Here’s Google’s Holy Grail for Measuring Leadership Skill (How Do You Stack Up?)


Few groups on the planet are more obsessed at unearthing the secrets of cultural success than Google. They use their massive analytical muscle to continually study thousands of their teams to see what works best, what doesn’t, and how to improve.  What’s really useful, however, is Google’s willingness to let outsiders peek inside their findings.

So here’s the latest peek: the 11 questions Google uses to evaluate team managers. They ask team members to answer the following using a 1-5 scale (strongly disagree…strongly agree).

1. My manager gives me actionable feedback that helps me improve my performance.

2. My manager does not “micromanage” (i.e., get involved in details that should be handled at other levels).

3. My manager shows consideration for me as a person.

4. The actions of my manager show that he/she values the perspective I bring to the team, even if it is different from his/her own.

5. My manager keeps the team focused on our priority results/deliverables.

6. My manager regularly shares relevant information from his/her manager and senior leaders.

7. My manager has had a meaningful discussion with me about career development in the past six months.

8. My manager communicates clear goals for our team.

9. My manager has the technical expertise (e.g., coding in Tech, selling in Global Business, accounting in Finance) required to effectively manage me.

10. I would recommend my manager to other Googlers.

11. I am satisfied with my manager’s overall performance as a manager.

Check out how completely this list explodes the myth that leaders add value through their knowledge. Technical expertise shows up just once, in question 9.

To the contrary, this profile describes the skills to build relationships, guide toward goals, understand context, and care for people. In short, it’s not about knowing stuff. It’s about the supple skill of connecting people and ideas. 

We often think of leadership skill as analogous to being the captain of a ship. But this shows a different model. Leadership is not like being a captain. It’s far closer to being a good coach.

(It’s also a reminder that the word culture, after all, is derived from the Latin cultus: to care.)

PS – If you want a deeper dive, I highly recommend Work Rules, by Laszlo Bock, former head of Google’s People Operations and current CEO of Humu

You Can Learn a Lot by Reading Elon Musk’s Emails 


Good leadership is about having good reflexes, especially in moments of crisis. When there’s a problem in a group, most leaders tend to respond by protecting the group: letting people know it’s going to be okay, and putting problem in wider perspective. They strive send a signal of reassurance: This isn’t a big deal; we can get past it.

But is that the smartest response? Consider this recent email from Tesla CEO Elon Musk that captures his response to a particular crisis: a report that showed injury rates in Tesla’s Fremont factory were dangerously high. 

Here’s the key part of Musk’s email: 

No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.

Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.

This is what all managers at Tesla should do as a matter of course. At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.

Notice first what Musk doesn’t do: he doesn’t protect the group or minimize the problem. Instead, he connects with the group through three signals: 

1) He expresses intense personal regret (“It breaks my heart”)

2) He demonstrates caring action (“I’ve asked that every injury be reported to me… I would like to meet with every injured person… I will work on the production line”)

3) He defines the culture’s identity (“At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower”)

In a few dozen words, Musk proves that cultural leadership is not about protection — it’s about connection.  

The Three-Word Phrase that Helps Unlock Group Creativity

Let’s say you’re in a meeting, and you want to help your group think more creatively. Which of these phrases should you use?

1) “What if we….”

2) “Why don’t we….”

3) “How might we….”

If you guessed (3), you’re right. For why, check out this cool story on how designers at IDEO (who — you guessed it — are featured in my new book, The Culture Code) ignite team creativity.  The core insight: starting with how might we sends a signal that failure is okay.

“The beauty of the phrase ‘How might we do this’ is that it eliminates fear, stress, and anxiety by supportively implying that there may be more than one solution, and that nothing more is needed at the moment than ideas,” says Jean Greaves, an organizational psychologist and CEO of TalentSmart. “This is the language that primes our mind for having fun exploring, and pushing beyond what’s already known.”

In other words: if you want creativity, start with safety.  

Why Smart Leaders Use Corny Catchphrases

Tip for leaders: stop focusing on inspiration, and start focusing on navigation

Catchphrases have a bad reputation. They are corny. They are over-obvious. They sound dumb. As a result, we tend to avoid using them.  (Think about how you reacted the last time someone suggested you “work smarter, not harder.”)

