Management

The American View: The In-Turn Slip

Organisations decline over time as new hires lose sight of what the founders intended. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert looks at how the USA has forgotten the importance and meaning of Labor Day, and a company that seems to be similarly in decline.

Yesterday was Labor Day here in the US, a bank holiday where we’re supposed to celebrate the struggles and nobility of the trade unions and industrial workers that have helped make the nation prosperous. In reality, most Americans don’t pay any attention at all to the history of unions or the plight of workers. Instead, most folks use the three-day weekend to celebrate the unofficial end of summer. It’s fitting that we tend to forget our history and lose track of what’s important; it’s an American tradition for one put-upon generation to learn a difficult life lesson and for the generation that immediately follows to blissfully and completely miss the point. [1]

This isn’t just a social movement thing; it’s a human thing. Whatever great things one group does to build or create or expand something gets lost by the group that inherits their accomplishment. We see this all the time in companies: a group of scrappy founders build a powerful company up from nothing … and then the second or third generation of employees completely screws up what the founders created because they don’t understand what it was that made the company great in the first place. What one generation builds, the next slips up and squanders.

Along those lines, this coming week is an anniversary for me (or sorts). It’s when I realized that one of the (supposedly) greatest companies in the modern world had reached its tipping point and had started sliding down from the pinnacle of greatness towards irrelevance.

Bob’s exuberance at having beaten the mountain led to a enthusiastic high-five that sent both climbers toppling backwards into the majestic canyon.

About four years ago next week, a dude that I’d never heard of before sent me a direct message over LinkedIn begging me for a phone call. I was busy closing out ten years’ worth of projects at the time, since I was leaving a gig I’d held steadily since 9/11. I sent the fellow a courteous (but noncommittal) reply and asked him if he was serious and what specifically he wanted. Didn’t expect to hear anything back, if I’m honest.

The mystery recruiter went silent on me for forty-eight hours then popped back up – again, via LinkedIn DM – late at night (my time). Apparently, he was California-based and only reached out to prospect hires at the end of his shift. He repeated his ‘urgent’ request for a phone call … and that was it. He left me with nothing to go on. Irritated, I gave him my mobile number told him to call me late the following afternoon.

Our first conversation was surprisingly pleasant. He introduced himself as an internal corporate recruiter for Google, said that he’d found my LinkedIn profile in a search for specific high-demand/low-density skills, and wanted to encourage me to apply for full-time work with all the Best Brains™ out west. I pressed him about which of my specific skills and/or experienced had so inspired him, and he got strangely distant. He tried fobbing me off with the usual vague platitudes (‘You have so much rich experience!’) and suggested that I take a look through their current openings as soon as possible and get back with him.

I hadn’t reached the ‘yell-at-a-lying-recruiter’ stage of irritation yet. I could see that level of wrath coming on the horizon, though. Being vague about what you’re after doesn’t inspire confidence.

I agreed to the recruiter’s challenge and invested several of my off hours playing with Google’s careers site. After cross-checking hundreds of sets of nearly-identical vague requirements, I found two dozen open reqs that all seemed like partial fits for my skill-set. As expected, there were no positions anywhere on Google’s lists of needed-nerds that called for a snarky ex-military commander from Texas. I said as much when I called the recruiter back and asked him for his opinion on which (of the two dozen options) was (in his expert opinion) an optimal fit.

For a company that prided itself on its applied mathematics, I assumed that there would be at least some science involved in determining needs and evaluating candidates.

‘Google’s an amazing place to work,’ he said in a dreamy, disconnected haze. ‘You should apply!’

I was a taken aback. The voice and the phone number told me that I was talking to the same fellow, but something had clearly changed with him between conversation one and conversation two. I suspected that my recruiter might have picked up a medical marijuana card since we’d last talked.

‘You called me,’ I said in my most charming drawl. ‘So you obviously have something in mind. Something that was worth taking all this time and effort. Of the twenty-four possible fits that I sussed out in my browsing, which is the closest fit to what you’re wanting filled?’

‘Just decide what you want to do most in life,’ the git said. ‘Then put all your effort into applying for that one job.’

‘That’s not how hiring works,’ I said – struggling to mask my exasperation. ‘You’re the recruiter. You have specific reqs to fill. If I’m a fit for one of your reqs and you can convince me to fill it, then you win the game. If I’m not a fit or if I won’t agree to complete, then we’re both wasting each other’s time. It’s in your essential self-interest to maximize your chances of satisfying your employer’s most pressing needs by being clear with me up-front. What say you save us both some time and tell me what it is that you really want?’

After his fifth languid ‘I dunno’ response, I was ready to throttle the recruiter.

‘Just search until you find your perfect fit,’ he urged as if asking me to taste the colour blue. ‘Then apply for it online! Just be sure to only ever apply for one job, because if you apply for more than one than we know you’re not serious.’

I closed the call as courteously as I could before I said something scandalously incendiary. We were well within ‘yell-at-a lying-recruiter’ territory and I had a Tarantino film’s worth of profane invective impatiently queueing up for a good cathartic soliloquy.

