Being Better

I was shared an article in the NY Times yesterday morning titled, Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. It is really an interesting read for lots of reasons, but some of the things buried in the article speak to me on many levels. It is no secret that managers and administrators are nearly always criticized for what those around us perceive as major shortcomings. I am not always above the critical voice, but I am also in a position where I am really trying to provide the kind of leadership my staff can be proud of. I know I don’t always pull that off.

A serious topic of conversation with my leadership team has been the notion of developing leadership from all areas of the organization. That isn’t an easy concept to grab ahold of for lots of reasons, but the bottom line is that so many people are so busy that asking them to take on more to learn how to manage better is really difficult. In higher education that is sometimes one of the few ways to grow — take on more. The last thing I want is for people to be in management situations before they are ready for it — the idea of a group of people being managed by someone not ready makes me uncomfortable. I think in a lot of IT organizations we think about how our IT managers needs to be the strongest technical people in our organizations. Google found something different as they dug through the data.

But Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“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,” Mr. Bock says. “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.”

I think this is a really big thing for us all to pay attention to. Too often we don’t promote people who don’t fit into our model of the seriously technical. What google is exposing is something we need to be aware of — technical expertise is really important for a technical manager, but less so than the ability to connect with staff. Sounds simple but in practice it is elusive. The data google is using to make this discovery is related to a trend that is evident in our field as we are all living in a world with a new reliance on data to make decisions in education technology. The annual Educause Learning Initiative meeting last month is evidence of that movement.

H.R. has long run on gut instincts more than hard data. But a growing number of companies are trying to apply a data-driven approach to the unpredictable world of human interactions.

While I don’t think we need to get utterly carried away with the notion of analytics for every decision, we do need to collect and pay attention to what our data is telling us. Using google’s results is a great start and leads us to a place where we can start to take a deeper look at how we are all doing our jobs. In our space it is so critical to be self reflective — to step back, look in the mirror, and try to get better through reflection. It isn’t always easy, but just knowing that sometimes it is better to simply listen and help then it is to solve is a start.

Update: here is a a link to all eight of google’s principles.

2 thoughts on “Being Better

  1. Hi Cole,

    I read this article and was pretty intrigued by it too–thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. I agree that it’s not the technical skills that matter as much (although the HR spreadsheets are always weighted towards those because they are more tangible and measurable) but a candidate’s social skills, and especially their vision–and I’d add in there an affinity for change and risk-taking too. That vision is informed by their depth of technical skills, but good managers leave behind the tactical, hands-on work and apply their technical aptitude towards visioning on behalf of the entire organization.

    Hard to find and almost impossible to see in prospective candidates. I think we need to be more dedicated to looking for both of these qualities in newer employees, and work hard to identify and mentor into higher positions our staff who are both socially gifted and visionary.

  2. Hi Ellysa … thanks for the comment. What I’d really like to see are the actual eight things google says are important. That would be really helpful. I think if we are going to be able to compete going forward we have to continue to get better at identifying leaders from new places. That might mean new ways to grow junior staff into leadership roles. What I hope we can figure out is how we move people forward and offer new opportunities without making the moves huge efforts. Not sure that makes sense, but in my mind it is critical that we find new leaders in perhaps unexpected places.

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