But here’s the funny thing : When you visit highly successful cultures, you’ll notice they use a lot of catchphrases. I mean, they use tons of them. You can’t walk around for thirty seconds without hearing or seeing a corny-sounding catchphrase.

For example, here are a few you hear around Danny Meyer’s wildly successful restaurants: Creating raves… read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

And here’s what you hear and see at KIPP, a hugely successful system of charter schools: All of us will learn… work hard, be nice… read, baby, read… no shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow… be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned.

If you spend time with the Navy SEALs, IDEO, Pixar, and other great groups, as I did during my research for my new book, The Culture Code, the pattern is the same. So the question is, What is going on?

The answer is, successful groups use using catchphrases in a highly targeted way: as cognitive scripts to define specific challenges they face. They aren’t catchphrases as much as navigational aids.

When you look closer, there are four types of catchphrases, each with their own guidance function. Let’s call them the North Star, Do’s, Don’ts, and Identity.  

Here are KIPP’s:

North Star: Work hard be nice

Do’s: Read, baby, read… if there’s a problem, we look for the solution… all of us will learn

Don’ts: No shortcuts… don’t eat the marshmallow 

Identity: Be the constant, not the variable… prove the doubters wrong… privileges are earned… every detail matters

And here are Danny Meyer’s:

North Star: Creating raves for guests

Do’s: Read the guest… finding the yes… collecting and connecting dots… planting like seeds in like gardens… one size fits one… the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled… mistakes are waves, servers are surfers… turning up the home dial

Don’ts: Skunking… your emotional wake

Identity: Athletic hospitality… the excellence reflex… loving problems… are you an agent or a gatekeeper?

See the pattern? The North Star provides the Why — the highest priority, the group aim. The Do’s and Don’ts describe the path on how to get there, and Identity defines key traits that distinguish the group from the rest of the world.

This pattern is not an accident. It’s essential, because it creates a “culture story” that captures the soul of the group — or, if you like, a narrative algorithm that provides the crucial connections between the Why, the Who, the How.

In other words, catchphrases aren’t corny — they are genius. Because purpose isn’t just about inspiration, but also about navigation. It’s about building a vivid, accessible roadmap with a set of emotional GPS signals to define identity and guide group behavior. 

Here are some tips for building your group’s roadmap:

• Seek to build a lot of catchphrases, all the time. Crowdsource the process. Use the ones that stick; ditch the ones that don’t. 

• Aim for simple, vivid images. Good catchphrases deliver one, simple, vivid idea.

• A good place to start is to clearly define the problems your people routinely encounter. If you can define the problem you face, you have the seed of a catchphrase.

Want Stronger Culture? Stop Leading, and Start Designing

Every leader wants to create strong culture. After all, culture drives group performance (a tidy 756 percent increased in net revenue over 11 years). As the old saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack.

The problem, of course, is that creating culture is a wildly mysterious process. It’s hard to measure, impossible to mandate, and easy to mess up. As such, it’s easy for leaders to fall into the trap of treating culture as something slightly beyond your control; to presume that certain people are born with the uncanny knack for creating culture; others aren’t.

There’s a better way. And I recently bumped into an excellent example, on the big island of Hawaii, home to a unique gathering called The Lobby.

The Lobby is a three-day gathering of 200 or so tech people and investors. It began eleven years ago when a venture capitalist named David Hornik grew weary of sitting in darkened rooms listening to people speak, while all the fun and useful conversations happened outside in the hallways. So Hornik hit upon an idea: to create a conference that flipped the conventional model on its head. No speakers, no auditorium, no official theme or agenda; just the lobby.

I can report that Hornik has succeeded to a wildly impressive extent. To put it simply, The Lobby is a complete blast: a high-energy gathering that leaves you brimming with new ideas and new friends. If my new book weren’t already written, I’d be tempted to include The Lobby as a case study because, to use the term that many longtime attendees use: it’s addictive. Hornik has built an amazing group culture, seemingly out of thin air.

