I’ve been having disagreements for years about the usefulness of college degrees as a measure of someone’s ability to be an outstanding employee. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s ever a bad thing to have a degree. I just think people make an assumption about formal education that’s often untrue. They assume that if two people are exactly the same in terms of age, life and job experience and demographics, and one has a college degree and the other doesn’t – that the one who has the degree will be a better employee and have a more successful career.
So I was thrilled to read an article by Thomas L. Friedman in the NYT a few months ago, called “How To Get A Job At Google.” Friedman’s article expands upon an interview between Adam Bryant of the NYT and Lazlo Bock, SVP of People Operations for Google GOOG -0.97%, where Bock goes into depth about the core attributes Google looks for when hiring. At one point, Bock says, “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”
My point exactly. Someone can do very well in college and not have what it takes to succeed in the real world – and vice versa. Bock went on to say that an increasing proportion of people hired at Google these days don’t have college degrees. Bock then shared the five criteria Google does use when evaluating job candidates. I was struck not only by the list, but by the order. Here’s my understanding of what he said, and why it’s important for any job seeker:
5. Expertise. Bock noted that, except for making sure that people in technical jobs having coding ability, expertise is last on their list of five. They’ve found that the other four attributes (which I’ll get to in a minute) far outweigh expertise when it comes to predicting the abilities that Google has found they need in their employees. Bock notes that experts are more likely to simply default to the tried-and-true. I’ve seen this as well – when people self-identify as “expert” in an area, or as “highly experienced,” there’s a much higher likelihood that they will strongly defend their existing point of view when questioned, rather than being curious…their identity is all too often wrapped up in being the authority, vs. finding a better solution.
4. Ownership. At Google, they look for people who take responsibility for solving problems and moving the enterprise forward – who feel passionate about making things work. I see the importance of this in my own company and in all of our client companies. In this era of daily change and upheaval in almost every industry and area of knowledge, it’s a huge disadvantage to have employees who are passive doers of tasks and order-takers. You need people who are internally motivated to figure out how to make things better.
3. Humility. At the same time, Bock notes that passion and drive toward responsibility has to be balanced by humility: an openness to someone else having an even better idea than you, or knowing more about how to make something work. In Bock’s words: “You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.” I’ve noticed that when someone has both these qualities – a fierce drive to make things better combined with a welcoming attitude, an assumption that others have as much to offer, or more – that person tends to be both enormously effective individually and a wonderfully useful member of any team.
2. Leadership. I love that Bock and his colleagues look for leadership at every level. And not, as he says, a traditional evaluation of leadership as in, “…were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” They’re looking for folks who can step in to guide and influence others toward an outcome when that’s what’s needed – no matter what their job or title may be. (And who also know – back to the humility criterion – when to step back and let someone else take that role. )
1. Ability to Learn. This is where I decided that Lazlo Bock and I are kindred souls; he notes that pure learning ability – the ability to pick up new things, to learn on the fly, to find patterns in disparate pieces of information and take the next step – is the number one thing hiring managers at Google have learned to look for in candidates. I could not agree more: I believe that people will succeed in today’s world to the extent they develop the ability to learn new things quickly and well. And that’s not only true in companies like Google or LinkedIn LNKD -3.73% or Amazon, companies that pride themselves on coming up with new ideas and new approaches on a daily basis. Every company needs employees who are curious, who are willing to make mistakes and go out on a limb and ask dumb questions in order to develop new capabilities and new solutions – that’s how organizations will thrive and grow into the future.
In the very wise and prescient words of Ari De Geus (he said this in the mid 90s): “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”
If that’s true, what are you doing to become a master learner? And what are you seeing others do? Anything you can share will help all of us.
I cover how people & organizations work, and how they can work better.