Grow Better Managers the Google Way

Last Updated Mar 13, 2011 11:08 PM EDT

When hiring and growing line managers at your company, what attributes are most prized? Sales ability? Technical acumen? Interpersonal skills? Google -- a company with a suite of great products but a dismal reputation for workplace health -- studied its managers and came away with some surprising results.

Recently, the New York Times documented Google's efforts to improve its managers. Not surprisingly, Google approached it like they would any research project: With data. Traditionally, Google has believed that the most important characteristic for its managers was technical ability. It was this technical knowledge that got them promoted to manager in the first place, and managers were seen as a resource for employees to fall back on when they ran into problems. But since soft management skills were neither prized nor rewarded, it's not surprising that Google managers lacked the ability to actually... manage.

In employee surveys, the company has learned that technical ability came in dead last on a list of desirable skills. More important? Well, everything. But specifically, employees want their bosses to be good communicators, to make time for one-on-one meetings, to be masters of precision questioning, and to take an interest in their careers and lives.

People in the industry aren't especially surprised at Google's late epiphany; the company is only now starting to mature in the way it treats its employees. Two years ago, TechCrunch cataloged why Google employees quit, listing, among other reasons, that the company has too much bureaucracy, poor management, poor mentoring, and a hiring process that takes months. Perhaps to shore up its disenfranchised employees, last year the company made the bold move of giving all employees a $1000 cash bonus and a 10% raise.

So are there lessons here for us? Indeed. As a part of its "Project Oxygen," Google used a data-driven approach to find out what employees actually want from their managers. The answers were, perhaps, a bit obvious, but if so, that also makes them relatively universal. Managers need to care, need to put their employees first, and need to be more grounded in the soft skills of people management than in the hard skills of whatever it is that your company does.

In a nutshell, here are the eight good behaviors Google has cataloged for its managers:
  • Be a good coach
  • Empower your team/don't micromanage
  • Express interest in your team member's success and well-being
  • Be productive and results-oriented
  • Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  • Help your employees with career development
  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Have technical skills so you can help advise the team
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