The key is that Hornik doesn’t “lead” in the conventional sense of the word. He doesn’t outline a vision, or mandate actions from the top down. Instead, he thinks and behaves like a designer, engineering the culture from the bottom up. His main tool is a set of what psychologists call signaling behaviors: actions that carry the power to influence others.

Here’s how he does it:

• Before you go, Hornik’s team helps attendees create and share something personal with the entire group. It might be a postcard with biographical details and a photo of their favorite place, or short video tour of everyone’s office, or a baseball-type “trading card” — the only rule is that it conveys their personality and backstory.

• When you arrive, Hornik sets out the prime directive: everything said at The Lobby is 100 percent private. No social media, no journalists, no publicity.

• The first morning, you are randomly combined into six-person teams to play The Game, a three-hour series of puzzles and riddles. It’s silly, fun, complex, and creates high levels of cooperation, effort, and excitement.

• The core of the conference consists of “User-Generated Conversations.” These are questions, suggested by attendees, which focus on questions that people really want to talk about. (Examples: Is a 4-year college a waste of time and money? What does the future of work look like? How can we help kids deal with anxiety?)

• In the conversations, there are no chairs; just beanbags strewn on the lawn or in a room. People carry them to choose what conversations they want to be part of.

• Through it all, Hornik plays the role of pied piper, donning goofy outfits, connecting people, and modeling a kind of openness that creates more openness (he even brought along his parents).

When you look closer, Hornik is using two core signaling behaviors:

  • Signaling Behavior 1: You are safe.
  • Signaling Behavior 2: We share risks. 

Every element of the Lobby — the sharing of bios, the rule of secrecy, the shared games, the shared conversations, the beanbag chairs — toggle between two these core signals, either creating a sense of safety (we are connected; we share a future) or shared vulnerability (we take interpersonal risks together).

When combined, they create a feedback spiral of interactions that generates every-higher levels of group closeness and cooperation. Safety generates vulnerability, which generates even more safety, which generates even more vulnerability, and so on. The group chemistry and connection this creates might feel magical, but in fact it’s closer to inevitable.

So if you want to think like a culture designer, here are a few pointers:

• Make sure the leader is vulnerable first: this grants the group permission to do the same. One trusty method: share an embarrassing story.

• Ruthlessly eliminate default forms of status and power: the best way to do this: give each person a voice and a genuine opportunity to use it.

• Beware bad apples: they can destroy group safety in an instant. As Hornik puts it, all the social engineering in the world won’t fix a dysfunctional group of people.

PS – If you want to read more about Hornik, please check out Adam Grant’s terrific book, Give and Take).

The Most Important Four Words a Leader Can Say

Leading through vulnerability: Pixar's Ed Catmull

When you think about great leadership, you tend to think about big moments: daring decisions and inspiring speeches; moments when a great leader shows the path forward.

But in my research, I kept seeing leaders deliver something different. They weren’t big moments, but rather little moments of confession, when they admitted to a mistake or a weakness. Dave Cooper, a Navy SEAL, put it this way: “The most important words a leader can say is, ‘I screwed that up.’”

At first, that seems strange. Shouldn’t leaders project unshakable confidence? Doesn’t admitting weakness risk creating more weakness? But when you look more closely, those words make deep sense. Because strong culture can only happen when its members feel safe enough to tell each other the truth. That starts with moments when the leaders show their fallibility.

There’s a name for this moment. It’s called a vulnerability loop, and it works like this: Person #1 vulnerable, and admits a mistake or a shortcoming. This allows Person #2 to do the same, creating high-candor exchanges that drive performance and build trust. Vulnerability loops determine whether a group is going to be about merely appearing strong, or about actually facing hard truths and learning together.

Vulnerability loops are most powerful in moments of stress — when something’s gone wrong, or when there’s a disagreement. “At those moments, people either dig in and become defensive, and start justifying, and a lot of tension gets created,” says Jeff Polzer, a Harvard business school professor who studies organizational behavior. “Or they say something like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting. I’m curious and want to talk about it some more.’ What happens in that moment helps set the pattern for everything that follows.”

