Sunday, September 26, 2010

Workplace Culture: Google and the Military

It is no secret that Google enjoys a unique corporate culture. Last week, as part of the Information Dominance Corps Senior Leadership Seminar, I had the privilege of witnessing it first hand. The uniqueness is in the extremity with which the underlying principles were adopted and not in the cultural philosophy itself. In fact, I saw little reason why the most important attributes would not work in a military culture. Sure, our dress code is a bit different and there is no way we could justify using taxpayer money to provide our service members with the facilities and food choices they enjoy. Aside from that, there is much we should emulate:

1) Expression of Individual Creativity - One cannot miss the pride in which people take in personalizing their workspace nor the level of detail Google takes in creating unique collaboration areas. Clearly, the work environment both feeds and reflects a culture of creativity, transparency and personal connection. The underlying military culture dissuades individuality and therefore creativity. In many cases, there is good reason for that, but the Information Dominance Corps in many respects is the Navy's Google so finding that balance between traditional military culture and that across Silicon Valley is paramount. There is no reason why we do not encourage a similar level of individual creativity. The most obvious program worthy of our adoption is the "20% Time". Each Googler is required to spend 20% of their professional time pursuing their passion vice working within their position description. Many people have since turned their "20% Time" projects into their primary job, new business lines for Google and enhanced the lives of many of us. None of us should be constrained by our position description and I'll tread lightly, but dare I say that commands need not strictly adhere to their designated "Mission, Functions and Tasks"?

2) Accessibility to Seniors - Every Friday at "TGIF", a senior executive hosts an open informal forum to share information with any and all interested parties. He/She fully discloses information of interest to the group and then answers uncensored questions from the audience. Geography need not impede participation as it is broadcast across the global Google infrastructure. I know I can (and will) make myself more accessible on the local level and there is little reason why TGIFs are not happening across any team. Accessibility builds trust and trust is the foundation of any relationship, personal or professional.

3) 360 degree input on performance appraisals - The vantage points of peers and subordinates are valued just as much as supervisors when it comes to assessing the performance of any given individual. Clearly, this alters behavior over the reporting period and ensures employees are properly focused across the team vice overly concerned with pleasing their seniors. Many of us invite informal 360 degree feedback in hopes of helping us to continually improve, but by making it part of the appraisal process we can help to ensure that it is those who enjoy trust and confidence across a 360 degree array that are pushed to the forefront of our team. Too many people are good at managing the perceptions of their seniors while they let down their peers and juniors in the process. Google ensures that doesn't happen and we can all do our part to do the same.

4) Meaningful input to hiring and assignment decisions - Current Googlers are required to interview potential hires and provide meaningful assessments to the point that they have veto power over an applicant. In discussing with current Googlers, they take great pride in their involvement and take personal ownership of anyone they endorse who ultimately makes it through the hiring gauntlet. Once hired, individuals seek out people with whom they would like to work from both a personality and technical expertise perspective. This creates a sponsorship culture whereby people take a vested interest in the success of the people they helped to get on the team, for their credibility is somewhat tied to the contributions of the new hire. Though our hiring model makes distributed involvement more challenging, it is not impossible. By having Detailers include a Chief/Officer who can accurately speak to the performance and potential of a Sailor prior to negotiating orders would create a similar culture and ensure it is more than flowery words on paper (i.e. performance appraisal) that influences often critical assignment decisions.

5) Personal Empowerment and Accountability - Truth be told, there are many potential distractions at Google that could inhibit productivity. In fact, many of my military colleagues acknowledged they might find focusing on work a bit difficult if they worked at Google. I am sure some Googlers find assimilation difficult at the beginning, but those who find it overly challenging will surely be asked to leave the team. Though everyone is empowered, value creation is critical and because the performance appraisal process is tied directly to compensation, only contributors are retained. If our productivity level is negatively impacted by continual visits to the many cafeterias, working out at the state-of-the-art gym or socializing with the large number of very interesting people, the chances of us losing access to these "distractions" and our employment altogether is high. So whether it is the carrot or the stick that motivates us, they are both real at Google.

Because I only spent a few hours there (which included a chance lunch with a high school friend), my assessment is clearly overly simplified. Regardless, there is no reason why these characteristics are not a part of military life to varying levels. I cannot control what a happens outside my small sphere of influence, but I can influence the weather within the microclimate of NIOC Pensacola. Rest assured, we will experiment with, learn from and share our trials as we integrate certain aspects of the Google Culture within our local laboratory.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mentorship, Sponsorship and Favoritism

Mentorship - A personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps a less experienced or less knowledgeable person.

The focus of mentorship is on the personal and professional development of the individual, and just about anything that helps that individual to improve is time well spent. I have written about mentorship in the past and attempted to make a case that mentorship programs fail in large part because mentees/protégées are not truly embracing the responsibilities that come with such a role. Since then, I have been attempting to quantify the resulting value of the time and energy being poured into hollow personal development programs...it simply cannot be done.

