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Laszlo Bock talks about hiring at Google, and why the GPA is irrelevant

Thomas Friedman interviewed Laszlo Bock, based on the Adam Bryant interview of last June which I wrote about at the time (see Google admits HR brainteasers were “a complete waste of time”). The big takeaway was that Google — and everybody else — have been using techniques to choose job candidates which are not great predictors of future success in those jobs. GPA, best schools, and the famous Google brainteasers are not enough.

Bock proposed ‘behavioral interviewing’, where candidates have to explain in detail how they would react in specific circumstance, but his description was too brief, and I don’t understand how interviewers are trained in the technique. So I have been on the prowl for more info on this topic.

Friedman doesn’t add much to what Bock says, so I have just clipped him out and retained Bock’s words, framed by my own commentary.

Asked about what Google looks for in a candidate, since GPAs are not a great indicator:

There are five hiring attributes we have across the company. If it’s a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical roles. For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. We assess that using structured behavioral interviews that we validate to make sure they’re predictive.

Number 1, the ability to learn quickly.

Number 2?

[Second] is leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.

The second most critical skill is leanership: emergent leadership. Not the title, not a degree in management. But the ability to steer things in the right direction without the authority to do so, through social competence.

And then? Responsibility and humility:

It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in [and try to solve any problem]. Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.

This is a great description of the inner workings of cooperation. You add your competence because you are called to assist in the common cause with others: you feel responsible for that contribution. But you don’t need to make everyone get in line and follow your detailed plan for every step in every part of the project. You operate under the assumption that others will contribute their expertise in a manner similar to you, because of shared work culture: a culture greater than organizational culture; a worldview; a philosophical stance.

Part of that stance is ‘strong opinions, loosely held’. An intellectual humility:

Without humility, you are unable to learn. Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure. They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved.

What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.

This is another key aspect of the cooperation culture and of leanership.

What turns out to be least important? Expertise:

If you take somebody who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as an H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who’s been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’

Friedman paraphrases Bock as saying, more or less, that the inexpert may goof one in 100 times, but they are also capable of innovations that the expert would not consider. And that occasional breakthrough pays for a dozen small toe stubs.

The bottom line? The skills to look for in candidates are these, in order: the ability to learn quickly, leanership, responsibility, humility, and for developers, coding ability.

Let’s hope that the corporate HR folks out there are taking notes.

And it makes you think, obviously, that schools are focusing on the wrong things when the metric that they consider the distillation of the value they create — the GPA — turns out to be irrelevant.