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Getting Smarter About Google’s “Brain Drain”

Another day, another set of high-profile worries about how Google is going to persuade its best and brightest people from leaving the company.

Google Drain

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Another day, another set of high-profile worries about how Google is going to persuade its best and brightest people from leaving the company to join newer outfits or launch companies of their own.

A few weeks ago, Silicon Valley was abuzz with reports that Google had granted across-the-board raises of 10 % to all 23,000 or so of its employees–a bracing reminder of just how much money Google makes, and of its willingness to share the spoils of success with its people.

Just yesterday, on the front page of the New York Times, came a report about how “low-level engineers, product managers and prominent managers” from the executive ranks are leaving the company for high-profile companies such as Facebook as well as venture-funded startups of the sort that dot the technology landscape.

Of course, there’s a broader question behind the comings and goings at Google: Has the most exciting startup of the last two decades become just another big company, and if that’s the case, how can any big company hope to hold on to its top talent?

I can’t offer easy answers for how Google’s leaders can persuade their most ambitious people to stay put. What I can do, though, is to use Google’s dilemma as an opportunity to remind leaders everywhere about what it takes to build a people-centered organization in an era when talented people have so many opportunities.

Here, then, are three simple lessons for using the worries about Google’s “brain drain” to get smarter about the talent challenges facing your organization.

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Lesson 1: Just because you value talent doesn’t mean you have to cater to individual “stars.” I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with Google’s obsession with raw brainpower and individual genius. At times, it reminded me of the bad old days of the Internet boom–that brief shining moment when the “war for talent” became an excuse to lavish big signing bonuses, fat stock-option packages, and design-it-yourself job descriptions on every self-absorbed MBA or self-impressed Java programmer.

Several years ago, in a long New Yorker essay called “The Talent Myth,” Malcolm Gladwell launched a withering attack on just this sort of star system. He took aim at a high-profile target, a book by three McKinsey & Company consultants called The War for Talent. Unfortunately for the authors, one of the star companies in their star-struck book was Enron, whose top brass boasted about the ambitious, aggressive, sharp-elbowed individualists who populated its ranks. The fact that the book appeared just two months before the scandal-plagued company filed for bankruptcy did not exactly endear its main arguments to the skeptical Gladwell. “What if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it?” he asked. “What if smart people are overrated?”

In his signature style, Gladwell drew on social-science research that documents the importance of practical skills (“tacit knowledge”) over raw brainpower, how individuals who think they’re smarter than others (and get treated that way) tend to worry more about acting smart than learning new things, and the dangers of what three psychologists have called “the dark side of charisma.”

Here’s what Gladwell argued: “The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.”

That’s why the best companies I’ve gotten to know invest in stars and systems. They are determined to secure more than their fair share of the great people in their business. But they understand that what it means to be great is as much about values as virtuosity, about what makes people tick as well as how much they know. Call it the character of competition–the relationship between a company’s identity in the marketplace and the sense of identity that talented people bring to the workplace. Not every great performer is a great fit with the ideas than animate an organization.

Lesson 2: If you want to keep great contributors, develop better managers. It’s one of the oldest clichés in HR, but it’s a cliché because it’s true: People join great companies, but they quit lousy bosses. That’s especially true for the most talented contributors. No matter the sense of purpose behind the organization, or the tools and resources at their disposal, great people want to do work they love, with colleagues they admire, and to be led by people who make them better.

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That’s why, over the long term, it’s just so hard to hold on to your top talent–because it’s so hard to maintain the quality of your in-the-trenches leadership, especially in a fast-growth environment. Polly LaBarre and I discussed just this topic with Marc Andreessen, the legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur, for our book, Mavericks at Work. There’s no question that it’s easier to recognize the power of great leaders than it is to fill your company with them–especially when the lure of fast growth can lull you into complacency about maintaining high standards.

“It’s easy to weed out the bad people,” Andreessen explained. “The tough part is passing on the good people. We all know the scenario: At the end of the interviews, executives who are desperate to fill an opening sit around and say, ‘This candidate is good. Let’s make an offer.’ It’s at that point that you have to say, ‘No, we can’t make an offer. Good is not good enough.’ You’ve got to hold the line on the quality” of your leaders.

Fail to hold the line, Andreessen argues, and you inevitably succumb to what he calls the Rule of Crappy People: “There are good people and there are great people. Great people tend to hire other great people, because that’s who they want to work with. But good people tend to hire people who aren’t so good. They don’t want to manage people who are smarter than they are. So over time, unless you’re tough and disciplined, the talent level in the company declines to the lowest common denominator, and you wind up with lots of crappy people. It’s a disaster. But it takes tremendous willpower not to compromise.”

Lessons 3: Just because people leave doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. The simple reality, even for a high-flyer like Google, is that the best engineers, marketers and project managers truly do have a world of opportunity–and it’s unrealistic to think that you can persuade them to stay forever. Nobody expects lifetime employment, on either side of the table. But great people can keep working with you, long after they’ve stopped working for you. Back at the height of the first Internet boom, we published an article in Fast Company called “Hire Today, Gone Tomorrow.” The lessons it offered more than a decade ago are perfectly relevant to what Google and other companies are going through today.

“Forget lifetime employment,” the piece argued. “The new goal is lifetime affiliation. Forget such terms as ‘ex-employees’ and ‘former colleagues.’ The new term of choice is ‘alumni.’ Forget all your old ideas about who works for you and how. The day someone walks out the door doesn’t mark the end of your relationship with that person. It marks the start of a new stage in that relationship.”

Management consulting firms have understood this principle for ages, which is why they’re so good at maintaining “alumni” networks. Your former employees (sorry, alumni) can be a powerful source of future business.

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It’s also possible, literally on the day that people leave, to begin preparing for the day they might return. Just as talented contributors can’t be expected to stay forever, there’s no reason to expect they will be gone forever. The smart folks at Gensler, the celebrated design firm, have a high-profile program to celebrate the organization’s “boomerangs”–valued contributors who have left and then come back, and get an actual boomerang to signify their status.

“All Gensler Boomerangs enjoy a very special relationship with each other and with the firm,” reads the letter than accompanies the boomerang. “They’re our prodigals returned, the old dogs who teach all the tricks to the new pups, the elite corps that we rely on and are delighted to welcome back. This boomerang is a token of our thanks–a frivolous reminder of the serious value we place on our association.”

It’s worth paying attention to how Google responds to this very human challenge to its long-term strategic leadership. Not just because of what it says about Google’s future, but because of what it says about the future of every organization trying to figure out how to make the most of its most talented people.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical. Follow him at twitter.com/practicallyrad.

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About the author

I'm a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, coauthor of the 2006 book Mavericks at Work, and author of the forthcoming (January 2011) book Practically Radical.

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