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How Google Works

By Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

(Grand Central, 286 pages, $33)

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Most companies love to brag about hiring only the most talented people. But that usually applies only to filling currently vacant slots. Google goes further. One year, after speaking before a group of Rhodes Scholars, senior Google executive Jonathan Rosenberg was trying to decide who from that exceptional group to invite to formal interviews when he ran into company founder Sergey Brin in a hallway and explained the problem. "Why decide at all?" his boss said. "Offer them all jobs." It seemed crazy but after second thought he realized it made sense to grab the best talent you can and deploy them effectively. Many went on to be very successful at the company.

When joining Google, recruits like those Rhodes Scholars find themselves attending an unusual weekly meeting, TGIF, that features a no-holds-barred question-and-answer session with the two founders. As the company grew larger, it became more difficult to accommodate everyone, so people began to submit questions in advance and colleagues voted on the questions, with the more favoured ones rising in the queue. The bosses can't cherry-pick; they go down the crowd-sourced list, answering each in turn. Listeners have red and green paddles and can signal by waving them whether the questions have been adequately addressed.

Google is an unusual company. Most of us are devotees of its remarkable search engine but maybe we should be just as eager to use some of its management methods, as described in depth for the first time in the recent book How Google Works by Mr. Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt, the CEO from 2001 to 2011 and now executive chairman.

Both struggled initially to adapt when they joined the company. They write that Mr. Schmidt's "I have a feeling I am not in Kansas anymore" revelations started his first day when he found his office, modest by CEO standards, was also occupied by several software engineers. Polite, he moved himself to another solitary office, but a few days later found a search engine specialist moving in, explaining his own office had five inhabitants with another scheduled to join, so he preferred settling in with the CEO.

As they tried to bring more formal planning to the company, the duo ran into strong headwinds. Since prevailing plans invariably didn't work out the way they were put on paper given how dynamic markets were – and could hold the company back – why bother? "Just go talk to the engineers" was the preferred ethos for managers. The engineers had both technical and business savvy, and could illuminate the possibilities ahead.

Asked to prepare a plan for the board – and trying at the same time to follow the Google way – they eschewed normal elements like market research, revenue streams, channel strategies, targets and tactics. Instead, they said Google would focus on its users and build excellent platforms and easily accessible products. Quality would fend off Microsoft, which was taking aim at the upstart contender. The board loved the report while the duo struggled, happy with the result but still uncertain about this unconventional company. "When it came to management tactics, the only thing we could say for sure back then was that much of what the two of us had learned in the 20th century was wrong, and that it was time to start over," they write.

The authors stress that hiring is the most important thing executives do. "The higher up you go in most organizations, the more detached the executives get from the hiring process. The inverse should be true," they declare. That means not leaving the decision to the hiring manager, who may not be the individual's boss for long and may be edgy about hiring individuals more talented than he is. So Google has followed the academic model, which acknowledges that professors are unlikely to be laid off and therefore allows a long time to decide using a peer-based approach.

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Google tries to hire people who cherish learning. "Hire them not for the knowledge they possess, but for the things they don't know yet," the authors state. And ignore the advice often given to hire people you would like to have a beer with. "Truth be told, some of our most effective colleagues are people we most definitely would not want to have a beer with. (In a few rare instances they are people we would rather pour a beer on.) You must work with people you don't like, because a work force comprised of people who are all 'best office buddies' can be homogeneous, and homogeneity in an organization breeds failure," they write.

The book is littered with provocative insights like that. You may not agree with what Google does but the book will make you re-examine your management methods, which is always a good thing.

POSTSCRIPT

In Well-Designed (Harvard Business Review Press, 234 pages, $31) consumer design specialist Jon Kolko shows how to use empathy – a deep understanding of customer needs and feelings – to develop emotionally resonant products.

Consultant Ryan Honeyman explains how to use business as a force for social good in The B Corp Handbook (Berrett-Koehler, 207 pages, $27.95), B standing for benefit and the main graphic element in a logo of certification for such companies.

In Take Command (Crown Business, 242 pages, $29.95) disaster relief consultant Jake Wood, a former Marine sniper, looks at how to apply lessons from high-pressure situations to your professional life.

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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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