Google Mines Data to Build a Better Boss

Susan Hall

Google announced in January that CEO Eric Schmidt is stepping down and co-founder Larry Page will take over as it tries to revive its startup mojo. Then last month it announced that it's revamping its hiring process, moving away from the mind-bending questions for which it had become known.


That makes a New York Times story on its Project Oxygen all the more interesting. It's a massive data analysis project designed to answer the question: What are the qualities of a great boss? The Times says of the eight identified behaviors:

Slide Show

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... the directives might seem so forehead-slappingly obvious - so, well, duh- it's hard to believe that it took the mighty Google so long to figure them out:
  • "Have a clear vision and strategy for the team."
  • "Help your employees with career development."
  • "Don't be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented."

The list goes on, reading like a whiteboard gag from an episode of "The Office."

The Times article notes that these attributes are so simple that it seems that Google has been working to reinvent the wheel, but also notes that Google likes to invent its own wheels. And the project is noteworthy because it's based on deep data mining to not only identify the desired traits, but to rank them in importance. It since has adopted these behaviors into its training and coaching with managers.


It tells of one brilliant man who was seen by his subordinates as bossy, arrogant, political and secretive. They wanted off his team and he wasn't promoted. He was coached one-on-one and had shown improvement, in his team members' eyes, within six months. He later was promoted.


Mark Klenk, an engineering manager interviewed for the story, said the company's coaching helped him understand the importance of giving clear and direct feedback. He is quoted, saying:

There are cases with some personalities where they are not necessarily realizing they need a course correction. So it's just about being really clear about saying, OK, I understand what you are doing here, but let's talk about the results, and this is the goal.'

You would think that because Google has so valued intellect and technical expertise in hiring that managers' technical ability should eclipse that of subordinates'. But according to this project, that's not true. In fact, Googlers rated technical expertise dead last, favoring instead "soft skills." As this seattlepi.com blog puts it:

Project Oxygen discovered that two of the most important things managers can do is make time for their people and be consistent.

This PSFK post likens these attributes as being those more like a parent. I've written that as you move up, people skills become ever more important.


The Times article had me thinking about my interview with Vincent Milich, director of the IT Effectiveness Practice at Hay Group, and the possibility that some of Google's managers should not have been made managers in the first place.


Milich told me:

One mistake that IT organizations make is to take high-level technical professionals, and in order to pay them more, to promote them, they put them into management roles. Very often they're not suited for those roles. So what you've done is you've lost a great technologist and you've gained a bad manager. That bad manager then infects a whole lot of people who report to them and you've lost productivity in the organization.

People who can transition effectively into management have traits within their personalities, he says, that help them turn their focus toward developing people and reaching organizational goals-and for this to become the source of their career satisfaction. For those who more enjoy solving technical challenges, he advocates creating career paths so they can advance in prestige and salary within the organization without having to manage people.

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