Last week there was an article in the NYT entitled, “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss”. At first the NYT writer talked about Google’s findings as akin to “reading like a whiteboard gag from an episode of “The Office””. However, later, he goes on to give the outcomes credibility after the head of the operation, Laszlo Bock, said that the eight management directives discovered, when ranked, surfaced what he called “interesting” insights. The last line of the article sums up their revelations:
“You don’t actually need to change who the person is….What it means is, if I’m a manager and I want to get better, and I want more out of my people and I want them to be happier, two of the most important things I can do is just make sure I have some time for them and to be consistent. And that’s more important than doing the rest of the stuff.”
As I read through this article, I wondered how long it took them to get to this conclusion – the article refers to 2009 as the start of the project. I also wondered how many man hours, money and other resources it took them to find out what others have known for about…say….fifty years or so. Mr. Bock says, “In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you.” He goes on, “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”
In today’s day and age, it is almost unthinkable that the head of “people operations”, what Google calls Human Resources, at one of the world’s largest and most influential companies could be so clueless. This is a company that the President of the United States goes to for advise on policy; an organization that executives from around the world try to emulate. And yet it behooves them that in order to be a good manager, one has to pay attention to their people, regardless of their technical prowess.
We can see this kind of thinking result in Virtual Distance. Management is sometimes completely out of touch with what their employees’ value. In this case, they made the mistake of thinking that technical ability made for the best manager even though almost a century worth of management research says otherwise. In addition, this warped view of what a good manager should look like is a perfect example of both social distance and interdependence distance. Management at Google somehow believed that referent status (a kind of formal status) would trump what we have discovered as being much more important – Contribution Status. This example also points to a huge chasm in interdependence at this organization. One’s sense of shared future and fate can only be expressed when managers take interest and ‘connect to’ their employees. Otherwise, the organization cannot end up with any sense of interdependency, only some vague hope of reverence for the technical elite.
The Virtual Distance Leadership Model points to actions that leaders need to take that are different from what they have been required to do in the past. They include:
Create Context – help all people to understand the context in which they work visa vie others in the organization, from top to bottom and from the customers’ perspective, even though they may never meet
Cultivate Community – build volunteer forces grouped around shared interests that propel both company objectives and personal objectives for growth and what Maslow called “self-actualization”
Co-Activate New Leaders – Leaders must actively look for and nurture new leaders within the organization less they are to end up with future leaders that were unwanted. In the connected age, more, not less attention needs to focus on leader development.
Now, many of you might be saying that management is different than leadership and that one doesn’t necessarily make for the other. And that is certainly a fair assessment and one that I agree with. However, no matter how you look at the management role, whether through a leadership lens or a tactical take on things, it is imperative that we get away from the nonsensical and highly unproductive jaunts like that of “Project Oxygen” at Google. Is it wise to keep looking for and enhancing management principles that better fit the digital age? Of course it is. However, instead of starting with the obvious, why don’t we try to look for gaps and inconsistencies to go beyond clichés and management miscalculations?
What do you think? What is your organization doing to address management and leadership development in the 21st century?