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Interview with Frank Kohl-Boas, Head of HR Northwest, Central and Eastern Europe for Google

No One Will Motivate You at Google

Mr. Kohl-Boas has working experience from Unilever, Shell and Coca-Cola. Since 2010, he has been Head of HR Northwest, Central and Eastern Europe for Google and as such supporting, together with his team, Googlers in more than 19 countries focusing on leadership, talent development and the evolution of an innovative, diverse and inclusive company culture. As opposed to customer-centric models, Google is an advocate of an employee centric organisational model as laid out in the company's letter at the time of their initial public offering in 2004. Kohl-Boas emphasised that Google was neither the first nor the only company to think employee-centric, quoting Sir Richard Branson “Clients do not come first. Employees come first." as well as German founder of the "dm" drugstores Götz Werner "If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients”.



Google regards every employee as a talent, and even if they leave, they are believed to stay in the ecosystem. Can you talk more about the Google ecosystem? I cannot imagine many people leaving Google, usually ranking a no. 1 desirable employer in polls. However, if employees leave, how do you keep in touch with them?

We have indeed a relatively low attrition rate of regretted leavers, which is great. Many employees leaving us do so because they have been offered jobs with other companies at an often times much higher level of responsibility and scope. Examples include Head of Online Department, Country Manager and the C-suite with other companies. A few have become entrepreneurs, establishing agencies, consultancies or online businesses. The online  community in countries and by industry sector is still relatively small and one regularly sees each other at conventions, summits or business meetings. In addition, we have an alumni-network, Xooglers - that's the name for Googlers who left us - may become member of. And I should add that it is not uncommon that we re-hire former employees at all levels.

You mentioned a recruitment process and its tremendous impact on all other HR and Learning and Development processes. At Google, approximately 1/3 are referred by peers, 1/3 are sourced from in-house recruiters and 1/3 apply for open roles. You pointed out that A-class interviewers will bring A-class people, a B-class interviewer is likely to bring C-class candidates. That is easy for you being so popular but what about the companies that are frequently citing “the war on talent”? 

We compete for talents, too, especially IT Engineers are in very high demand but so are employees who want to lead digital transformation. Since Google's recruitment process is consensus based, every Googler who participates in the interviewing process needs to be an "A" interviewer. The "A, B, C" refers to a simplified categorisation of employees with regards to their engagement. Only "A" employees are highly engaged and will aim to hire candidates looking for the same opportunities to find purpose, autonomy and mastery in their employment with Google and to enable others to do so likewise. Google's value proposition and attractiveness as an employer consists of offering a strong mission, transparency and a voice for every employee. All of these ingredients can't be purchased nor engineered or implemented by "golden rules" framed in hallways. You need to live and lead by them daily. It is a question of culture and the culture is owned by and lived by your workforce, which is why the recruitment process and its reflection of your company culture and its values is the single most important HR process you have and decisive for your ability to win, develop and keep talents in your organisation.

Google regards diversity not only as gender diversity but also in terms of culture, sexual orientation and/ or nationality. You pointed out that you need to have a male and a female candidate for each position. Being such an attractive brand, I can imagine that most of the categories do not pose a big problem. What about the age diversity?

To the best of my knowledge, Googlers, in the regions I support, can be anywhere in between the age of 28 to 52, with the majority being at or around 35-40. From my point of view, it's not a question of the biological age, it is about the know-how and skill set and the mindset to keep developing both. We live in a "VUCA" (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world and to face or even succeed in it, you need a learning mindset. I don't think it is linked to an age but based on my observations, it often decreases the more experiences and routines we have and rely on. It takes an effort to remain curious and to stay aware and alert to changes around you and what that may mean for your know-how, required skills and behaviours. In a world where many changes are deceptive and come in a disruptive way, a comfort zone can become a danger zone. Are you willing to learn or even report to people who may be younger than you? Are you actively aiming to learn and try out new things?

Your talk touched on transparency, feedback culture, sharing and learning. 

How do you personally live the statement of Lazlo Block, SVP, People Operations in Google?

“Give people slightly more trust, freedom, and authority than you are comfortable giving them. If you are not nervous, you have not given them enough”. 

I lead by setting objectives, leaving the how to achieve the objectives with my direct reports. I refuse the temptation or at times their desire to replace their decision by mine. With some of them working remotely, they often have to rely on their own judgement anyway. That includes their approach to daily HR matters as well as their ownership with regards to the need and frequency about their business travel or acceptance of invitations to internal and external events of all kinds. They are adults and I rely on their assessment even at the risk of them taking a different decision than I might have taken. That said, it's my task to support them, by coaching (What do you think happens if...?), giving feedback (In my view, you did/ did not...) or mentoring (When I was in a similar situation, I ...). Freedom comes with responsibility and that's why I expect my team to keep me well informed so that I'm not taken by surprise and am in a position to take ownership for decisions and doings of my team including their potential mistakes or lack of judgement I'm ultimately accountable for.

Can you share with our readers some “future recommendations and practices” that you are currently trialling and other companies may try to follow?

We want to do our part in creating better work environments which is why Eric Schmidt and our SVP, People Operations, Laszlo Bock wrote books about our HR policies and processes (How Google works, Work Rules!). In addition, we share our work practices and welcome other companies to contribute to a platform called "re:work" (link). I also see quite a few companies who experiment for example with holacracy, different pay and performance philosophies or new forms of learning ("edutainment"/"gamification"). It’s your people who put strategy into action and who have to utilise technology to the benefit of the company. So in consequence, relevance of HR practices will increase, requiring an employee-centric company culture which will become a major driver for success in the market.


PragueConnect.cz in cooperation with Czech & Slovak Leaders Magazine - Prague, 08.08.2016