For example, here’s Ed Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. The first time we met Catmull showed me around Pixar’s relatively new studio building, named Brooklyn. It is a sunlit box of glass and reclaimed wood, brimming with insanely cool touches like a speakeasy, a fireplace, a full-service café, and a roof deck. As we walked, I made an offhand remark — something like, “Wow, this building is amazing.”

Catmull stopped and turned to face me. “In fact, this building was a mistake.”

I leaned in, unsure I’d heard correctly.

“The reason it’s a mistake,” Catmull continued, “is that it doesn’t create the kinds of interactions we need to create. We should have made the hallways wider. We should have made the café bigger, to draw more people. We should have put the offices around the edges to create more shared space in the center. So it wasn’t like there was one mistake. There were really a lot of mistakes, along of course with the bigger mistake that we didn’t see most of the mistakes until it was too late.”

And here is Cooper, the SEALs master chief who trained the team that captured Osama bin Laden. Cooper constantly went out of his way to show his fallibility to his team, to admit error. A new team member who called him by his title was quickly corrected: “You can call me Coop, Dave, or F*ckface, it’s your choice.” When Cooper gave his opinion, he always attached phrases that provided a platform for someone to question him, like “Now let’s see if someone can poke holes in this” or “Tell me what’s wrong with this idea.” He steered away from giving orders and instead asked a lot of questions. Anybody have any ideas?

During missions, Cooper sought opportunities to spotlight the need for his men to speak up, especially with newer team members. He was not subtle. “For example, when you’re in an urban environment, windows are bad,” he tells me. “You stand in front of one, and you can get shot by a sniper and never know where it came from. So if you’re a new guy and you see me standing in front of a window in Fallujah, what are you going to say? Are you going to tell me to move my ass, or are you going to stand there quietly and let me get shot? When I ask new guys that question, they say, ‘I’ll tell you to move.’ So I tell them, ‘Well, that’s exactly how you should conduct yourself all the time around here, with every single decision.’”

By using vulnerability loops, Catmull, Cooper, and the other leaders are sending a crystal-clear message: we are about learning together. They are giving everyone in the group permission to tell the truth, thus generating high-candor exchanges that drive improvement and create a shared mental model on how to perform together. They shift the focus away from self-protective instincts, and toward the truly important questions: what’s really happening here? How can we get better together?

The Remedy for Bad Apples

It’s the oldest problem: what should you do about bad apples in your group, those chronically negative, team-sabotaging people who possess a genius for dragging others down?

The most straightforward solution is to simply fire them. Many groups have zero tolerance for bad apples (“No Dickheads” is the way the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team puts it.) The research is clear: bad apples are a severe drain on productivity, innovation, and cooperation.  But for many groups, firing bad apples may not be a simple option. So the question remains: what do you do?

One potential answer is to develop the skill in what might be called Bad Apple Neutralization. We find a good example of this approach in the research of Will Felps, who studies organizational behavior at the University of South Wales in Australia.

Here’s the story: Felps gathered 40 four-person groups to perform a task, then hired an actor named Nick to work inside those groups while portraying three negative archetypes: the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type). In effect, Felps injected Nick into the various groups the way a biologist might inject a virus into a body: to see how the system responds.

Nick was really good at being bad. In almost every group, his behavior reduced the quality of the group’s performance by 30 to 40 percent. The drop-off was consistent whether he plays the Jerk, the Slacker, or the Downer. Except for one group.

“It’s the outlier group,” Felps said. “They first came to my attention when Nick mentioned that there was one group that felt really different to him. This group performed well no matter what he did. Nick said it was mostly because of one guy.”

The guy’s name was Jonathan. He was a thin, curly-haired young man with a quiet, steady voice and an easy smile. Despite the bad apple’s efforts, Jonathan’s group was attentive and energetic, and they produced high-quality results. The more fascinating part, from Felps’s view, was how subtly Jonathan accomplished this.

