In this interview Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, describes his culture as a competitive advantage. I have spent time working with Google as a client and found their culture and values to be very alive. Their core value is the statement ‘do no evil’.
They got some poor press for this around the time when they went into China, and were struggling with the Chinese government’s attempts to control the content that was visible to Chinese users. My experience of them from the inside was that they treated the situation as a true ‘values dilemma’. I see the role of a good values statement to ensure that you ask the right set of questions. Values create the right conversations in the many instances where a situation seems grey, not black or white. Was it more important to provide internet access to Chinese people, even under restricted conditions, or not to provide it at all? What I admire about Google is that they have those conversations, vigorously, because they feel passionate about what they stand for. They made their decisions within the context of the right conversation.
It is this that I find makes Google’s culture so strong. They seem conscious of culture all the time. Protective of it, proud of it, aware of the responsibility it places on each one of them to do the right thing. There are not many companies who can call their culture a competitive advantage. Most see their culture as holding them back in some way, and are focusing on how to change it. For Google, the cultural challenge is how to preserve the culture they have as they grow.
As the financial crisis hit, and advertising revenues were down, Google faced the challenge of how to keep their employee-centric culture whilst simultaneously making across the board expense cuts for the first time in their history. They had to distinguish between the values of employee-centricity, and the perks which they had always given to employees. I experienced their response first hand. They were the first client to make drastic cuts to external consultant budgets, moving within days of the crisis. Clean, sharp, clear. I saw them demonstrating that accountability and employee-centricity can go hand in hand. Their recent results show them emerging even stronger from the crisis.
Once you have built a strong culture, you have a deposit of trust with your employees. You’ve walked your talk for a long time, and they know that. Sending a message that employee benefits have to be cut, or the workforce reduced, is accepted within a context of a strong culture and a financial crisis. But without the strong shared values, decisions like that are met with cynicism.
Schmidt claims that Google’s culture is a competitive advantage over Microsoft’s. Microsoft’s culture is also strong, though very different from Google’s. The question for each to ask is ‘Given the attributes of our culture, what strategies are we most suited to succeed at?’ This is the easier question. The more difficult one is ‘now that we need a new strategy how to we adapt our culture to enable us to execute?’. It is essential to address one or other question, or you will be blindsided by the most powerful force of all – your culture.
Are you asking these questions?
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