Three things universities can learn about leadership from Google

The brightly colored Google logo, re-formed as a halo over the head of CEO Larry Page, caught my eye in an airport recently. Under Page’s picture, the cover of Fortune magazine promised a list of the 100 best workplaces, with Google at the head of the pack. My interest was piqued not only by the story of how Google became a great place to work, but even more so by the promise of a discussion about why it matters.

When I saw that cover, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there any chance, any hope, any dream, that somewhere on that list, I might find a university? Surely some institution of higher education has what it takes to be considered a great workplace, a model of research based education. Surely there are universities with leaders who think being a great workplace matters.

Google is a research organization and in that sense a potential role model for universities. In fact, Google has one of the largest research budgets in the world. They will spend over $5 billion on research in 2012. For comparison, the National Science Foundation in the United States had a budget of $6.8 billion for 2011, while the 7th Framework Program of the European Commission had a 2011 budget of EUR 8.6 billion ($11.25 billion). Perhaps Google has the largest single research budget in the world.

With that kind of money at stake, it’s no wonder that having a great workplace is very important at Google. Great workplaces, after all, increase productivity. No one makes an investment of $5 billion without expecting productivity and significant returns.

Google is famous for its Innovation Time Off program, whereby employees are encouraged to use 20% of their time working on whatever projects they come up with. Marissa Mayer, a Google VP, has said that 50% of Google’s new products are a result of this program.

Innovation is the buzzword of the day, at least in Europe, where the European Commission recently changed the name of it’s Directorate-General for Research to Directorate-General for Research & Innovation. Google’s success at innovation is indisputable. How do they do it?

Larry Page highlights just a few things beyond Innovation Time Off, which of course is comparable to research time for university faculty members.

They have their well-known perks list, starting with gourmet cafes and well-stocked snack bars. But they also offer on-site gyms, laundry rooms, commuting buses, oil change and car wash services, dry cleaning, massage therapy, hair stylist, fitness classes and bike repair. Why is this smart? It lets people work more, it makes them like to be at work, and some of these benefits help men and women parents balance the workload at home. Could universities create better research environments by offering different perks?

A second important issue comes out of Page’s characterization of leadership priorities. Leadership at Google, he says, is about staying out of the way, supporting the staff and matching people and opportunities.

University leadership should definitely be about staying out of the way — letting people do what they’re good at and respecting the expertise of individual employees. And it should also support the staff, providing what they need to use their professional qualifications best. Those things we at least aspire to, and in many cases we do them well.

But I’m less sure we spend much time thinking about matching people and opportunities. Career development is the concept behind that phrase and I believe universities could better achieve their goals through a greater investment in career development. Larry Page sums this up by stating, “my job as a leader is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities.” I wonder if we at universities are so focused on staying out of the way, that we leave those who are mismatched alone, unnecessarily destined to suboptimal careers.

Not everyone uses their time equally successfully, and Page notes that Google has become “kinder about tolerating underperformers” — a third point that requires reflection among university leadership. For us, though, it’s not a lack of tolerance, but rather a lack of engagement.

Getting underperformers back on track offers tremendous promise. Extrapolating from a couple of studies, I speculate that about 15% of the faculty of most universities are in a prolonged period of not publishing; it also seems that the top 20% of publishers are responsible for at least half the output of an institution. As far as I can see, we do very little to match our low performers with opportunities at which they would excel. We do very little to get them back on track.

The Fortune article raises many points we should be thinking about. Of course universities are not companies, and in that sense Google is on a completely different planet than we are. But even if we’re not companies, we are employers. People work at universities. And part of the job of leadership at all levels in a university is to create the circumstances for its people to do their best possible work.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information. From that simple mission, they create a workplace in which people feel they’re having a meaningful impact, where they are contributing to the good of society, where their CEO can claim that his goal is for Google to lead, not follow. If those aren’t goals universities can sign off on, we aren’t thinking clearly.

If they are, then we need to think about our employees, about staying out of their way, about supporting them. We need to think about making their daily lives easier where we can, and about keeping them nimble and matched with great opportunities.

I want my university to be a great place to work, and I think it matters. I think it’s a vision that can lead us to greater results.

The challenge of becoming a great workplace should pervade any university; leadership at all levels, from research groups, to departments, to faculties, should care about treating people right. It’s the best way to get the best results.

I understand why Google received two million applications last year. It’s hard to read the Fortune article and not want to work for them.

What could they write that would make people want to work at your university?

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Antonio Fábregas says:

    What is important for me to work at a particular university is clear to me: a) if the university cares about creating knowledge and passing it to others, as opposed to caring only about numbers of students; for me this means that, yes, universities should keep open certain areas that right now are not trendy for students simply because the knowledge in those areas has to be preserved and extended; b) if the university sees the employees as people as opposed to machines that produce points.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Hard to disagree with that. I’m trying to argue that seeing employees as people requires a lot more than what most universities are doing. When I read or hear stories about the private sector, there are some things that sound very familiar, but there’s also quite a bit that is very unfamiliar, and one of the most striking to me is about having structures in place to let people develop in their careers. There have to be lots of directions people can take in the course of 30 years. What do we to make those more visible and legitimate? Not enough from what I’ve seen.

      • Antonio says:

        Yes, I agree with that. Perhaps if the possibility of moving from one department to the other (as the resource distribution and the potential requires it) was more flexible…

  • Richard Rice ("Dick") says:

    Curt Rice, what are your origins? Rice is an old Welch name (originally Rhys), but you are working somewhere in Scandanavia (I spent sabbatical at DTH in Denmark in 1990).

    By the way, we look very much alike, however, I am older and now Emritus Professor.

    Dick Rice

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