Defragging Your Culture: Lessons from Google & Eric Schmidt

By Jason Ganz on October 9, 2014

Google. We all know that it’s the biggest search giant in the world. It’s even become a verb, synonymous with online search. Google is the backbone on which our entire information economy depends on. It’s safe to say that without Google, we might not have had the current smartphone renaissance.

Yet, many people don’t realize that they’ve also pioneered much of the startup culture that has radically reshaped how we view companies, teams and leadership. This revolution has created an environment where a unique new kind of worker can thrive and strengthen businesses.

Working with Smart Creatives

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and former CEO of Google, calls these people “smart creatives” and he believes that “they are the key to achieving success in the Internet Century.” They combine technical knowledge, business sense and a passion for changing the world. These, “smart creatives are the lifeblood of all of the best tech companies today.”

But they don’t much care for conventional wisdom or pointless corporate policies.

So Google rewrote the rules – deciding that they prefer to focus on what works, not what has always been done. Some aspects of traditional companies were tossed out, such as layers and layers of middle management. Others were kept, but given their own unique spin. For example, Google does insist that employees work in the office, not from home – but they also invite you to bring your dog with!

Even the dogs don’t want to follow silly rules. Photo source: Aussiegal CC 2.0

Last week, some of the GoCanvas team took a field trip to see Eric Schmidt speak on his new book “How Google Works”. As we’re on our own journey towards scale, we wanted to learn from the best. Afterwards, we met up to discuss takeaways from the event and how we could integrate them into our own culture. Here’s what we walked away with.

Capturing the Smart Creatives

It’s better to hire talented generalists than unimpassioned specialists. The specialists will do one job well. Generalists can tackle anything you throw at them.

While you can teach skills, roles and facts, the one thing you can never teach is passion. You can redirect it. If you’re really, really good you can spark it. But at the end of the day, the excitement has to come from the employee.

And if they have passion – they’ll be able to do anything. These are people who’ll fill many different roles across your organization, putting their own unique spin on each one. In fact, sometimes you don’t even know what position the “smart creative” will fill – Schmidt recalled how Sheryl Sandberg was hired before they even job what her position would be.  

Cheryl Sandberg also delivered one of the best TED talks, “Why we have too few women leaders”  Photo source: World Economic Forum CC 2.0

Fill your ranks with passionate smart creatives and you can’t fail. The best way to do this? Have a great purpose.

Decades, not Months

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

This line opens the founder’s letter the Larry Page and Sergei Brin wrote before the company’s IPO in 2004. There’s a lot of ways that Google operates differently from conventional companies, but in the end it all comes down to one thing – Google plans for the next decade, not the next quarter.

From their core business of making all of the world’s information available to everyone, to casual side projects like self-driving cars, hot air balloons to beam internet to remote locations and, oh yeah – ending aging, no one can possibly accuse Google of not being ambitious.

Eric Schmidt believes this commitment towards the long term good of the company is crucial to creating strong company culture. We’ve already discussed that passion is the most important quality for any employee in a company. Turns out, no one is passionate about working towards short term, incremental goals. Or at least, not the smart creatives.

Smart creatives are passionate about big goals – and Google does it big. Some of these projects are bound to fail. But that’s a good thing – in fact failure is built into Google’s culture as well.

Perfect: The Worst Score You Can Get

Google, like many other companies, uses a periodic employee scorecard as a way of measuring each employee’s contribution to the company. The only difference is that at Google, the worst score you can get is 100%. In fact, a 70% is considered a great score.

The number people dread at Google. 

At first, this seems absurd. Who wouldn’t want an employee that aces everything she does? But think about Google’s massive goals – if you’re truly trying to do something world-changing, then you’re bound to fail at something. If you get a 100% that means that you’re been complacent.

And now we’ve come to something that sounds like corporate propaganda. “If you succeed at everything you do, then you aren’t being ambitious enough”. I thought Google was against that type of thing?

The difference lies in the fact that Google actually lives this value. Google workers see that the company as a whole takes risks – and willingly admits to its failures (…cough cough … Google Wave).

The biggest worry for a large tech company today is that they’ll get complacent and stop innovating. By building large scale ambition into the organization from the top down, Google is attempting to retain the creativity and risk taking that is essential in today’s business world.

How to be like Google

Schmidt certainly gave us a lot to think about as we move forward at GoCanvas. Certainly, maintaining a flat culture as we expand over the coming months (in fact we’re currently hiring a culture team lead). But it’s important to remember that creating a great company culture can’t be done by one person. It’s done by fostering an environment where smart creatives thrive. By always, always selecting for passion. By dreaming big, and then working towards making those dreams happen.

While fear of failure happens, we have to continue to try new things. Because when you let fear hold you back, that’s when failure wins.

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