Company Culture Dilemmas

Company Culture Dilemmas: What Do ex-Google Recruiters Recommend? 

This article revolves around a pivotal aspect of happiness at work: company culture. We’ve spoken to two former colleagues and recruiting superstars who used to source talent at Google: David Bizer (CEO and Founder at Talent Fountain) and Marisa Bryan (Head of Client Operations at The key takeaways include insights into where culture starts, and how it evolves, why it now matters even more than before, as well as some practical tips. NB: We feel honored that David spoke at our flagship event – Reflect Festival – in 2020.


What is Culture?

You know the feeling of the first interview. The waiting, staring at the receptionist, sneaking peeks of your potential new colleagues, trying to estimate whether the office has a positive vibe. Some companies go above and beyond to prove how their workplace is hip and modern.

However, as Marisa puts it – if you have to show people your sexy Swedish sofas or vegan plant-based in-house bar to showcase your culture, something is wrong. “Culture is a set of common values informative of common behaviors,” she explains. That means that if you walk into any department within one company, the people should walk the same talk. 

Back when she worked at LinkedIn, the leading professional network, this was the case. “LinkedIn had solid, defined values that were ingrained in all of the activities that we did, whether it was the usual ones such as onboarding or training, or the less frequent ones. There was informed behavior across the whole organization that was linked to those values,” she says. If the company claimed that, for example, relationships matter, the dedicated activities focused on building and establishing those relationships would follow. 


Where Does Culture Start and How Does it Evolve?

That’s easy: with your CEO. David believes you have to have the backing, support, and vision of the leader to have a strong, living, breathing culture. “If you don’t trust your CEO, there’s not much that can be done,” David says. Marisa adds that it starts there, and it evolves with people, but if it is not led by the CEO, nothing will ever happen. Steve Jobs is a famous example – both a genius and, let’s face it, a rather difficult person to work with. The culture was vital for him, and he was smart enough to hire the right people to implement it at Apple.

The tech giant Google, was considering its culture from the very beginning. “They used to spend Sunday afternoons talking about it and how they wanted their company to be,” David notes. Surprisingly, he doesn’t think that culture necessarily needs to be “good”, it just needs to be clearly defined for the (potential) employees. Would you label Amazon as a pleasant, welcoming, understanding workplace? That’s now how it’s usually viewed, but the company is rapidly growing anyway. “There are people who thrive in that type of culture. It’s not a bad thing to scare off those who won’t,” David points out. 


The Key Elements of Your Culture

“First, it’s about decisions and decision making. Is it authoritarian? Is it democratic? Is it top-down or bottom-up? It’s a big sign of how your company operates,” explains David. Another important aspect he pinpoints is behavior – and this one is the deal-breaker. If there’s a lot of messaging from the leadership that doesn’t influence how employees act, something’s broken. At the same time, leaders need to lead by example. 

Another element is communication – something that an alarming number of people consider a problem. “People think they are communicating well. They think their messaging is understandable, but in reality, it’s not,” he recalls from his experience. 

According to Marisa, an alarming number of companies think that internal communication is a luxury – something you may add when you have thousands of employees. However, it is crucial to implement it immediately, especially these days, when the public is terrified about their employment, health, and families. As for who should lead this initiative? Definitely not just anyone. “I wouldn’t hire a plumber to bake my birthday cake, and for the same reason, I wouldn’t make the CEO or the founder the communication champion of the company,” Marisa says. 


Remote work vs. culture

We found ourselves working from home from one day to another. The companies that never allowed it suddenly had no choice. We got an opportunity to see how remote teams function, how does a home office influence our productivity, and how tech-savvy we can become if required. Marisa works in a fully remote company, and absolutely embraces this trend, under one condition: don’t skip the “face time”. And don’t only talk about work, the informal chitchat is just as important. Especially now, when people need to feel a connection and have an opportunity to talk about their fears honestly. 

As restrictions related to the novel coronavirus outbreak start to lift around the world, leaders have to decide whether we should go back to the office. David and Marisa believe that no one should be forced to do so. “It’s frustrating to see companies telling people they need them back at the office to interact with the team. Even if you take the health and safety part away – isn’t this an amazing opportunity to observe how people work without an office?” says David. 

It’s not constructive to just wait and expect that we will get back to normal: we should think about the opportunities that remote work brings instead. Among other things, you can hire the best people wherever they are, save a tremendous amount of money, pay salaries fitting the geography, and have a diverse workforce. Plus, if your employees are happier working from home, in the end, it will also make you more money. “I can’t think of a company that has catastrophically failed because they have the whole or part of their workforce remote,” Marisa believes. 


Recruiting aligned with the culture 

Just getting to a final round of interviews at Google is an achievement people talk about at dinner parties. To get that coveted spot in one of the tech giant’s impressive offices, you have to go through a lengthy process first. During David’s time there, there were four recruitment criteria. First: general cognitive ability, which translates to the obvious – are you smart? Another desired quality was, of course, role-related knowledge. Interestingly, every candidate was reviewed for leadership capabilities, whether they were applying for a leadership role or not. 

And then there is something cooled googliness. “It’s about what makes a person stand out in the sense that they go above and beyond. If you are passionate about something in your personal life – will you give that same commitment to something at Google?”, David explains. On top of that, you needed to be adaptable, as it’s very likely that very soon, you won’t be doing the same job. 

Recruiting aligned with culture is tricky in the remote world, though – how do you experience the company values and behaviors during interviews conducted via a screen? “There is no way to replicate the office environment. But you can create opportunities for people to meet people. Have them talk to people from another team to showcase the culture transcends departments. Do group calls. In places like Google, you’d meet with a recruiting coordinator when you’re on-site, you’d do the office tour and feel welcome and comfortable. Do that, even if it’s virtually,” Marisa recommends. 

She also warns that while we often refer to a cultural fit when talking about ideal employees, we should rather consider cultural alignment or culture add. “You should be passionate about diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Think about how this person is going to add something to your organization besides what’s already there,” she thinks. 


Culture wisdom to remember 

“Now, culture first. More than ever.” David Bizer

“Adapt or die. You will either find a way to work in this new reality, or you may not survive the aftermath.” Marisa Bryan

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