It’s an age-old business press trope: report on what famously successful companies do as advice for everyone else. That’s a flawed argument. Your firm is not Google.
Consider a piece from Michael Schnieder at Inc. Magazine, which shockingly gives away the premise in the title: Google Employees Weighed In on What Makes a Highly Effective Manager (Technical Expertise Came in Last). He writes:
[The Senior VP of People Operations] acknowledged that the company had historically hired managers or promoted people who exhibited a higher level of technical expertise than others. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing.”
This is bad advice. Actually, it’s worse than that: it’s dangerous advice. Because although it states that “technical expertise is important, just not #1” the message people receive is that “technical expertise isn’t important.”
Or in other words: “I don’t have to understand what people are doing to be a good manager.” Wrong.
If you’re a manager at a world-famous technology company, you have significant technical knowledge. That’s not the most important skill you have, but it’s not something you can go without. And yet too many business professionals read the headline “Google Employees Weighed In on What Makes a Highly Effective Manager (Technical Expertise Came in Last)” and they go through the following thought process:
- Google is a successful company
- I want my company to be successful
- Google employees say technical expertise is the least important aspect of an effective manager
- Therefore, I don’t need to worry about my own technical expertise (or that of my managers)
It reminds me of an old joke:
Q: What do you call the guy who came in last in his class in medical school?
The medical student who graduated accomplished something incredible, regardless of their final GPA. The person who gets a job at Google and is promoted to manager did the same thing. Since your company isn’t Google, these stories are only valuable if you look at them very closely. Everyone in the graduating class of the medical school is a doctor. Everyone who is a manager at Google knows technology.
This isn’t just about managers and technical expertise. Yahoo scaled back telecommuting, but that doesn’t mean you should do the same. Coca Cola decided to stop having voicemail. One branch of the Canon electronics company has hallway sensors that beep if you walk too slowly. It’s possible these ideas make sense in their respective environments. But rushing to implement programs or rationalize decisions is pretty much always a bad idea.
You can learn a lot from studying other organizations. You can review case studies and scientific papers and talk to management consultants. There are lots of things we used to do in business that we don’t do any more, and many of these changes have been for the better.
But, adopting a new policy without a deeper conversation with your team is probably not a great move. Switching to a new set of rules or way of working could be beneficial, but you shouldn’t do it because you read one piece in a trade magazine.
Change is hard. It takes time and dedication. If you announce your plan to change but nothing really happens, you only teach people that you are not serious.
The first and most important step in getting better is also the hardest for almost anyone: truly listening. Turn to the stakeholders and share what you’ve learned, and ask them what they think.
It’s their honest answers which are the true lessons.