Lessons from Google and the Premier

This past Saturday right here in Laidlaw Hall, in response to a question about last year’s “work to rule” issue, Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne said the following: “I believe that what happens outside of the classroom is as important, if not more important, than what goes on in the classroom. I don’t want to offend any of the teachers here, but I liked high school because I got up for practices early in the morning, and I liked being a part of teams. I still keep in touch with my high school track coach, and I’m 60 years old! Those relationships are so important. And those teachers WANT those relationships.

The Premier’s insights about the importance of teams and student-teacher relationships is timely, given that this morning we gather to celebrate our winter sports teams, but her comments also remind me of a recent news article about a man named Lazlo Bock. His name might not be immediately familiar, but Lazlo Bock is Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, which is a fancy way of saying he is the individual in charge of hiring. Bocke recently shared his cutting edge company’s approach to hiring and what he said made national headlines.

This is not easy or pleasant for the school teacher in me to hear, but Google has determined GPA’s and test scores are “worthless” as a criteria for hiring. “We found that they don’t predict anything,” says Bock. Instead, in addition to focusing on “expertise” which Google says is its least important factor, they focus on 4 key attributes: (These are all outlined in Thomas Friedman’s “How To Get a Job at Google” in the NYT.)

First, is what Bock calls “general cognitive ability.” This is the raw ability to learn, what some educators might call a “growth mindset.” It’s the “I can figure this out” mentality.

Second is what Bock calls “emergent leadership.” “Traditional leadership is, ‘Were you the president of the chess club? Google, though, wants to know if at the appropriate time, you can step in and lead. And just as crucially, do you step back and stop leading? Can you let someone else lead? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

Third is ownership. “It’s a… sense of responsibility… to step in to try to solve any problem. And it’s also the ability “to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.”

Fourth, Bock emphasizes humility and simply says, “Without humility, you are unable to learn.’” Interestingly enough, in his best selling book, “Good to Great” author Jim Collins emphasizes the same point about humility and claims that this virtue is the key to becoming what he calls a “Level 5” leader.

Some of you may be keen on going to Queens Commerce or Western’s Ivey Program or any one of the Ivy League schools. These are all fabulous places, but Google’s research suggests that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau, in part, because they have rarely experienced failure; as a result, they don’t know how to learn from failure.

During job interviews candidates are often asked, “Can you tell me about a time you made a whopper of a mistake, and can you explain what you’ve learned from the experience?” You’d be surprised by the number of people who struggle to describe even a single mistake they have ever made, other than the fact that they work too hard! (Whenever I’m asked that question, I’m tempted to respond, “Biggest mistake since breakfast or lunch?”)

A quick aside, and I know I’ve told some of you this story before, so forgive me, but before I left Washington, DC, I went and had a heart to heart conversation with the head of a rival school. His is an absolutely sensational institution, a school that has an almost impossible-to-believe “can do” of a culture.  Since I was no longer going to be a competitor, I asked him if he would give me the recipe for his secret sauce. He went over and closed his office door, and then said, “I had a significant learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until I was done school, and as a result, I had terrible grades.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “And I never hire anyone who had better grades than me.”

I should say right now that, this being UCC, I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that at least one scholar in Laidlaw Hall is already thinking that the headmaster should have said “better grades than I.” You are right, of course, in pointing out a flawed elliptical clause, but as good as your grammar is, you may run the risk of missing the larger point which is this: That leader packed his school with folks for whom schooling was hard, and the result is, not academic minimalism, which some might fear, but just the opposite. They have created a downright inspiring “impossible is nothing” kind of academic weather for their students and teachers. It’s the kind of place where you might hear, “’Dante’s Inferno’ was a really, really tough slog for me at 17, but let me tell you why it’s worth the struggle.” Or “The passé compose might confuse you at first, but let me show you how I managed to get out of the fog on this.” I believe you can and do hear the same sort of comments right here at UCC, by the way. And that’s a very good thing!

So Lazlo Bock’ 4 keys to hiring are: an “I can learn anything” mentality; a flexible “your turn/my turn” approach to leadership; and a sense of ownership tempered with humility. I’d argue that while all of those qualities can be learned in a classroom setting, in many ways they are learned more naturally in a co-curricular activity, in part, because these 4 strengths are ways to respond to “real world” problems. If you need to figure out how to make sure the clarinets don’t get drowned out by the percussionists; if you need to figure out how to stop St. Mike’s running game; if you need to figure out how you are going to stage Banquo’s ghost – all of these challenges force your hand in real time. It’s not an option; these kinds of challenges make you embrace Google’s big four!

I’ll end this morning by returning to the Premier’s last sentence: “Those teachers WANT those relationships.” It is amazing how often, when Old Boys return, they want to catch up with the teachers they worked with after 3 pm. It’s their directors, conductors, and coaches who often leave an incredible mark on our graduates. And we don’t make this point all that often, but it is worth thinking about this: What kind of person wants to sit in the band bus to and from Chicago during flu season? Who is in his right mind, given all the other demands of this place, wants to spend his or her spring break in the David Chu Theatre or in Oak Ridge, Tennessee? And how many adults, with their own families and obligations and a stack of papers yet to be graded, choose to spend yet another Saturday in Aurora?

My colleagues, it’s true, sometimes do this out of a sense of duty, but more often than not, they go above and beyond because what they do is not a job, or even a career; it springs from their sense of vocation, and that vocation is deeply and directly connected with you. So while it’s good to know about Google’s new age hiring scheme, and worth considering the Premier’s thoughts on school sports, let’s also remember and recognize the good men and women who teach, and coach, and inspire all of us in every season.


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