Thoroughly fed up with the recruiter’s stoned unprofessionalism, I gave him a few days to sober up and tried ringing him again. I figured that I’d have better luck getting the hard-driving head-hunter of him if I caught him first thing in the morning (his time). He didn’t, however, get to work at eight like a normal office worker. Or at nine like a banker. Or at ten like a fraternity brother of the CEO. He hadn’t even made it in to work by noon according to the young lady manning the office phone.

Everyone with an ounce of pop culture awareness believed at the time that Google was bit more … permissive … than your average Fortune 500 mega-corp. The Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy ‘The Internship’ had come and come by the end of that summer. Even the most Dot Com oblivious people around my office had heard enough of the Google legends to have a rough understanding of what it meant to be a Google insider. So … Sure. Maybe this super-smart, tech-savvy, hip-and-with-it recruiter was cool enough to not even start his workday until after the markets closed in New York. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was focused more on the local talent.

Maybe his technique was a sure-fire winner with the California ‘beach programmer’ crowd.

Or, more likely, the recruiter was just a fraud with a self-destructive streak. After all, how freaking difficult is it to be a bloody internal recruiter for freaking Google? He worked for one of the wealthiest and most prestigious companies on the planet. Getting Google’s name on your CV can launch even a pathetic washout’s career into the stratosphere merely by strength of association. Odds are, this ‘recruiter’ never had to learn anything at all about talent management, résumé screening, or sales. All he had to do was to ring outsiders up and offer them a token salaried position inside the holy land. BLAM! Position filled. Minimum effort with no actual recruiting skill required.

I wondered for a while whether or not I’d spooked the fellow when I asked him a bunch of normal professional questions about ‘requirements’ and ‘needs.’ Maybe he’d taken up weed to soothe his jangly nerves after he’d found himself hopelessly out of his depth talking to someone who wasn’t a wide-eyed new uni grad. That was a flattering idea for my ego, but not very realistic.

Most likely, the guy was simply crap at his job and also happened to enjoy the occasional recreational toke. Millions of people all over the world fit that description. He likely wasn’t particularly special or noteworthy, save in one critical respect: he worked at freaking Google.

Back when Da Google launched in 1998, it was just another ambitious and hungry Dot Com start-up. By the time that we started using google.com for Internet searches inside Yahoo! in 2000, [2] the company was stealthy enough that no one really understood what they did – let alone what it took to qualify to work there. By 2013 – just nine years after their IPO – everyone in the tech industry believed that Google was the place to work if you wanted to be prestigious, envied, and filthy, filthy rich. Google demanded – and got – the best of the best of the best from all over the world: computer scientists. Engineers. Mathematicians. Chefs. Massage therapists. Whatever job needed doing at Google, they could pay premium rates to get the top performers. That’s what made recruiting for Google so easy. It’s also why – I think – they became blinded by their own hype.

To be fair, it may be that I have a case of sour (Sonoma Valley) grapes over the misadventure.

The twit of a recruiter that torqued me off at the end of the summer of 2013 might have been the best-of-the-best-of-the-best … once. By the time that he got ‘round to bothering me, though, he was a pathetic waste of company resources. He was unfocused, inarticulate, feckless, and sounded like he was stoned on company time. He either wasn’t Google material anymore … or else he never had been, and he’d somehow slipped through their filters.

Whichever it was, this one recruiter had soured my impression of the entire company for life. This is the sort of bloke that they send out in public to represent themselves? That suggested that they were incapable of recognizing when one of their own was unacceptably out-of-bounds. Didn’t matter which profile turned out to be the right one: I wasn’t interested in being associated with an outfit that was that unprofessional.

I realize that isn’t fair to the thousands of truly-admirable boffins labouring away in Google’s tech dungeons. Given their insane market cap, it’s likely that they still have amazing talent. The thing is, I haven’t forgotten that one twit recruiter. It’s not like he wasted a lot of my time, but the way he changed personalities on me was infuriating enough to lodge in my memory. He represented his brand poorly, thereby doing a disservice to his more dedicated teammates.

Or, if you consider the normal course of organizations and movements, he might just have been an accurate harbinger of things to come.

I’d hate to see the metaphorical sun set on Google after all the exciting things they’ve created. Still, you can’t expect any organisation to stay exactly as its founders intended forever. 

Google started off as a small, hungry company. They got lucky, then grew and prospered. They became successful, and then got huge and arrogant. Then, once they were at the top of their game, they lost sight of what had made them so powerful and beloved in industry. It seems like they’ve lost focus. If they don’t make an effort to hold fast to who they are and what they stand for, they’re going to suffer the same inevitable decline that all great organisations experience: one generation builds something great, only to see their following generations *£&$ everything up in-turn.

It’s a shame, really. I’d hate to see Google devolve from being one of the most-coveted places to work in the IT sector to just another faceless online service that people use to check on road congestion for their annual trek to the beach on the unofficial last day of summer.


[1] Like the whole bloody Nazis-are-awful lesson. If the news is any indication, we seem to have completely forgotten everything related to that concept.

[2] Yes. We did. Everyone I knew inside Yahoo! used Google’s unofficial, unannounced search engine instead of our own.

 

Title Allusion: Vince Vaughn and Jared Stern, The Internship (2013 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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