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Former Google People Chief Laszlo Bock On The Future Of Leadership

Few people have had as much influence over the current thinking on the intersection of technology and talent as Laszlo Bock, who led “people operations” at Google for a decade.
Laszlo Bock
Laszlo Bock.

Ask CEOs what’s keeping them up at night and you hear two things lately: There’s talent, that near-mythical quest for the best and brightest who can drive transformation and lay the foundation for the future, and there’s technology, oscillating between boundless opportunity and disruption without end.

That’s why Chief Executive figured it was a good time to check in with Laszlo Bock. Few people have had as much influence over the current thinking on the intersection of technology and talent as Bock, who led “people operations” at Google for a decade, helping to create one of the legendary corporate cultures in business history (he told the story of how they did it in his bestselling book, Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead). Through painstaking data collection and analysis (it is Google, after all), Bock and his team unearthed insights into what actually creates a workplace that brings out the best in people and put those ideas into practice. It was a data-driven HR laboratory with scale and ambition not seen since Henry Ford, and it revolutionized the relationship between Google and its employees, from their first interview to their last day, and beyond.

In October 2018, Bock will keynote Chief Executive’s CEO Talent Summit at West Point, sharing exclusive insights into what makes great teams, and great leaders.
Click Here for event information. 

The child of Romanian immigrants, Bock was influenced by stories of life under communism. “Literally the kind of stories you hear about North Korea today were the ones I grew up with about Romania,” he says. The experience of his parents left him suspicious of overarching authority, concerned about privacy and deeply committed to the idea that every individual has value and deserves freedom, especially at work, where we spend most of our waking lives.

He was also shaped by a pell-mell work history: stints as a waiter, librarian, actor, McKinsey consultant and an HR vice president at General Electric under Jeff Immelt. “I worked for large companies, small companies, private, public,” he says. “And the one thing that struck me across all of it was that in way too many places, work’s miserable, and it doesn’t have to be.”

Bock—who will keynote Chief Executive’s CEO Talent Summit at West Point in October—left Google just over a year ago to launch a tech startup called Humu, where he’s still getting used to being a CEO. He won’t say much about the project—just yet—except that the goal is to use technology and behavioral science to make work, and life, better.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity and length:

Some people spend their entire lives trying to get into a leadership position at a company like Google, or more specifically, Google. After a decade, you walked away. Why? What were you looking for?

One reason was I wanted to keep learning and growing. And even in a place as dynamic and exciting as Google—where we’d gone from 6,000 people to almost 75,000 people, from a few billion in revenue to something like $90 billion—the idea of going from 75,000 to 100,000 just didn’t feel like I would be learning and growing as much as I could in another environment.

Laszlo BOCK will be the keynote speaker At the 2018 CEO LeadershiP Summit at West Point, Oct. 1-3. Join Us! 

If you’re in the right place, you can have a disproportionate impact on the world around you through HR. Larry [Page] was kind enough to support open sourcing and sharing what we were doing at Google on the people side. But I found I really wanted to keep having a bigger and bigger impact and take a lot of those lessons learned not just from Google, but from all kinds of other companies that I was privileged enough to interact with, like small, medium, private, family-owned, every kind, and see if there was a way to actually then make work better for everyone everywhere. And the only way to do that was to build it myself.

I know you’re in stealth mode right now, but what can you tell us about what you’re working on?

One of the biggest things that struck me was that it’s incredibly difficult to change behavior. We all know what we want to do, and we all know what we should be doing, you know, whether you want to be a good leader or a good manager or a good employee. It’s just really hard day in and day out to do all those things we know we ought to be doing—to be our best selves every day.

And I, together with my co-founders, had this idea that if there was a way to take all that people science and people analytics that we’d developed and combine it with machine learning, there’d be a way to figure out how to, for every single person, help them get a little bit better every single day. So that’s what we’re setting out to do.

In the work you did at Google with people, what did you learn about technology?

The number one biggest lesson is that privacy and what is personal is incredibly important. Any time you’re dealing with people, that’s the most important thing to get right. You’re going to have all these bells and whistles about science and technology and beautiful products. If you screw up privacy, you lose. They will never work with you again. They’ll never use your products again.

It’s particularly true when you’re trying, for example, to build a great team. One of the things—and this was a Google lesson from some work we did called Project Aristotle—one of the things that makes great teams work is a sense of psychological safety, that people feel comfortable raising their voices. If you want to get benefits from having a diverse team—and diverse, however you slice it, by gender, ethnicity, orientation, educational background or socioeconomic background—you need safety in teams. And if you’re trying to bring that out, you actually need to be really respectful of what people want to share.

But the number one thing is privacy and respecting personal data. It’s not just staying within the law; it’s staying within people’s expectations. An employer can legally read everyone’s e-mails in the company. An employer can legally match your name with whatever you’re doing on LinkedIn or Facebook. I actually think those things are wrong to do because they violate an expectation of privacy that you as an employee have. So, that’s number one.

Number two is that based on what people are doing publicly, you can infer all kinds of interesting things. So, for example, you know that if people in your company stop doing interviews, that suggests they’re a little less excited about being there. They might be more likely to quit. If people at your company stop organizing events, stop attending events at your company—and I’m not saying you should force people to come to events, like a holiday party—but they used to come and now they don’t. Again, that’s a visible public signal. With technology, you can look at all these kind of behaviors and start figuring out who’s likely to leave and who’s likely not to.

