What Every Business Needs to Learn From Google to Optimize Its People
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Company leaders want to increase productivity, profitability and employee engagement. This is what optimizing their people is about. They frequently think of issues with people, processes and technology as distinct categories. They're not. In reality, all problems are people problems at their root. People design, implement and execute processes. People develop, select, implement and maintain technology. That's why optimizing people is the most effective way to optimize processes, technology and overall company results.
When asking leaders what their most important responsibility is, most provide the wrong answer. The correct answer is that their most important responsibility is to maximize the company's return on investment from their people. In other words, optimizing their people.
Google understands this. Its performance as a company defies the traditional rules of business. Google is clear that people are its main resource. It's workforce of over 88,000 people as of December 2017 demonstrates this. As elaborated above, people are the most important resource for all businesses, regardless of industry or size. Thus, the lessons from Google are based on principles that apply to all businesses.
In an article in Society for Human Resource Management on "Google's Top-Notch Culture Boils Down to These 3 Principles," Laszlo Bock (ex-SVP of people) said Google's cultural success boils down to three main guiding principles
- Mission that matters: a clear mission and vision statement to motivate and unify employees
- Transparency of leaders: a crucial element to build trust and collaboration
- Giving everyone a voice: a perspective that values everyone's opinion and point of view
Let's discuss specific actions to apply these principles along with my personal experience.
Mission that matters
Most people experience a significant increase in passion and energy when the results of their actions matter to other people or to a cause that is important to them (i.e. something bigger than themselves). In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors state: "When people find meaning in the work, they also feel a sense of ownership. The work means something to them personally." Unfortunately, very few mission and vision statements transmit a message that is truly meaningful to the workforce. Here are four steps to create mission and vision statements that matter to the employees:
1. Make sure the entire executive leadership team understands the critical importance of this task. Otherwise, it can easily become another "check the boxes and get it done" project.
2. Create clear and concise verbiage that communicates the benefit to others (customers, society, etc.) that the organization provides. Allow for multiple iterations to create a clear, concise, authentic and inspiring message. For example, Google's mission is "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
3. After creating a suitable mission and vision, managers must communicate clearly with subordinates about how their work contributes directly to the mission and vision. Never assume this is obvious to people.
4. Starting at the top, leaders need to demonstrate with their actions behavior that aligns with the mission and vision. Without this, efforts will fail.
Transparency of leaders
This is difficult due to the conditioning of most business cultures and society in general. We feel vulnerable when we are transparent. We don't want our authenticity to be used against us. This has been a personal struggle for me due to my own fears about being vulnerable. I've learned that by accepting who I really am (including my weaknesses and insecurities) and openly revealing my thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner, others tend to follow suit. This has consistently enhanced trust and collaboration in my work and home life. Here are four steps to increase comfort and effectiveness in being transparent:
1. Have a regular practice (e.g. mindfulness meditation, religion, therapist, coach, etc.) to increase personal awareness and acceptance of our imperfections. Leaders often have strong egos and feelings of personal greatness which can be attempts to mask our insecurities/vulnerabilities. Research has shown that people connect on vulnerabilities (courageous openness) rather than strengths.
2. Develop a trusted support team and communicate with them openly and honestly on a regular basis. Provide the sincere feedback that is critical to everyone's growth. Create a safe, confidential space to share authentic thoughts, feelings, insecurities, etc. Without this safe environment people will not be authentic. Transparency, like any other skill, is developed through regular practice.
3. Bring your developing transparency proficiencies into use at work with other leaders and subordinates. This way, your organization develops a culture of trust and collaboration. Use your judgment with the help of your support team on how transparent to be on issues that are not ready for public announcement.
4. Be willing, to struggle, fall and get back up again. Changing old habits takes time, effort and patience. Know that it's worth the effort.
Giving everyone a voice
As leaders, making decisions regarding strategy and tactics often involves a lengthy and difficult process filled with data, high-level perspectives of smart people and years of experience. We want and expect our workforce to implement the policies and procedures developed from this process that we believe are correct. It can be frustrating when subordinates disagree with our decisions, sometimes believing that we are completely off target. It's also not practical to stop what you're doing to listen every time opinion is voiced.
Though it requires time, effort and patience to consider everyone's opinion, it's the wise thing to do because:
- Each perspective provides a unique viewpoint for insight and innovation.
- Lower-level employees are on the "front lines" dealing with customers, suppliers and others who are critical to the business. They're directly in touch with threats and opportunities the leaders may not see.
- People have the need to be understood and valued. Violating this reality damages engagement, company culture and results.
Here are four practical steps to start give your workforce an appropriate voice. If a company with over 88,000 employees can provide everyone a voice, smaller companies should be able to as well.
1. Create simple mechanisms to facilitate written employee ideas, concerns, opinions, etc. This can include surveys, emails to leaders, dedicated online/intranet location for comments, etc. It's fine to include reasonable guidelines for comments. For example, complaints must include a suggested solution rather than just complaining.
2. Have a regular town hall meeting or employee forum for people to ask questions and discuss issues.
3. Train managers how to create a safe, open environment for subordinates to communicate. This can be a basic element of leadership training.
4. Provide the ability to evaluate managers. Accountability should flow both ways.
Optimizing your workforce is the most effective way for leaders to facilitate the results they are tasked to produce. Google and other companies have made the decision to prioritize the human potential of their employees and have the results to validate this decision.