“A lot of it was really simple stuff that is almost invisible at first,” Felps says. “Nick would start being a jerk, and [Jonathan] would lean forward, use body language, laugh and smile, never in a contemptuous way, but in a way that takes the danger out of the room and defuses the situation. It doesn’t seem all that different at first. But when you look more closely, it causes some incredible things to happen.”

Over and over Felps studied the video of Jonathan’s moves, analyzing them as if they were a tennis serve or a dance step. They followed a pattern: Nick behaved like a jerk, and Jonathan reacted instantly with warmth, deflecting the negativity and making a potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe. Then Jonathan pivoted and asked a simple question that drew the others out, and he listened intently and responds. Energy levels increased; people opened up and shared ideas, they cooperated beautifully.

“Basically, [Jonathan] makes it safe, then turns to the other people and asks, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’” Felps said. “Sometimes he even asks Nick questions like, ‘How would you do that?’ Most of all he radiates an idea that is something like, Hey, this is all really comfortable and engaging, and I’m curious about what everybody else has to say about this. It was amazing how such simple, small behaviors kept everybody engaged and on task.” Even Nick, almost against his will, found himself being helpful.

The signals Jonathan used so successfully are called belonging cues. Belonging cues operate through a structure deep in the core of our brains called the amygdala. You’ve probably heard of the amygdala before: it’s our fight-or-flight alarm system that continually scans our environment for threats.

Science has recently discovered, however, that the amygdala also plays a vital role in building social connections. It works like this: when you receive a belonging cue, the amygdala switches roles and starts to use its immense unconscious neural horsepower to build and sustain your social bonds. It tracks members of your group, tunes in to their interactions, and sets the stage for meaningful engagement. In a heartbeat, it transforms from a growling guard dog into an energetic guide dog with a single-minded goal: to make sure you stay tightly connected with your people.

“The whole thing flips,” says Jay Van Bavel, social neuroscientist at New York University. “The moment you’re part of a group, the amygdala tunes in to who’s in that group and starts intensely tracking them. Because these people are valuable to you. They were strangers before, but they’re on your team now, and that changes the whole dynamic. It’s such a powerful switch—it’s a big top-down change, a total reconfiguration of the entire motivational and decision-making system.”

The key to dealing with bad apples, then, is to do what Jonathan did: to flood the zone with belonging cues. Here are some ways you can do that.

  • Overcommunicate your listening. Many people underestimate the importance of nonverbal communication when it comes to safety. “Posture and expression are incredibly important,” said Ben Waber, a former PhD student of Alex Pentland’s who founded Humanyze, a social analytics consulting firm. “It’s the way we prove that we’re in sync with someone.”
  • Preview future connection. Seek and find ways to make links between this moment and some larger, shared goal. It could be as inconsequential as a Christmas party, or as big as a championship game, so long as it spotlights the deeper truth: we are all in this together.
  • Ensure everyone has a voice. The best way to do this is use mechanisms that generate full-group contribution. For example, many groups follow the rule that no meeting can end without everyone sharing something. Others hold regular reviews of recent work in which anybody can offer their two cents. Others, like Google, establish regular forums where anyone can bring an issue or question before the group’s leaders, no matter how controversial it might be. But no matter how strong the rule, the underlying key is to have leaders who seek out connection and make sure voices are heard.

Boredom is Underrated

Check out this story of Eric Thames, a washed-up ballplayer who used his time in the Korean league to transform his skills. As this story shows, boredom isn’t a problem; it’s the solution, because it gives you the opportunity to reflect, plan, and build something new.

Sneak Preview; New Release Date

Wanted to share some news: The Culture Code has an official release date: January 30, 2018. We originally were going to launch in fall, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea of the new year.

It also has an actual, real-life cover:

We were aiming for an image that captured the cohesive, magical feeling that great cultures radiate. You know, that “way more than the sum of their parts” vibe.

What do you think?

I love it — then again I might be a bit biased 😉

The Boss Gives a Lesson

This is the coolest/most inspiring video I’ve seen in a long time: Bruce Springsteen talking about practice.

Anybody else get goosebumps? How about you, Allen Iverson?

(Big thanks to Lisa Vahey. And also to Cousin Frankie)