The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

Culture is the Boss

The topic of corporate culture is ubiquitous. You cannot open a copy of the Harvard Business Review or a McKinsey Blog without seeing some reference to corporate culture and the need for executives and boards to manage it. And while there has been a lot published on this topic, we still find that many don’t quite understand what “it” is: They don’t understand what culture is and why it is so important. So, for them, I offer this explanation: Culture is the Boss when the Boss is not around.

When I joined Google in 2003 the company was growing rapidly and co-founder Larry Page was absolutely laser focused on hiring top talent as a key strategic priority. The “War for Talent” was on and Larry was determined that Google win it.

Working for Google it didn’t take me long to understand that the company values data, quality, engineering talent, and the ability to solve large, complex problems at scale. Larry Page deftly exploited each of those pillars of Google’s culture to turn Google into a “self-replicating talent machine.”

Larry assigned software engineers to build a proprietary applicant tracking system to capture data and track candidates through the process. Not only were candidates evaluated, but interviewers were too. The system tracked how well an interviewer’s candidate feedback scores correlated with the final hire/no hire decisions. Over time, the system was able to predict the best interviewers.

Larry also set high expectations – that even the best of the best – or rather especially the best of the best engineers – would be expected to spend significant time interviewing or serving on hiring committees. Only by engaging the top performers was he assured that they would identify and recruit the next top performers.

Perhaps most stunning was Larry’s clarity, focus, and commitment to establishing a hiring culture unlike any other I have ever seen. For years, Larry Page personally reviewed and approved every single hire at Google – even when we were hiring over 100 people a week. Larry was notorious for calling an interviewer directly to challenge his/her feedback and for rejecting a candidate that had cleared every hurdle before hitting his desk. These incidents were legendary and rumor of them spread like wildfire, reinforcing the importance of being a diligent interviewer.

And so, though Larry himself was not physically in each interview, he was there in spirit. Everyone understood the importance of hiring to the success of the company and their role in it.

The culture he created around hiring was the boss when the boss was not around.

The company grew far beyond Larry’s capacity to weigh in on each candidate, but his commitment and perseverance instilled in the organization the value of hiring top talent.

Culture is that shared consciousness across the organization that cues our behavior and guides our decision-making. When well managed it can be a powerful multiplier of performance. When left to chance, it can turn toxic or negative and actually impede performance. The key lies in understanding the organization’s values and strengths and leveraging those to accomplish goals.

What kind of boss is your culture when you’re not around?