Google It: Best Bosses are Coaches

March 13, 2011

Leave it to Google to confirm what we thought we knew.  Using the power of algorithmic analysis, Google turned its statistical search engines on its own management team to determine what makes a great manager.

Confirming what the Peter Principle suggested decades ago, Google has proven statistically that technical expertise does not a great manager make.  In 1972 Dr. Peter posited that the tendency of organizations is to promote people to their level of incompetence.  In the process, people who perform extremely well in one position often lack the qualities which are required to lead others to similar excellence.  As a result, promoting a great technician does not necessarily mean that he or she will prove to be a great manager.  To the contrary, unless possessed of an enhanced skill set, great technicians can be very poor managers and the team will suffer from lack of leadership.

As reported in today’s New York Times, over the last two years Google has been analyzing what makes a great supervisory leader at Google.  Rather than conducting an anecdotal study, Google applied statistical analysis to 10,000 manager observations using over 100 variables to determine not only what traits made a manager a great leader, but to prioritize those traits in terms of importance.

To human resources professionals it should be no surprise that technical competence in the area of subordinate performance was the least important leadership trait of the eight characteristics which data established as critical.  Instead, in statistical order of importance, the behavior traits of the best managers at Google are:

1.  Be a good coach

2.  Empower your team and don’t micromanage

3.  Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being

4.  Don’t be a sissy:  Be productive and results oriented

5.  Be a good communicator and listen to your team

6.  Help your employees with career development

7.  Have a clear vision and strategy for the team

8.  Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team

There are three negative corollaries which failed leaders at Google exhibit as well:  1) Have trouble making a transition to the team, 2) Lack a consistent approach to performance management and career development and 3) Spend too little time managing and communicating.

Google reports that one-on-one coaching in these behavior traits with problem managers has resulted in as much as 75% improvement in their performance. These are not skills that great leaders are born with.  They can be taught!

Again, evidence continues to mount that those who want to lead change in organizations and people are those equipped to lead from within and “beneath”.  Rather than assuming hierarchical command and control, the best managers are those that are coaches, equippers and encouragers.  Excelling in a substantive skill is clearly not enough to lead others to great performance.  In fact, it the least important trait of great leaders.

Mangers at Google have now deprived the autocratic naysayers of the tired argument that “squishy, touchy, feely” personal empowerment behaviors are unhelpful in the highly competitive marketplace.  And they have done it with data.

The best leaders have always been those who invest in others, authentically demonstrate their interest and concern while demanding high performance and equipping their team members to provide it.

Don’t believe it?  “Google it.”