Parallel to our push to establish formal and forced mentorship programs across the Navy is our emphasis on demonstrating tangible results of diversity programs. This is a sensitive subject to many so please be clear that I use it as an example of a not so subtle sponsorship program into which it appears to be evolving.

Sponsorship - The overt advocacy on behalf of a specific individual, program, event, product, etc.

For the sake of this thought piece, where mentorship is about helping the individual to grow, sponsorship is about helping an organization get better by lobbying for opportunities on behalf of specific individuals who exemplify attributes valued by the organization.

While mentorship has largely unquantifiable direct results, the impact of sponsorship is clear and unambiguous (resulting success of the individual afforded a given opportunity). The challenge we have is that we don't openly leverage sponsorship. In the Navy, "Sponsorship-by-proxy" comes in the form of personal evaluations, screening boards, detailing opportunities and promotion. In my opinion, the reason we do not openly admit and formalize sponsorship programs in favor of mentorship programs is fear. We believe favoritism will be the result. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sponsorship occurs today, but because it is not openly discussed, we are left with the perception of favoritism.

I mentor fellow Sailors in hopes of making them better. I sponsor fellow Sailors in hopes of making the organization better. Some of the Sailors I choose to mentor, I choose not to sponsor. Likewise, I sponsor Sailors for whom I have no real mentorship role, just a strong respect for them as individuals. Whether we are playing the role of sponsor or mentor, we should be cultivating the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal traits we value most. Our goal merely being everyone realizes their potential and those who represent our ethos best are properly positioned to help the team succeed.

Rather than spin circles in the name of mentorship, let's make forward progress by embracing overt sponsorship. The measure of our success is the alignment of the resulting characteristics (not physical) of the individuals who are purposely thrust upward to those traits we claim to value. Of course, the key to all of this is formally committing to and communicating a single standard of organizational values so that we can all recruit, retain and sponsor individuals who can help us to continually raise the bar. Until we do, the perception of favoritism will continue to grow and fracture the team. All the while, we will attempt to justify the results with the standard "best and fully qualified" assessment based purely on pieces of paper written by others who may not completely understand or share our values.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teams Failing Leaders?

As I look forward to witnessing another good friend realize the career milestone that is Command, I am reminded that it has been less than two weeks since the Navy relieved our 13th Commanding Officer (CO) this year. It stings whenever any CO gives the Navy reason to fire him/her, but this one hit closer to home than any. This time it was a classmate of mine from the Naval Academy, but more importantly she was a fellow member of the Information Dominance Corps who failed Information Dominance Corps Sailors.

This thought piece is not about any singular CO firing, but wonderment of how this happens in any organization. Many people point to the failure of the individual due to poor choices, lack of training or leaders giving unworthy individuals the honor of command in the name of diversity, favoritism, etc. I believe that each of those are contributing factors in some cases, but not a constant. To me the common thread is the lack of a true Team Culture.

It is said that success is a team effort, while failure can be achieved in isolation. Families, friends, coaches and teachers enable the success of a child. Without the interest of others, that child will almost certainly fail. For a command to succeed, it takes deliberate efforts on the part of Chiefs, "White Hats", Civilians and Officers. And as we have seen all too often, the CO may chose to fail the command. Because the Navy has a proud tradition of ensuring ultimate accountability and authority rests with a CO, we are quick to judge a CO who is fired, but what about those on the sidelines? I am not advocating that we let a CO off the hook, but only that we all look in the mirror to see what we might have done to prevent such failure (Related Article: Point the Finger Inward)

Arguably, the single greatest self-correcting organization known to man is the Chief Petty Officer Mess. There is a proud tradition of helping each other continually improve, holding each other accountable and collectively raising the bar that exists only on the closests of teams. Why are commands unable to cultivate that philosophy across the entire team? And why might Chiefs be reluctant to mentor their seniors with the same philosophy?

In the aftermath of the most recent CO being relieved, I spoke about it to the Chiefs, Officers and Senior Civilians at NIOC Pensacola. I told them that if this happened at OUR Command, it is partly their fault. That was not a ploy to shirk responsibility or predict a future failure. It was a purposeful effort to let them all know that I expect them to hold me accountable, to be constructively critical of my actions and to help us to collectively manage perceptions. We will succeed as a team, but I will not fail the team because they allowed me to live in isolation. All are cordially invited to help ensure I am/become the CO they deserve and that OUR actions have the desired effects, while minimizing unintended consequences.

Much of leadership is perception management and most times actions are perceived inappropriate long before they truly are. Here's to hoping that we can grow a culture whereby we are more concerned with our seniors and peers holding true to our proud tradition than we are our next performance appraisal, future assignments and promotability. I firmly believe that the inappropriate activity of at least a few of the 13 COs who failed their Sailors and Families could have been prevented by addressing questionable activity before it became truly inappropriate and required intervention from higher authority.

Note: Coincidentally, I had the honor of commissioning a new Chief Warrant Officer earlier today. A proud leader who continues to achieve much because he is willing to tell others what they need to, and not necessarily what they want to, hear.