5 February 2013

6 years working at Google

Today marks my sixth anniversary at Google. I had shared last year five things that came to my mind as I reflected upon that period of time.

Sebastian at a Google conference in Amman, Jordan – December 2010

I am adding the following sixth (lengthy) learning, which you’ll possibly find equally inspiring or insightful:

Some battles are not worth fighting for

I care too much about everything, every single detail, that I always work long hours. But it’s not always worth it – and that should also be true in my personal life. I’m still learning to know how to identify which battles to pick. I have plenty of examples which have made this past year strenuous and rich in learnings. I’ll mention the following ones (while still keeping some details confidential):

1. Not compromising on ethics and standards, but trying to be forgiving

This is an area where it is difficult for me to compromise, which probably makes me seen as psychorigid (arg).

I have been disconcerted to uncover out-front lies. It’s unfortunate but I would be a very good cop – something I dislike to do: when I don’t trust someone or don’t believe something that was said, I’ll spend time to cross-check things. Some people still seem to underestimate me  – or maybe they don’t think anyone will actually want to waste time verifying things.

I have also been disappointed by inappropriate behaviour, whether lack of respect to authority (a public company is not a democracy with everyone having the same responsibilities and rights, whether one likes it or not) or abuse of authority. People seem to trust me, probably because I don’t gossip, so I’m talking here in general (not specifically about the immediate teams I’m working with) since I’m coaching and advising people from completely different departments and offices around the world.

Not all cases are a grey area, where the truth lies between two people: it is sometimes black or white. I would always try to do enough research to know whether it is indeed black or white. And then I’ll stand up. I just cannot shut up, although I have yet to learn to detect more precisely when a battle is over, even if I have lost it, and not engage in a scorched-earth war that will leave me useless for further fights.

Reading Sam Harris’s Free Will last year has however increased my feelings of forgiveness. This doesn’t mean I excuse bad behaviour but I feel more compassionate, perhaps more sad too, when observing the possible factors that led someone to act in a certain way. Interestingly enough, I cannot forgive myself for my own mistakes (thinking more broadly into my personal life), possibly due to some of that Christian guilt still present in my atheism.

Yes, standing up for what is right is costly in terms of time and energy – but I can’t seem to give up on that one (and I keep thinking about my grandmother when I touch upon this topic, read my humble ode to my grandmother http://goo.gl/7bTiw). The further examples below are, on the contrary, ones where I have mostly learned to step back or be more efficient.

2. Resisting the urge to fill every single gap

I’m a perfectionist so if a piece of work is not completely done or not done perfectly, I would tend to do things myself or ask for it to be redone or improved. I have since tried to accept that some things are “good enough”, that’s it preferable to sometimes move more quickly than waste too much time in the details. Striking the right balance, just like knowing when a battle is over in the first section above, is not always easy to identify, especially when some things leave a lot to be desired in terms of professional standards. Among my half a dozen work experiences, only my jobs as a strategy consultant have satisfied what I consider to be top-notch quality of work – at the expense of crazy work hours though.

On this topic of “filling gaps”, I also think of temporary leadership voids that I have tried to fill, without necessarily having the support from upper management nor from teams. While I was doing this for the benefit of the teams and in the interest of the users we are serving, and not out of personal ambition (people who know my bitter history about promotions at Google will understand), I have learned that I don’t have to feel that “obligation”, that I don’t have to take on additional responsibilities, that it’s not my fault if things run in free wheel because there is – even a temporary – lack of leadership. And more humbling to me is the need to realise that I don’t always manage to create a following, that my leadership style still needs to be reinforced – in my case, by probably being less martial, although people who get along with me usually appreciate some aspects of it (I guess people like it or hate it and I should probably learn to skillfully adapt my style depending on circumstances). I guess I probably did right in shelving any political ambition I may have had, not even considering my inability to compromise on some values.

Finally, still on the same topic of closing the loop on everything, I have become more ruthless in terms of managing my emails. How I do it is maybe not the best way though, since my tendency is to be in control of – or at least have an oversight on – everything. Every single email that warrants a response usually gets an email back or a decision within a day (80% to 90% of the cases – yes, I track that ratio). Yes, I do receive and send a lot of emails (about 250 emails received each day, including personal ones) and I make an effort to reach zero emails in my inbox at the end of each day – probably more a psychological trick on myself, yet I can’t suppress a smirk when I hear people complaining about email “overload” (my arrogant nature, undoubtedly).

3. Taking quicker decisions affecting people

I seldom give up on people. One cruel lesson I have learned over the past twelve months is that my time, my energy, and – from the company’s perspective – my salary, are not worth being spent on non-performing individuals, and – worse still – uncooperative people. If I ever nurture the ambition of leading large organisations with the same percentage of difficult cases (but an absolute number of people much higher), I need to learn to act more decisively.

While I know I will have to continue enduring some sleepless nights in the future, I have developed more confidence that my judgment is as fair and unbiased as can be, that I give enough chances to individuals before taking clear-cut decisions. My observation of how other managers operate tells me that the ability to conduct a fair process and then not linger about taking a clear decision is probably one of the most difficult skills to acquire.

If the feedback I am giving on how someone can improve is not taken into account, then, after a while, I should probably restrict myself to solely measuring performance and assessing progress on objectives – and instead spend more time in providing feedback to those who care about it (i.e. do something about it), in particular those who demonstrate their ability to develop their skills. The reason why I wrote at the beginning of this section that this is a “cruel” lesson is twofold: (i) consequences regarding an employee’s performance – or lack thereof – can be extreme, (ii) it (still) deeply affects me (this is someone's career and life).

4. Accepting the need to focus and putting new ideas to the side

I am always bustling with (crazy) ideas: ideas on how to operate more efficiently, ideas to connect our various projects together more coherently, ideas to simplify processes, ideas of new programs that we could implement, ideas of collaboration with other teams, ideas for the content of talks I’m going to give internally or externally. I never stop. My brain is constantly active, often preventing me to sleep, and even though I seldom have the time to go through scribbled notes (especially related to my personal projects), I can’t stop from thinking.

The lesson I have learned is that managing a team requires more focus on the existing programs, and more patience in applying new things and transitioning to new structures. My pace is not the pace of a team. My rhythm is not the one of an organisation with many moving parts. It’s often frustrating but if I don’t realise this, I risk losing everyone on the path to achieving our objectives. Now that doesn’t prevent me from testing some new things with a subset of people, and then gradually expanding what works. I’ll make mistakes for sure, but I won’t be rocking the boat to the point of sinking it.

Google is still a great company to work for, even just for all these experiences. I have yet to see myself working for another major company. That doesn’t prevent me from being honest about my experiences and be critical about what I observe – and critical of me in particular. This turned out to be a much longer post than I expected. Oh well, I guess I still have a lot to learn.