If you’ve never heard of Laszlo Bock, you’ve been missing out. Born in communist Romania in 1972, Bock is a real-life example of the American dream. Currently the co-founder and CEO of Humu, he rose to prominence at General Electric, McKinsey & Company and eventually as the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google.
It’s his experiences at Google that he talks about here, distilling the company’s philosophy towards people management into 400 pages or so of solid gold. It’s no coincidence that under Bock’s leadership, Google was repeatedly named the Best Company to Work for. Work Rules!, his first book, was named a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Let’s take a little look at why that is.
Insights from Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
“The secrets of Google’s people success can be replicated in organizations large and small,” Bock explains. “By individuals and CEOs. Not every company will be able to duplicate perks like free meals, but everyone can duplicate what makes Google great.”
Bock begins his tale by talking about founding stories. Google’s origins are already the stuff of legends, but Bock suggests that much of Google’s culture comes from the Montessori schools that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were educated at. Montessori schools adopt a different approach to education and focus on allowing children to grow through hands-on learning and collaborative play, an approach that Google itself usually follows.
“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast”
You might be worried at this point that Bock is about to slip into management speak, but the title of this chapter is tongue-in-cheek and a nod to how Google prides itself on having a “fun” culture which they reflect throughout the company. For example, they celebrate April Fool’s Day every year and update their logo to celebrate historical figures. For Bock, the three defining aspects of Google’s culture are its mission, its transparency, and its voice.
Bock suggests imagining that you’ve suddenly won the largest lottery jackpot in US history ($656 million) and that you’ve decided to use the money to assemble a baseball team. The lesson here is that instead of just buying the best players and expecting them to work well together, a better strategy is to buy the best team players and to focus on training them. Bock says that the lesson isn’t, “Don’t hire smart people.” Instead, it’s, “Don’t hire exclusively for smarts.”
Work Rules… for Building a Great Culture
- Think of your work as a calling, with a mission that matters
- Give people slightly more trust, freedom, and authority than you’re comfortable giving them. If you’re not nervous, you haven’t given them enough.
Work Rules… for Hiring
- Given limited resources, invest your HR dollars first in recruiting
- Hire only the best by taking your time, hiring only people who are better than you in some meaningful way, and not letting managers make hiring decisions for their own teams
Searching for the Best
One of the things that Bock is most proud of about his time at Google is the way that they built “the world’s first self-replicating talent machine.” This didn’t come without trial and error, though. For example, the company famously posted a cryptic billboard that led people to a web page with another puzzle. The goal was to hire creative problem solvers, but the project turned out to be much more effective as a marketing campaign than as an HR tool.
Instead, Bock argues for a people-based approach to HR in which existing employees help you to hire new talent by making recommendations. He also argues against going with your gut, pointing out that our first impressions of people can be misleading.
Work Rules… for Finding Exceptional Candidates
- Get the best referrals by being excruciatingly specific in describing what you’re looking for
- Make recruiting part of everyone’s job
- Don’t be afraid to try crazy things to get the attention of the best people.
Work Rules… for Selecting New Employees
- Set a high bar for quality
- Find your own candidates
- Assess candidates objectively
- Give candidates a reason to join
Let the Inmates Run the Asylum
Here, Bock argues that the traditional approach to management gives the managers too much power and that they should trust their people to run things. At Google, employees have more power than they might have elsewhere, and they have implicit approval to create their own projects and to help to shape the way the company works. And of course, most decisions are backed by data, and data never lies – although it can be interpreted differently by different people. Google gathers this data with its annual Googlegeist survey – and they share the results of the survey with everyone, too.
This all ties back to Google’s approach to performance management. As human beings, we all like to be rated and to receive feedback, but Google realized that ratings can only get you so far. On top of that, rating systems can be biased and miss out important factors. That’s why Google’s operations team has spent so much time trying to further optimize the system and to find better ways of providing feedback to employees. And when people do have a low rating, they don’t get fired – they get mentored.
Work Rules… for Mass Empowerment
- Eliminate status symbols
- Make decisions based on data, not based on managers’ opinions
- Find ways for people to shape their work and the company
- Expect a lot
Work Rules… for Performance Management
- Set goals correctly
- Gather peer feedback
- Use a calibration process to finalize ratings
- Split rewards conversations from development conversations
The Two Tails
Building on from what we just talked about, Bock explains that “the biggest opportunities lie in your absolute worst and best employees”. The best employees can provide training to other employees and help to foster internal development, while the worst employees can receive mentorship or even be moved to elsewhere within the company. “We’re not looking to fire people,” Bock says. “We’re finding the people who need help.”
