Talent management

Photo: personal collection.

At present, there is a lot of talk about talent management. What is talent management to you?

Two things. First, how to spot talent, and second, how to help realize talent itsef. Both of these are quite important, one without the other simply does not go.

Let’s focus now on talent management in Silicon Valley, in Google in particular. How did you get to Google?

Well, the first thing to know is that almost half the people who actually do come to Google come via recommendation. So basically, you have to have somebody within Google to recommend you, which is quite interesting because a lot of people don’t know that. The other half is of course through job positions that are publicly advetised and people just apply to. Saying that you have to know somebody at Google doesn’t mean that your job is guaranteed. Your CV is just added to all the other CVs they’ve got from all the other sources. Many internal recruiters at Google have very good connections with various agencies, various other companies, and they all add into the same pool of CVs. That’s the first internal sort of triage. After that, there is a very particular process for how Google interviews people. You’ve got multiple interviews by different stakeholders, some of them from your future team, some of them outside your team. There are four big buckets of specifics that Google actually looks at. And then, they record literally on the laptop verbatim what you say in the interview. Why do they do that? Because managers at Google don’t hire and don’t fire people. Basically, the team in Mountain View, a special recruitment team, is making the decision, not your manager. And the reason is to avoid the bias that managers recruit people like themselves, because Google needs diversity of minds; any modern company needs diversity of minds in order to be successful. I got hired because Google Zoo’s creative director recommended me. We’d worked together on some consultancy projects and basically when they needed a strategist for the team, he already knew me – he knew that I was very familiar both with data and the strategy. So he recommended me, and I went through seven interviews with different stakeholders. My first interview was actually with my future team, so my first presentation was in front of 15 people about how I saw creative strategy. After that, because they liked it, I proceeded to the next phase, which was individual interviews with different senior managers since my position was quite senior as well.

You say that talent management consists of two clearly distinguished processes – the selection, and the work with employees. How does this work in Google?

Well, talent selection is quite interesting. When Professor Todd Rose came to talk at Google, I realised there was a lot of science behind the selection process. So, Professor Rose and several others have literally invented a new science called the Science of the Individual. That’s not psychology, but it looks at a person’s talent within the context of the environment. This science is based on a lot of psyhology, social psychology, but it completely redefines the way of how we look at talent, how we manage talent, what talent actually is. Todd Rose has written a brilliant book, one of my bibles, called The End of Average. That book is the basis for the whole of Google’s, Facebook’s and most of Silicon Valley’s companies’ philosophy. We need to define exactly what talent we need for this position. We call this the jagged profile, which means that all of us are really good at some things, but not really good at others – which is perfectly normal. Everyone has a jagged profile. The first thing we do is define really really precisely what competencies we need for this particular position. The main difference between Silicon Valley and many other companies is how they recognize talent. Very often the diploma is not important, other things are more important for the job. There is no correlation between the degree and success at work. Google has statistically found that in most cases this is true. When you define the jagged profile, then you start looking for people who fit that profile, which means they have to be a really good fit for that profile. For example, Google Zoo’s global operations director had a PhD in microbilogy. He hadn’t done any project management at all, but he was brilliant at organizing people. My successor was an ex-butcher. That’s the biggest secret. After that, you look into one of the four buckets: the Role-related knowledge, General Cognitive Abilities, Googlines (a set of qualities that actually says are you culturally and mentally a good fit for Google, for example, ’Do you thrive in chaos?’) and Leadership. Basically, each of those is a set of qualities. Google looks for a question the answer to which gives the best prediction for your position. So there is a lot of science in that. Some of the questions have nothing to do with your job, for example, ’Tell me what you think about my shoes.’ Google has realized that those questions have nothing to do with your job, and they’ve just simply stopped using them. Now they are using structured interviews. And also, they distinguish very much between success in the interview and success at work. Again, there is no correlation between people who are successful in the interview and people who are successful at the job. So, that is the system they use to get talent. In particular, the most important thing is that your managers are not hiring and not firing you, that’s done by a special commitee in Mountain View.

How do managers at Google develop their teams?