The third is that if you try to solve human problems with purely a computer science approach, you’re going to screw it up. There’s a lot of subtlety to the way all human beings react, relate to one another, the way we think, the way we feel, so if you just do brute force computer science machine learning, you’re going to get it wrong. We did a study on who should we hire [at Google]. At the time, Google was very focused on academic pedigree. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago. You had to have high grades. You had to have high SAT scores. And the view was those are the people the company should hire.

It turns out that was wrong because, as a lot of your readers know, the best people don’t always go to the best colleges. In terms of what seems to be true about really high-performing people, number one, they come from all kinds of backgrounds. Where you went to school, where you worked—truly non-predictive. The opportunity that creates, if you’re not one of these Fortune 100, incredibly famous companies, is those companies aren’t looking for people in non-traditional areas like state schools and things like that. So, number one there are amazingly talented people everywhere.

Number two, the way you interview them and hire them—most people don’t do a great job of it. The short version is you want to use something called a structured behavioral interview. If anybody looks it up online, there’s plenty of stuff on it.

The third thing, though, is it’s not enough to find great people. You actually want to grow and keep them. And people want a couple of things out of work. They want meaning, they want to be trusted and they want to feel empowered. They want to feel like they have some kind of freedom.

Whatever size company you are, look in unconventional places for people, assess them correctly and then create an environment where they feel trusted and empowered and connect to meaning. The shorthand rule of thumb in making sure people feel that if you, as the CEO, feel like you’re giving people a little more freedom than you should, if you’re a little uncomfortable, then you’re doing it right.

We talked a little bit about AI and machine learning. What’s overblown and what’s real?

There’s absolutely a lot of hype. A lot of companies developing AI machine learning solutions say they’re going to solve all kinds of problems. But they are actually replicating a lot of the errors that were historically there because of the data they train on. And so, as a result, they’re not going to be able to deliver on the promises they’re making because there will be bias or privacy issues, or they’ll just get it wrong.

The second thing, which I don’t think enough people are paying attention to, is that the growth of machine learning and automation is going to destroy a lot of jobs in the short and medium term. And there’s not an obvious path out for people in those kind of industries. The single most common job title in the U.S., or job type, is driver. There’s a good chance that [job] is not going to exist in 5 or 10 years—and it certainly won’t exist in 15 years.

The way to think about it is just because technology can do something doesn’t mean that it should. And there are a lot of things where you want to be very careful about introducing and applying technology, even if that, in the short term, makes them more efficient.

How do you see the nature of work itself changing?

There will be two models. One is what I personally aspire to. I’d call it a high-freedom environment. The people feel empowered. People are learning and growing. The reason that’s a successful model is because the very best, most talented people want to be in an environment like that. So companies like that will draw great talent to them because people will say, “Oh, my God. That’s amazing. I want to be a part of that.”

The other extreme is a low-freedom environment. You know, kind of the traditional 1960s organization-man structure where it’s top-down, hierarchical, come-in-here, do-your-job, get-your-job-done, leave-at-the-end-of-the-day, you’re-expendable. The reason that model will exist for a long time as well is that despite all the changes in technology, there are enough [people] who are hungry for work, particularly outside the U.S., but certainly inside the U.S. as well. There are so many people who are hungry for work that they’ll take what they can.

There will be people—CEOs and executives—who make a ton of money on the backs of those people. I think it’s wrong, but I think it will persist.

Last question. What’s it like to be the CEO versus what you thought it might be like?

I guess a couple of things. One is the level of responsibility went through the roof. For first six weeks after starting Humu, I literally woke up at 3:30 a.m. every day in a panic because we had a team of people who had left amazing companies like Microsoft, Airbnb, Gusto, Google and so on. They left all these companies to join this thing we were building. If we weren’t right, if I didn’t deliver and if I didn’t lead, they weren’t going to eat, you know?

I have a friend named John MacFarlane who’s the former CEO of Sonos. He was the founder of the company, and he said, “That’s perfectly normal, and that’s just your body accepting the reality of the responsibility you’ve taken on.” So, the scale of that responsibility and the weight of it is something that your readers will understand.

The second is it’s underscored to me the importance of being able to learn and adapt, and I didn’t fully appreciate that, either. I was at GE right after Jack Welch stepped down and Jeff Immelt took over. Jack was known for Six Sigma and talent stuff, and Jeff got known for sales and marketing. That kind of developed a theory that when you become a CEO, you become CEO because you have a skill set that fits the problem that company has at the time. So, there are growth CEOs, turnaround CEOs, marketing CEOs, sales CEOs, talent CEOs.

What I learned in becoming a CEO that I didn’t expect is that one of the rarest and hardest and most valuable skills is to be a learning CEO, where, whatever your strengths are, if you want to stay in this job, and if you want to serve the people in your company, you need to constantly be learning and pivoting and shifting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a sales CEO. If your company needs talent, you’re going to shift. If you’re a turnaround CEO and now you’re a growth CEO, you’ve got to learn how to do that. And most people can’t do that.

The only other thing I’d add is that this question of culture—what is a good culture and how do you build it?—matters more than ever as well. If you look at Wells Fargo and the price they paid, if you look at Uber and what they’ve been through, having a great culture matters. It’s no longer just an internal thing that you can keep to yourself.


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