Last week the New York Times published an article about Google’s approach to developing their managers. Code-named ‘Project Oxygen’, Google’s approach was what you might expect from such a data driven organisation.

First, they gathered as much relevant data as they could from quarterly performance reviews, feedback surveys, nominations for top-manager awards and various other reports. All in all, they had more than 10,000 observations across over 100 different variables.

Then Google’s ‘people analytics’ teams spent time labelling the data with codes that would help with the statistical analysis. This involved the teams reading each piece of information and coding it so it could be read and interpreted by the analytical software.

Finally, Google crunched the numbers and identified eight ranked factors that differentiated their top performing managers from the rest.

The eight factors they found were:

  1. be a good coach
  2. empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. express interest in team members’ success and personal wellbeing
  4. don’t be a sissy: be productive and results-oriented
  5. be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. help your employees with career development
  7. have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. have key technical skills so you can help and advise the team

Surprised? I’m guessing not.

In hindsight, it’s easy to turn round and say “well, that was obvious”. And it definitely resonates with much of what HR and L&D practitioners have been advocating for quite some time.

But dig a bit deeper, look at the nuances in the list and it starts to differ from recent fads and trends in management and leadership development. Where’s the prominent requirement for emotional or social intelligence? Is it really as simple as expressing an interest in team members’ success and personal wellbeing?

And what about the relatively low importance of having a clear vision and strategy in the list?

Towards more evidence and less guessing

If this list was to be given to 100 HR and L&D practitioners, how many do you think would rank them in exactly this order? The odds aren’t good, [1] and if the list was expanded to include other behaviours around the areas of decision-making or managing change then the likelihood would diminish even further.

This is why Google’s approach differs from the traditional HR/L&D approach. They know that these eight behaviours make a difference in their managers. They’ve got the evidence to back it up. Who else can genuinely say that about the leadership and management development programmes running in their own organisations, packed as they often are with information about change management, motivation and the importance of ‘commercial awareness’?

Instinct and hunches will get you so far, if you’re lucky. This more data driven approach means that HR and L&D professionals could have much more confidence in their approaches if they adopt similar techniques. The information is more likely than not already available – we can certainly help our clients with some of the data – all that’s lacking is the motivation to make use of it.

New technologies and approaches, led by the likes of Google, are opening up opportunities for HR and L&D practitioners to make a more significant difference than they already are – it’s up to us to take them.

[1] The purely statistical chance is 1 in 40,320 so I’d be generous and suggest that one might.