That’s strange as well, because they don’t do a lot of work. Teamwork is incredibly important, everything is done collectively, but on the other hand, self-learning is part of the culture. Google is full of self-learners, Google relies on you to learn your job. Managers do help you, they give you all the templates in the system, all introductory documents, sets of mandatory education, usually to do with privacy law, legal aspects, intellectual property, and things like that. But actually you are not trained for the job a lot apart from the team. It’s on you to learn the things that you need for your position. However, if you need to learn, Google has a learning program as part of people development. Within it, there are hundreds and hundreds of different courses, either face-to-face or online. In that way, you are forced to learn constantly. Also, one way to learn through the team is to learn through team or individual KPIs – at Google they are called OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). They have OKRs at the levels of Google as a company, individual departments, your team, and individual (what that means to you, how you will contribute).

What is the work environment in Google like?

The environment is interesting. First of all, if you’ve got talented people, you cannot put them into a boring environment. Clever people, smart, crazy – they just won’t sit in any old office. It’s very common sense, right? So, the first they do is create an environment that stimulates you. They create interesting spaces, with a lot of interesting colors and visuals. It’s interesting that meeting rooms have names and all is designed based on a topic. The second thing is that they allow a lot of freedom for teams to customize their spaces. That means that you can start bringing your own furniture, things that actually make the space the way you feel it. That is encouraged. Another thing is that Google’s very big on recycling, and health; the food is really tasty and healthy – each floor has a small kitchen run by an internal team, there’s always fresh food, really tasty, and free-of-charge, which is a big thing in the west. So, the environment overall is creative, fast, energetic. Everything is beautifully designed, with lots of communal spaces to drink coffee in and talk to somebody, or play table tennis. There are also a lot of spaces where you can work, open spaces, hot desks, but you can also have a quiet space if you need peace. The library in London, for example, is a famous one, with little booths, pods where you can be completely alone, and work there in peace and quiet. You can also go and have a nap; Google in fact encourages this, because you work very long hours – 15-16 hours a day.

How many other Silicon Valley companies have a similar working environment?

Silicon Valley companies have simillar environments to the one at Google. They copy each other because they can’t do it any other way. The moment you don’t have a creative environment, the talent goes elsewhere. And the only way to win the game is to have better talent. So, most of them have similar environments, apart from some big companies, for example Amazon or Microsoft, which are much more straightforward, the products are more traditional and the way they work is also traditional. The talent can go anywhere, because that talent is so good it can work anywhere, actually work wherever you like. When people decide to work, they just look for where they are going to feel better. Money is not a problem, the money is a given. Why is that? In Silicon Valley, or in the west overall, there is a lot of work. You are not afraid you’re not going to be able to find a job, which is good, you always have a job. So you have a luxury of chosing and changing. And also, if you haven’t changed jobs for at least a few times, you have a problem, because you don’t bring any additional experience, anything new.

Once you’ve said that in people development, Serbia is at least 10 years behind. How much can business coaching speed up this converging process?

I think not just Serbia lags behind, I think that a big part of the world lags behind, to be honest. Most of the planet lags behind. Even in America and Britain, most companies don’t know how to recognize talent. That is why Silicon Valley is so successful. They get the best talent. Not only because they pay them the most, you can get more money in many of the banks, but that talent doesn’t work there. Regarding business coaching, it is difficult for me to answer because it could mean a lot of different things. If business coaching focuses on developing talent, then I would say which particilar talent do you want to develop? Yes, coaching can help develop interpersonal communication, teamwork, how to manage certain issues within a team and things like that. But a different environment may require some other things. Coaching can help with self-confidence. Coaching also can help by flagging up big issues, first and foremost, to say not everybody is the same. The role of coaching is to help companies hire and properly use talent. That is why coaching goes to the HR and people development areas. As a culture, helping individuals, it helps an individual realize his or her own potential and talent within a specific environment.

What was your reason for leaving Google?

Life-work balance was the first. At Google and companies similar to Google, that’s not a job – it’s a lifestyle. You have to live it 24 hours. I didn’t want to live it, I wanted to go home, to see my children, to speak to them before bedtime and also be there. I had an opportunity to be promoted, but that would have meant that I’d have to travel most of the month, see my family once or twice per month during the weekends and spend the rest of the time on airplanes, travelling to the countries I didn’t want to visit, either professionally or personally. I didn’t want to just sit there and do anything. So, I decided to go. And the other thing, I just lost the taste for the whole industry. I wanted to have a more peaceful, quiet life, focus on the right things.

Finally, please say one thing that you miss the most from Google.

None. Not a single thing. I absolutely don’t miss anything. Because I’d already decided not to be in the collective environment anymore. I want to do my thing, topics that interest me. Google was a great place to learn a lot, not just professionally but also peoplewise. It was a natural end of that professional story.

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