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Googling The Boss

I’ve always been a big fan of Google. It’s not their product I like, or their stock, or their corporate culture. What I like about Google is the fact that employees can get free “It’s-It” ice cream sandwiches in the company cafeteria. Any company that provides free dessert to its employees is on the right track, as far as I’m concerned. (If General Motors gave its assembly-line workers free Hostess Ding Dongs, we’d never have had to bail them out; I’m sure of it.)

Yet, a recent news story in The New York Times has me worried about good old Google. “The Quest to Build a Better Boss” details a two-year research effort called “Project Oxygen.” The purpose of the project was to quantify the qualities of a successful manager. In the words of reporter Adam Bryant, “they wanted to build better bosses.”

You’ll understand my reasons for worry when you learn that the people in charge of this critical research were from the company’s “people operations” department, which is Googlespeak for human resources. If you think “people operations” sounds like a rather cold and impersonal name for a rather cold and impersonal department, I agree. It’s one thing to suspect that you are simply another interchangeable part in a giant corporate machine; it’s quite another to subject your entire workplace existence to a group of anonymous mechanics whose job is to “operate” you.

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As to what the research revealed, even Googlers admit that the results are so “duh!” that one wonders why they started the project in the first place — outside of the need to keep the HR people busy and out of the hair of productive employees. As a technology company, Google had traditionally promoted employees for their skills in, well, technology, but after analyzing more than 10,000 observations, the company’s statisticians came to the conclusion that the best managers were more high-touch than high-tech.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you needed to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” said Lazlo Bock, a Google vice president. “It turns out that it’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is making that (human) connection and being accessible.”

This is bad news for Google, I’m afraid. I don’t see a very bright future for the company if it starts replacing all its Mr. Spocks with Dr. Phils. But it’s very good news for people like thee and me. Sure, our technical skills are so minimal we can barely operate our eight-track cassette players, but we can still be high-level, high-paid Google managers. Why? Because we know how to listen.

Listening is rule No. 3 in the eight “good behaviors” Google researchers dug out from their data mountain. To be a good manager, you must “express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being.” In fact, you are encouraged to “get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work.”

For its own managers, Google provides one-on-one counseling, but since you don’t work for Google (yet), you’ll have to take my advice. And my advice is that the very best way to get to know an employee outside of work is the pop-in. Just show up unannounced on their doorstep at random times of night to see what they’re up to. On weekends, you can bring a suitcase, spending some quality time living in their guest room. What better way to express interest and get a few free dinners, too?

Rule No. 4 is “Don’t be a sissy: be productive and results-oriented.” Frankly, I’m not sure that even a Conan the Barbarian-type manager like yourself is willing to put in the effort necessary to “use seniority to remove roadblocks.” We like roadblocks. We build roadblocks. We are roadblocks. After all, there’s nothing like a good roadblock to come between you and actually having to do some work.

Much easier to accomplish is rule No. 7: “Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.” In fact, I’ll bet you already have a vision of yourself tucked safely into the Googleopolis — obscenely rich and content with in-the-money stock options, free dry-cleaning, and a frosty cornucopia of It’s-It” ice cream sandwiches floating over your head, as you nap the afternoon away and your team follows your strategy of making them do all the work.

And that’s what I call a successful people operation!

Bob Goldman has been an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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