Does Google Need Managers?

37,000 employees. 5,000 managers. What are they good for? And how can they do good?

Does Google Need Managers?
[Image: Flickr user Torbakhopper]

As you may expect from a prestigious-yet-rebellious company like Google–where recruits from top 10 colleges provide tech support –the question of management is tough for people on either side of the hierarchy.


Back in 2002 they wiped away their management layer in an attempt at becoming a totally flat organization. The idea was to strip away barriers to idea development and allow for a more grad-school type collegiality. But the experiment soon ended: folks were coming to Larry Page with questions about expense reports and interpersonal conflicts. And so they were left with a conundrum of just how to manage with management–one which HBS professor David A. Garvin helps us see the resolution of.

For direct reports, it can be super difficult to make a major impact–one of the problems that comes with joining an organization of 37,000 of the world’s brightest minds. And for managers, you have highly achieving and highly unique snowflakes that are encountering unwelcome novelties: “It’s hard to give negative feedback to a type-A person who has never received bad feedback in his or her life,” says Chris Loux, head of global enterprise renewals.

The way to manage with management, then, is organizational: the 37,000-employee corporation has 5,000 managers, 1,000 directors, and 100 vice presidents–making for a ratio of about 30 reports for every manager. And the hierarchy isn’t hardcore: anybody can make their case if they have “compelling logic and rich supporting data,” Garvin reports and rarely “do employees accept top-down directives without question.”


But, at least anecdotally, having big teams and a need to persuade can slow down development. Now the lead of Square’s Marketplace, Ajit Varma, was a Googler from December 2004 to August 2010. While we were talking to him about the benefits of Square’s super-trim org structure, he told us that Google’s management structure left him feeling mired:

Towards the end of when I worked at Google the problem was that I was really passionate about ideas, and I loved them and I worked really hard on them, but then when you aren’t really in a small team and you have many people’s opinions that you need, you get into this process:

At least what happened to me was I spent lots of time presenting to execs in the company, and they would basically change the direction of the product with 30 minutes of the context on what is actually happening because they haven’t had a chance to think deeply about it but they have had ability to get information from many different sources, like what they read in the news. That’s basically what creates this trend towards the mean.

That is to say that Google (and every other company) hasn’t perfected management–maybe because, as the Harvard prof Garvin says, it’s so hard to “describe, precisely and concretely, what managers actually do.” Yet, fortunately for us that are wonky about management, Google has distilled what the most Googleist managers do well into eight principles.

To Google (and as shared by HBR), a good manager:

  1. Is a good coach
  2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
  4. Is productive and results-oriented
  5. Is a good communicator–listens and shares information
  6. Helps with career development
  7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team

What say we don’t unpack all eight of those? But let’s do quickly look at three.

“Empowers the team and does not micromanage”

The empower-and-not-micromanage combo translates into well-placed stretch goals. As one report said:

My manager was able to see my potential and gave me opportunities that allowed me to shine and grow. For example, early on in my role, she asked me to pull together a cross-functional team to develop a goal-setting process. I was new to the role, so she figured it would be a great way for me to get to know the team and also to create accountability and transparency. Once it was developed, she sent me to one of our Europe offices–on my own!–to deliver the training to people managers there.

“Has a clear vision and strategy for the team”

Stephanie Davis is director large-company sales and a winner of Google’s Great Manager Award. She discovered that, upon receiving Google’s upward feedback survey, found that having loose contact with her team wasn’t enough: “I was surprised that one person on my team didn’t think I had regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings,” she says. “I saw this person every day, but the survey helped me realize that just seeing this person was different from having regularly scheduled individual meetings.”


The solution: Davis started hearing earnings calls with a different ear–translating what her leadership said into strategy for her team.

“Helps with career development”

Engineering manager Eric Clayberg has found a way to work with Google’s flat(ish) structure: given the architecture, he knew it would be hard for his team to get promoted. So now he focuses on providing “career development beyond promotions.” he says. “I now spend a third to half my time looking for ways to help my team members grow.”

Growth without promotion: how would that suit you?


Hat tip: HBR

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.