Is there anything that hasn’t been said about culture at Google? Next to Zappos, Google is likely the top cited example of corporate culture. The 25 free restaurants, free cars, wired workstations, laundry services, on-site gyms. Shannon Deegan, VP of HR said in a presentation to his peers recently “This is not really the Google culture. This is the cost of doing business in our market.” And, these perks are a visible expression of the true secret behind Google’s strong organizational culture, which is at it’s essence, quite simple.

Google’s Culture Infographic

Google Company Culture Infographic

Google Company Culture Infographic

Corporate culture can be seen through many “windows of the house”: Hiring practices, communication processes, leadership behavior … and at its essence, culture is the founding leader’s beliefs translated into daily habits across the workplace. (This is why any conversation about changing corporate culture is really moot unless the CEO is leading it.)

Corporate culture at Google is grounded in the Founder’s philosophy, the famous 10 tenets. Google is still ruled by its founders, which means the culture is in their direct control (many companies operate with a legacy culture set in motion by founders 100 years ago, yet everything has changed. Fundamental transformation in this case is very, very hard).

Google’s #1 Culture Success Secret

What IS the one fundamental principle at the heart and soul of Google’s culture – the quality that puts Google (and Facebook, Amazon, as well as other great companies born from the digital era) at the top of the corporate culture food chain?

That principle is Trust.

In his book “What Would Google Do?” Jeff Jarvis writes: “There is an inverse relationship between control and trust.” Trust is a two-way exchange – more than most people (especially leaders in power) realize. Trust is a mutual relationship of transparency and sharing – the more ways you find to reveal yourself and listen to others, the more you build trust. Give people control and we will use it. Don’t and you will lose us.”

Google’s founders understood this: Their business is premised on the fact that “if we trust the people (who search the internet), they will lead us to the relevant stuff.” Google provides the infrastructure for building Trust capital in an increasing era of “culture of choice.” Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The founders believe this to their core, and are not a conventional company. They are not a slave to Wall Street for a reason – it allows them to build a corporate culture that will deliver on this mission, and that is principally organized to drive innovation.

Trust is the soil-bed of Innovation – without embedded trust in the organizational culture, it’s difficult to sustain innovation. Because innovation depends on smart risk-taking, collaboration, and feedback – all requiring a level of trust being people. How does this look inside Google’s organizational culture? Here are some of their best practices:

Google’s Best Practices for Building Culture

  • Engineers are ½ of the organization. Engineers like to “do cool things.” After one year, an engineer can bid to work on anything they want to. “Popular projects” get more bids, less popular ones don’t. Project leads have to learn to sell/pitch their ideas to appeal to engineers.
  • “Innovation from Everywhere.” Innovation is expected at Google, in every segment of the business. You can use 20% of your time on anything – people vote and pledge their 20% time to projects that are seen as promising or cool. It’s “a license to pursue your dreams” says Marissa Mayer. “If I don’t have a good 20% project yet, I need one. It could negatively impact on my review.” Half the new products and features launched by Google are said to come from work done under the 20% rule.
  • Google is constantly building “dog food teams” – the groups who work to make all products better.
  • Google products are always in Beta. It is a Silicon Valley punch line that Google products stay in beta forever. Mistakes are celebrated. There was a product launch in 2009 that didn’t catch on – a big failure, externally and internally. That product launch team was celebrated, given a bonus, AND given a Founder’s Award (prestigious). Eventually that workstream rolled into what is now Google Plus.
  • TGIF – every Friday, Larry and Sergey stand on a stage and answer ANY question. People log on and ask and then vote on the questions they most want answered. They go through the screen and take every one on, candidly. It is common to hear someone say “I think you made a mistake with _______.” And they will come back with “Here’s why we did it.”
  • “Hiring is the most process-driven thing we do.” (Shannon Deegan, VP of HR). They have 2 million applications for 500 jobs. The screening process is rigorous – they will leave a role open a year if they don’t find the right fit.
  • All people decisions at Google (in fact, all decisions period) are based on data and analytics. Google VP Marissa Meyer once said “If a Google employee is meeting with Larry and Sergey to talk about users’ needs, they’d better come with more than their own conclusions – they had better come with data. Their immediate question will be “How many people did you test?””
  • Nooglers (new to Google) are given lots of on-boarding support. They are taught early on: o It’s fun to work here – have fun. o Think big and take risks. o If it’s broken, fix it or find someone who can. o Invent solutions not yet thought possible.
  • One of the most-asked questions at Google: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…..”
  • We take employee surveys very seriously. There is a 90%+ response rate (very high compared to most large organizations) and most people elect to reveal their identity, although they don’t have to. Recent changes from surveys:
    • Make it easier to find a mentor
    • Simplify internal mobility (transfer) process by making it transparent and user friendly
    • Provide more tools to help Googlers define, articulate, and plan for career development
    • Reduce bias during performance reviews
    • How closely does employee perception of the value of benefits, match reality?
    • Is employee networking valuable to the organization?
  • Create internal agility by putting in place only as much structure as absolutely necessary. Managers are RESOURCES not bosses. They work FOR the team.
  • Give people the tools to make innovation easy: New computers every 18 months. Also, lots of server space, 24 hour help desk, Radio Shack on-site.
  • Peer bonuses – anyone can log on and give someone a $200 peer bonus, no approval needed. (the person just cannot be in your direct team.) We have never seen it abused.
  • Everyone at every level gets stock on the day they start, which vests at one year.
  • Teams are responsible for the culture globally – all offices watch the Larry & Sergey TGIF chat on video and are accountable to create an office that “feels Googly.”

How far Google will go to put its money where its mouth is? These examples don’t fit the style of every company – but hopefully they inspire you to create your own habits and management practices that foster a sense of trust in your employees.

And that is what corporate culture is all about: Build trust by walking your talk.

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*Source: Presentation by Shannon Deegan, HR Planning Society, Denver CO on September 15, 2011. Additional source: What Would Google Do? By Jeff Jarvis, © 2009, Photo credit: Lotus Carroll via photopin cc, Infographic: Corporate Culture Mindset via HumanResourcaMBA.net

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