During early days of the Google company, managers were scarce. It was a flat structure; most staff were engineers and technical experts. In fact, in 2002 a few hundred engineers reported to only four managers.
But over time — and out of necessity — the number of managers increased. Then in 2009, the People and Culture team at Google noticed a disturbing trend. Exit-interview data cited low satisfaction with their manager as a reason for leaving Google. And because Google has access to so much data online they asked their statisticians to analyse and identify top attributes of a good manager.
Creating A Coaching Culture
Google’s now famous Project Oxygen started in 2009 as ‘the manager project’. The PiLab (People and Innovation Lab) Team researched questions such as:
- How do managers impact team performance?
- Do managers matter?
- How can we create amazing managers, not just competent ones?
The Google method is always data-driven. PiLab reviewed exit surveys to find out if low satisfaction with a manager was a reason for leaving the company. And conversely, did satisfaction with one’s manager correlate with staff staying?
At the time, Google engineers preferred to decode and debug. Talking to direct reports was considered not part of their job; something that got in the way of getting their ‘real’ work done.
Google surveys already rated managers’ performance, from high (top 25%) to low (lowest 25%).
PiLab’s research discovered that Googlers (Google staff) on teams of high-scoring managers were not only happier, with higher job satisfaction and retention, but also achieved higher performance and higher scores on innovation, work-life balance and career development.
How Do Best Managers Behave?
Next phase of research asked questions such as:
- How often do you discuss career development with direct reports?
- How do you develop a vision for your team?
Comments in the annual Google Great Manager Award nominations were analysed, as well as thousands of surveys and performance reviews.
8 Good Behaviours
A set of eight good behaviours common among high-scoring managers were identified.
- A good manager is a good coach.
- Empowers the team and does not micro manage
- Expresses interest / concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
- Is productive and results oriented.
- Is a good communicator; listens and shares information.
- Helps with career development.
- Has a clear vision/strategy for the team.
- Technical skills to help or advise the team.
Be A Coach
What’s significant is not just the list of attributes but order of importance. Top of the list is, A good manager is a good coach. Last, attribute number eight, is Technical skills to help or advise the team.
To upskill managers in these effective behaviours, the Project Oxygen team taught these behaviours in leadership training programs to their managers, and in coaching and performance review sessions with individuals. They redesigned their annual Upward Feedback Survey (UFS) to focus specifically on the eight attributes of great managers.
To gain ‘buy-in’ from managers across the company, the Project Oxygen team shared the findings and the Action Plan with company-wide presentations to all levels of the organisation — to junior and mid-level managers as well as to Senior Executives. To help managers improve, they described not only the list of attributes but also best practices.
By November 2012, a comprehensive leadership development program of communication and training was in place, cultivating these key management behaviours. Subsequently Google experienced statistically significant improvements in managerial effectiveness and performance.
Upward Feedback Survey
The first Upward Feedback Survey (UFS) listed behaviour statements:
- My manager regularly gives me positive feedback.
- My manager is quick to grant credit to team members for their work.
- My manager does not micro-manage.
- My manager had a meaningful discussion with me about my career development in the past six months.
- My manager communicates clear goals for our team.
‘Strongly agree’ — ‘agree’ — ‘neutral’ — ‘disagree’ — ‘strongly disagree’ were possible answers.
The UFS was sent out June 2010 to managers only with more than three direct reports. A few weeks later these managers received an online report with scores including percentage of favourable response for each question, plus comments.
This process kick-started Google’s passion in management development, including:
- giving and receiving feedback
- building a vision for your team
- managing change
- identifying a team’s core strengths, etc.
Eric Clayberg, a Google software engineering manager, commented, ‘I had been managing teams for 18 years. I learned more about managing in six months than I had learned in the previous two decades.’(1)
A comparison of UFS scores from 2010 — 2012 indicated median scores rose by 5%, from 83% favourable, to 88%.
A Google People Analytics manager, Welle, commented, ‘We’ve seen the least effective managers improve the most over time.’(1)
A newly arrived Sales Director managing a global team of 150 people and meeting sales targets, found that his first UFS score, when it arrived, was a real shock. He was surprised to discover that at Google his job was not just about hitting targets. It’s also about how he communicates with his team and keeps them focused on long-term strategy. With an action plan and targeted training, that Sales Director was able, over time, to raise his UFS score from 46% to 86%.
Prasad Setty, Google’s Director of People Analytics, progressed to studying teams, looking at questions such as:
- Can whole teams become more productive?
- How much diversity is just right?
- What’s the right combination of people who worked well together in the past vs adding new people?
- What else drives people to go from good to great?
- Can we identify preferred personality traits?
People Don’t Quit Companies, They Quit Managers.
Larry Page, co-founder of Google, said, ‘We should be growing the leaders that the world needs.’(1)
Once Google compiled its list of top 8 behaviours, the company taught them in leadership training programs, as well as in coaching and performance review sessions with individuals.
By November 2012, a comprehensive leadership development program of communication and training cultivating these key management behaviours was in place.
Consequently, the company experienced statistically significant improvements in managerial effectiveness and performance.
The Google experience was published as a case study in the Harvard Business Review July 2012.
It’s an important lesson for all of us.
- Work cited: Garvin, David A.; Wagonfeld, Alison Berkley; and Kind, Liz; (April 2013), ‘Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?’, Harvard Business School, Case 313-110.
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