessary changes within their organization. Even today, Google retains the structural integrity of what had first made it culture so great. It has layers of course, but not as many as you might expect. In fact, it is quite common to find engineering managers with 30 direct reports. A software engineer, Eric Flatt says that’s by design, to prevent micromanaging. “There is only so much you can meddle when you have 30 people on your team, so you have to focus on creating the best environment for engineers to make things happen,” he notes.

If you examine all the things that make Google great, you will find most of them coming from being modelled by its leaders. From Ideas as big as 10Xer to its own CEOs moving aside to let others take over, Google has inspired countless teaching moments for all kinds organizations. And even though Google has taught us all a lot about search, apps, maps, and multitude of other things, its most important and overlooked lesson is in role-modelling and innovation management!