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Thomas L. Friedman: Google looks for learning ability, leadership

  • New York Times
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Last June, Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google – i.e., the guy in charge of hiring for one of the world’s most successful companies – noted that Google had determined that “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless.… We found that they don’t predict anything.” He also noted that the “proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time” – now as high as 14 percent on some teams.

At a time when many people are asking, “How’s my kid gonna get a job?” I thought it would be useful to visit Google and hear how Bock would answer.

Don’t get him wrong, Bock begins, “Good grades certainly don’t hurt.” Many jobs at Google require math, computing and coding skills, so if your good grades truly reflect skills in those areas that you can apply, it would be an advantage. But Google has its eyes on much more.

“There are five hiring attributes we have across the company,” explained Bock. “If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not IQ. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.”

The second, he added, “is leadership – in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead? And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

What else? Humility and ownership.

“It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in,” he said, to try to solve any problem – and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. “Your end goal,” explained Bock, “is what can we do together to problem-solve? I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.”

And it is not just humility in creating space for others to contribute, said Bock, it’s “intellectual humility. Without humility, you are unable to learn.” It is why research shows that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” Bock said.

Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics such as GPA. For most young people, though, going to college and doing well are still the best ways to master the tools needed for many careers. But Bock is saying something important to them, too: Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job.

The world only cares about – and pays off on – what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it). And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills – leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability, and loving to learn and relearn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.

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