Then there’s the idea of building a learning institution. “Your best teachers already work for you,” Bock explains. “Let them teach!” He illustrates his point by pointing out that American companies spent $156,200,000,000 on learning programs in 2011, a figure which exceeds the GDPs of 135 companies. And yet you already have subject matter experts in your company that could be spreading knowledge internally at no cost to you.
Work Rules… for Managing Your Two Tails
- Help those in need
- Put your best people under a microscope
- Use surveys and checklists to find the truth and nudge people to improve
- Set a personal example by sharing and acting on your own feedback
Work Rules… for Building a Learning Institution
- Engage in deliberate practice: break lessons down into small, digestible pieces with clear feedback and do them again and again
- Have your best people teach
- Invest only in courses that you can prove to change people’s behavior
This might sound counterintuitive, especially in an era in which equality is a major talking point. The idea here though is that the best people are better than you think and worth more than you pay them. Two people in the same role shouldn’t necessarily earn the same amount because it’s unlikely that they both deliver the same amount of value to the company.
Bock also talks about how Google tries to build a sense of community amongst its employees, noting that the best things in life are free (or almost free). “We have more than two thousand email lists, groups, and clubs at Google,” Bock explains. “Ranging from unicycling and juggling and juggling clubs to book clubs, financial planning groups, and even one jokingly called Fight Club after the Brad Pitt movie.”
Work Rules… for Paying Unfairly
- Swallow hard and pay unfairly. Have wide variations in pay that reflect the power law distribution of performance
- Celebrate accomplishment, not compensation
- Make it easy to spread the love
- Reward thoughtful failure
Work Rules… for Efficiency, Communication, and Innovation
- Make life easier for employees
- Find ways to say yes
- The bad stuff in life happens rarely…be there for your people when it does
“Small signals can cause large changes in behavior,” Bock explains. At Google, for example, too few women were putting themselves forward for promotion, so an email was sent around highlighting the discrepancy. This small act was enough to encourage more women to step forward and ultimately helped Google to improve the company as a whole by getting the right people in the right places.
The following chapter is dedicated to the mistakes that Google has made and the ways that they could have been avoided. Bock also explains how Google deals with leaks, which are an inevitable part of being as open as a company like Google tries to be. It’s difficult to take the Google approach, constantly looking for new ways to make improvements, especially thanks to what Bock describes as the two self-evident truths of the company’s performance management system: “1. No one likes the system. 2. No one likes the proposed changes to the current system.”
Work Rules… for Nudging Toward Health, Wealth and Happiness
- Recognize the difference between what is and what ought to be
- Run lots of small experiments
- Nudge, don’t shove
Work Rules… for Screwing Up
- Admit your mistake and be transparent about it
- Take counsel from all directions
- Fix whatever broke
- Find the moral in the mistake and teach it
What You Can Do Starting Tomorrow
This final section of the book is a little different to the others because it’s essentially a list of ten steps to take that you can get started with straight away. Those ten steps are as follows:
- Give your work meaning
- Trust your people
- Hire only people who are better than you
- Don’t confuse development with managing performance
- Focus on the two tails
- Be frugal and generous
- Pay unfairly
- Manage the rising expectations
- Enjoy – and then go back to step #1 and start over
Bock then ties up the book with an “Afterword for HR Geeks Only”, a couple of worksheets and a thorough list of sources in case you want to learn more. But by now, you should have learned most of the lessons that Bock has to offer and be ready to take what you’ve learned and to apply it to your own business!
At its heart, Work Rules! Is a book about people. Many of the efficiencies that Bock was able to introduce at Google were more about speeding up the hiring process and allowing both current and potential employees to have their say about what worked and what didn’t.
A great example of this is when employees were frustrated that after recommending potential hires, they weren’t kept updated on the recruitment process. Bock also discovered that offering larger rewards for referrals had no impact on either the quantity or the quality of the people who were recruited. People referred to their friends because they wanted their friends to work there and not because they were in it for the money.
In many ways, Bock’s book is less of a how-to manual and more a series of anecdotes that illustrate his approach to leadership and human relationships. In that respect, it’s similar to reading Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell, and his writing has that same almost timeless quality to it. You’re not going to read this and come out of it with a step-by-step guide that will revolutionize the way you find and hire staff, but you will get some great ideas.
Ultimately, no one else can tell you how to hire and fire because the way that you treat people reflects your company’s DNA. The biggest lesson to learn from Work Rules! is that every single action you take has an impact on the way that people perceive your business. Pay closer attention to the actions that you take and the way that they impact people. And of course, make sure that you listen to any feedback you receive. You might be surprised at the insights that are hiding there right beneath your nose.