Oswald Letter

Learning a lesson in fostering great workers from Google

Googleby Dan Oswald

I often talk about the characteristics of the people with whom I want to work. In their book How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg talk about the type of people they had at Google. And the two of them should know—Schmidt is the executive chairman and ex-CEO, and Rosenberg is a former SVP of products. Both came to Google after its founding and had to adapt to an existing culture that was very particular and reflected the principles of the founders.

Here’s how they describe their coworkers at Google:

Our Google peers represent a quite different type of employee. They are not confined to specific tasks. They are not limited in their access to the company’s information and computing power. They are not averse to taking risks, nor are they punished or held back in any way when those risky initiatives fail. They are not hemmed in by role definitions or organizational structures; in fact, they are encouraged to exercise their own ideas.

If you read closely, you’ll see that so far, Schmidt and Rosenberg have talked more about the company and its culture than the type of employees they hired. They’ve told us that Google doesn’t confine its people to specific tasks or deny them access to company information or computing power. They’ve also let us know that Google employees aren’t punished or held back when their ventures fail, nor are they limited by specifically defined roles or organizational structures. And finally, Google employees are encouraged to pursue their own ideas.

This excerpt tells us a lot about Google’s culture but very little about the people who were able to navigate it successfully. The only characteristic mentioned is a certain degree of risk tolerance. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to learn more about what Schmidt and Rosenberg think sets a Google employee apart from the rest of the world. What do they look for in a person who can succeed in this environment?

Schmidt and Rosenberg give us some hints. Here’s what they say about Google employees: “They don’t keep quiet when they disagree with something. They get bored easily and shift jobs a lot. They are multidimensional, usually combining technical depth with business savvy and creative flair.”

Schmidt and Rosenberg call these people “smart creatives” and say they are a “new kind of animal” and “the key to achieving success in the Internet Century.” Now, I’m not ready to argue with their conclusion. As I write this, Google, at just 16 years of age, has a market capitalization of $370 billion. That’s billion with a “b.” That puts Google squarely in the top five most valuable companies in the world. Not too bad for an organization that’s been around less than two decades.

But I still want to learn more about what makes a smart creative. Again, Rosenberg and Schmidt tell us exactly who a smart creative is. Here is what they look for in a person who will succeed in Google’s environment:

  1. Deep technical knowledge;
  2. Plenty of hands-on experience;
  3. A comfort level with data and the ability to use it to make decisions;
  4. Business savvy, which they define as the ability to see a “direct line from technical expertise to product excellence to business success”;
  5. Competitive, with a drive to be great;
  6. Customer-smart, with the ability to understand products from the user’s standpoint;
  7. Curious—always questioning the status quo;
  8. Self-directed, not waiting to be told what to do;
  9. Collaborative, working with others based on merit, not rank;
  10. Detail-oriented; and
  11. Good communicator.

It’s quite a list, and Schmidt and Rosenberg freely admit that very few people have all those characteristics. And if you study the list, I’m not sure you’ll find anything truly earth-shattering in it. Technical expertise? Check. Experience? Check. Business savvy? Check. And all the rest of the characteristics are things we seek in our employees: customer perspective, curiosity, collaboration, attention to detail, communication skills, and the ability to be self-directed. All good traits that have long been sought in new hires. But it’s good to hear that those same people, when found, can help drive a company to the heights Google has achieved.

So a big part of the lesson here is not what to look for in your next hire but that, according to Schmidt and Rosenberg, “the best thing about smart creatives is that they are everywhere.” It’s just up to us to find them and, more important, provide an environment in which they can succeed. You see, that’s where Google is different. It doesn’t necessarily hire different or better people, but it nurtures that talent in the ways described above—giving them access to resources, allowing them to take risks and fail without consequence, and not confining them to specific tasks or allowing organizational structures to get in the way.

My takeaway from reading this portion of How Google Works is that while hiring good people is critical to your success, culture trumps all else. If you put good people into a broken culture, it won’t work. Good people will leave a company with a poor culture, and it won’t matter that you attracted them in the first place if you can’t keep them.