What Research From Google Can Teach Us About Great Leadership


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Back in 2008, a team of researchers at Google started a fascinating project called Project Oxygen, in order to determine the qualities of their highest-performing managers. Recently, that team updated its research and modified and added some qualities. Here is that more recent list of the top behaviors of Google’s best managers:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers team and does not micromanage
  3. Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator — listens and shares information
  6. Supports career development and discusses performance
  7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  9. Collaborates across Google
  10. Is a strong decision-maker

Related: 4 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Gain More Leadership Training

Google is one of the most successful companies in the world. So, as a smart leader in an organization, the question you may want to think about is, how can this list help you in your organization today? I believe there are several ways this information can be transformational for your organization:

Provide leadership training. 

I was once facilitating a leadership program for a client in West Virginia. I asked one of the managers how long he had been a manager. He said “about ten years” and added that he had 20 direct reports. When I asked how much training he had been given on leadership skills,he said that “this” was the first time he had had any leadership training. That shocked me.

In fact, it is a sad fact that we do our managers and supervisors a great disservice by not providing them with the skills they need to be successful. We assume they “know how.” Yet, while someone may be a good employee, once he or she is promoted, that promotion doesn’t mean this person automatically knows how to coach or empower or communicate effectively.

Think about this: All of the qualities on the list are not personal characteristics but skills that can be learned or improved. So it is not a surprise that when Google provided training on the needed leadership skills, the company saw an improvement in turnover, employee satisfaction and performance over time. 

Many companies, such as SAS, Amazon, Bonobos, Goldman Sachs, Enterprise and Marriott invest time and money in training and developing leadership skills. Pilot Flying J is another, perhaps less famous, company that operates truck stops and travel plazas across America and invests significantly in training time with its managers. According to Glassdoor, participants in Pilot Flying J’s management development program go through a management-training program, during which they work with top-performing management teams to “learn everything, from operating a POS system to reading financial reports.”

Afterward, participants are assigned to a permanent location in which they will receive ongoing development training. The company also offers programs and courses through “Pilot Flying J University,” with special tracks for general managers, operations designates, recent college grads and more. 

As leadership development expert and book author Warren Bennis once said, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

Set expectations.

Another area to take a hard look at is expectations. In a study by Gallup, only about half of all workers surveyed “strongly” indicated that they knew what was expected of them at work. The research suggested that setting clear expectations might be the most foundational element for employee engagement. As Gallup research stated, “All workers, regardless of age or stage in their career, want to know what’s expected of them in the workplace. The lack of clear expectations can cause anxiety and confusion in workers.”

If this is indeed the case, the critical questions you might want to ask are:

  • Do the managers in your organization know what is expected of them?
  • Do they know what is expected of them regarding how they lead their team?
  • Has that been communicated?
  • Are they engaging employees?
  • Do their direct reports understand what is expected of them?
  • Do you talk about this with the teams ar work?

Related: Why You Need to Invest in a Leadership Development Program

I meet many stressed-out people across the country who don’t know what is expected of them because it has never been discussed, set up or communicated.

Do an employee survey.

The list of qualities of great Google managers was the result of an employee survey. It is a solid list, and I’m sure most of the leadership qualities apply to every organization. Who after all doesn’t long for a manager who is an excellent communicator?

That being said, these qualities may not all apply to your organization. There may be some company culture variables to consider. So, do a survey of employees and find out what your most successful leaders are doing to be effective; then see if those actions match the Google list’s. Find out what is working in your organization with managers and supervisors. The answers may raise questions that haven’t been addressed before.

Measure.

An important issue to think about is how to measure the effectiveness of your managers. If you have clear leadership expectations, then you can look at how they are meeting them. You can look at financial metrics like sales, revenue and profit. We can sometimes assume we are meeting those metrics because our people are satisfied at work (although there are exceptions, of course)

At the same time, we can look at other non-financial metrics like turnover, morale, customer service and productivity. The best way to measure is to continually watch, observe and talk with people one-on-one to see how they are doing. The quantitative and qualitative clues are there. You just have to pay attention.  As founder of Microsoft Bill Gates once said, “In business, the idea of measuring what you are doing, picking the measurements that count like customer satisfaction and performance… you thrive on that.”

Related: The 12 Most Important Things I’ve Learned About Leadership

If you can benchmark your leadership to that of other world-class organizations and learn how they lead, you will raise the bar in your organization and perhaps even become world-class yourself. As President John Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”   

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