Recently, Fortune magazine came out with its annual list of the 100 best companies for which to work (2014). When I viewed the list I noticed a number of perennial honorees as well as a few newcomers. Sitting right at the top of the list was Google. This is an excellent distinction for them in a year where their stock price has soared, innovation has been remarkable, and they were featured in a movie ("The Internship") starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.
Given that we all, as leaders, want to have great workplaces too, what lesson(s) could we possibly learn from Google? What did they do that put them on top? Maybe the biggest question might be, "Can we create an organization on the "Google principles" that would allow us to get to the top?" Even getting on the top 100 list would be great.
The answer is that it doesn't matter to any of us what Google does. No matter what you or I do we will never be able to create an organization like Google.
Because Google is a cult.
Now before any of you get angry, offended, insulted, etc., let me explain what I mean. Let me begin by listing, from dictionary.com, the actual definition(s) of the word "cult".
1. a specific system of religious worship, esp with reference to its rites and deity
2. a sect devoted to such a system
3. a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents
4. a group having an exclusive ideology and ritual practices centered on sacred symbols, esp one characterized by lack of organizational structure
5. intense interest in and devotion to a person, idea, or activity
6. the person, idea, etc, arousing such devotion
7. something regarded as fashionable or significant by a particular group
Let’s take a look definitions 4, 5, and 6. I could parse each one of them out for specific meaning but this isn’t a psychology blog. Rather than doing that we will look at how Google was formed and what has changed since.
The company was initially formed 18 years ago by two individuals, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The company initially started small but grew very quickly. My personal opinion is that some of the very first steps taken by Google were brilliant. Let’s start with the name and the logo. Yes, that all-important logo. The company created an identity with a specific symbolical name (see cult #4) that was so recognizable that it actually became a brand-new verb in our same dictionary. Then Page, Brin, and associates started to instill certain but very specific values in their workforce, hire by hire. Although there were (and are) a number of values, perhaps the most famous of them was “Don’t Be Evil”. As we see from cult definition #5, having ideas worthy of devotion is a powerful tool for cementing people together. We only need to know the most basic sketch of human history to understand this concept.
All that I have said so far talks about how and why Google ascended, but it does not address why they remain ascendant when other companies cannot. The answer lies in a commonality of values. Think about your company and all of those around you. How often do the Chairman, CEO, VPs, Directors, Managers, and employees all share the exact same values? The answer is, “Pretty much never!” And therein lies the strength of Google.
To really understand what I’m about to say it would be quite illustrative to watch “The Internship”. But in case you don’t, know this fact. Google has a process to select people that all share the same characteristics. The people they select may be quite diverse, but at heart they all value the same things. I’ll leave it up to you to determine just what it is that comprises these values, but rest assured that Google does not hire people whose value sets are divergent. Google is more than a company when it comes to bringing new people into the fold. They are probably the most diligent, thorough company in corporate America when it comes to profiling potential employees. (The only group that comes to mind when I think about this level of attention to detail is the U.S. Navy Seals.) In fact, to formalize the commonality of values and purpose, every person at Google is referred to as a “Googler” and is given at least some stock, hence ownership, in the company.
All of this will last as long as Page and Brin remain at the helm of Google (cult #6). They are onto something that I chronicle in my book “The Talent Triangle” and refer to in previous blog posts. Values are important. Whether by choice or coincidence they understand the concept of the Hall-Tonna value map system. You see, Google is what the value map lists as a “Phase 3/New Order” entity. (The link will show you the whole map)
The wonder that is Google will stay on top as long as Page and Brin continue to proliferate the benevolent cult that attracts, retains, rewards, and satisfies the people who belong. Even though none of us will be able to copy Google unless we can somehow create an organization of one mind, we can learn just a few lessons.
#1. Values matter. Always strive to have people on your teams share the same values as defined by Hall-Tonna. Just like in religion, I don’t have to think like you but if I believe like you, odds are we’ll get along just fine.
#2. Beware anyone who does not buy into the maxim, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” At our cores, we are all people and quite similar in most regards. Titles and roles exist within organizations, including Google, to differentiate work. But never be fooled that worth or virtue is defined by income achieved, size of office, or the cost of one’s wardrobe.