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Art of Leading

From Google to Humu: Laszlo Bock on Lessons Learned as a First-Time CEO

April 17, 2019

As the SVP for People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock generated a steady stream of compelling insights about hiring, managing talent and building cultures, many of which were captured in his best-seller, “Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google that will Transform How You Live and Lead.” He’s now CEO of Humu, which uses behavioral science and machine learning to improve companies’ work cultures. In our interview, he shared what’s surprised him about the CEO role, the deliberate steps he’s taking to hold onto the culture of a start-up even as Humu scales, and why he thinks Silicon Valley should try harder to build diverse workforces.

Q. This is your first CEO position. How has the job been different from what you expected?

A. There are things you go through in life that you don’t really understand until you experience them. You get married. You have a kid. You lose a relative. All these human things are just very different once you’re going through them.

I was lucky enough to work with a bunch of great CEOs in my old job, so I thought I had a handle on it. What I didn’t expect at all was the crushing responsibility that you feel. In my old job, I felt a lot of responsibility to my team, the company, the shareholders, but for the first six weeks after we started Humu, I literally woke up at 3:30 every morning, stressed out and panicking.

“What I didn’t expect at all was the crushing responsibility that you feel.”

All these people were leaving amazing jobs and opportunities to come here, and if this idea that we came up with doesn’t work, they’d be out of a job. That sense of people being dependent on you was just overwhelming. I talked to John MacFarlane, a co-founder and the former CEO of Sonos, about it and he said, “That’s just your body accepting the reality of the responsibility you’ve taken on.”

Q. What else?

A. I was very anxious about people in the company feeling like, “Oh we’re just going to try to rebuild Google.” So early on, we just did hiring by consensus, and we had this very organic process. We basically ignored all the lessons that I’d learned at Google. Within the first seven months we had to fire four people out of twelve. We had hired people we knew and so we didn’t vet them carefully, and we didn’t have a science-backed process.

I then realized that I should actually use the knowledge and experience I have, so we put in a hiring process where everyone gets assessed based on attributes and you assign scores. It’s a lightweight version of what we had at Google. We haven’t had to fire anybody since.

I don’t like the idea of the founder-cult-of-personality and didn’t want to go in that direction, because humans naturally create that kind of hierarchy. But I did pull back and realize that there are a few things that I actually do have deep expertise in that we should not shy away from.

Another thing is we’ve deliberately tried to avoid putting in process and structure. And we only put in process and structure once just about everyone in the company is saying, “Why don’t we do…?” Or, “Why don’t we have more structure or process?” So we still don’t have a performance management system, we don’t have a review process, we don’t have levels, titles, promotions, or anything like that.

About nine months ago, we put in place a way to manage our projects and Wayne (Crosby, a co-founder) decided to call them “boats.” Wayne’s insight was that we should organize work not by function, but instead organize into these kind of ephemeral projects, or boats, and anyone can captain a boat. We have boats that are product-driven that are led by sales people. We have boats that are customer-driven that are led by engineers.

The idea is that anyone should have the opportunity and support to lead a project related to anything we’re doing, as long as they have deep interest in it and want to put in the time. And then a team gets built around them and it lives for as long as it needs to and then it dissolves.

Q. And who decides if a lot of people put up their hand to captain a boat? In effect, who is the admiral?

A. So far it’s been pretty organic. Again, we wait for there to be enough demand or clear need that people are feeling and then we say, “Okay, that should be a boat.” The downside of that, and it’s a deliberate management tradeoff, is that people live in kind of a constant state of, “How come we’re not doing this? Doesn’t leadership see the opportunity or the need for this or that thing?” But we’d rather have that than have people saying, “Why are we so bureaucratic? Why are we moving so slowly? Why is there a process for everything?”

Q. These challenges are going to get harder as you scale.

A. The rule of thumb from my old job and from my advisory work is that once you get to more than 10 or 12 people, you need to have more infrastructure and communicating because not everyone knows everything. Between 50 and 75 people, they start insisting on more structure because they want to know where they stand in the organization, how to get better and how to move up.

Around 150, you tend to really need actual performance management and things like that. By 200, you need all the basic, org chart, bureaucratic kind of building blocks. For Wayne, Jessie (Wisdom, the third co-founder) and I, our aspiration is to blow through at least one extra level on each of those steps. But it requires a lot of work.

Q. What else are you doing to try to make your culture different?

A. Diversity and inclusion are really important. I know everyone says that. Our company is more than 20 percent black and Latinx, we’re 55 percent female, and we’re 73 percent non-white, non-male.

Q. So when you hear tech executives say, “We’re trying on diversity but the pipeline isn’t there,” how do you react?

A. That’s bullshit. And the reason it’s bullshit is because of what I’ve seen happen again and again at tech companies when it comes to diversity. The C-level executives say, “We’re all for it.” And there are people deep in the organization who are all for it. But the layer just below the C-level team doesn’t follow through and make the hiring decisions to do it, even though they say they’re for it.

“If companies want to take diversity seriously, it’s actually not that hard.”

Even though somebody took a chance on them at some point, they’re unwilling to look beyond a certain very narrow profile once they’re in the job. And given the demographics of the industry, most of the people you look at are going to be white and male or perhaps Asian and male. They cast around for the perfect, ideal candidate instead of finding somebody who is eminently qualified and capable but didn’t have the right schools or companies or doesn’t check every single box.

Those people are just as good, it’s just that they had less opportunity. That’s where I think it breaks down. If companies want to take diversity seriously, it’s actually not that hard. You just need to hire more people from different backgrounds. Many companies just choose not to.

Q. I see from your website that you have a “chore list” for employees. Tell me about that.

A. Like a lot of tech companies, we provide lunch for our employees. Four days a week, it’s brought in from local restaurants. One day a week, we give people a budget to go out and spend money in the community for lunch. The only requirement is that you have to have at least two other people with you, so that you’re bonding and connecting.

On the other four days, we have a chore list because food gets brought in and someone has to do setup, someone has to do cleanup, and there are dishes to be done. And there’s a rotating list so everybody takes a turn in groups of three. When you’re a small company, everyone is a team player and rolls up their sleeves. As you get big, people feel more anonymous and less conscientious and think it’s someone else’s job.

We only want people here who feel really like owners. It’s a way of reinforcing that ownership mentality in the sense of, we’re all doing this and no one person is above another. We’re going to do really cool stuff, but there’s stuff that’s not so cool that has to happen, too.

Q. What do you want to be better at as a leader two years from now?

A. Aside from everything? There’s an unsolved problem of balancing being really participatory with also having to make decisions, particularly 51 percent/49 percent kind of decisions. What’s the right way to include people? Who do you include? How do you decide? How do you communicate the decision? I want to be better at that.

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