8 Rules for Managers from Google: “Technical Expertise” is dead-last

The New York Times published Sunday a fascinating article about research at Google on effective management qualities, and it seems worthwhile for those of us who are Principals (and aspiring Principals) to consider the list’s applicability to our leadership practice.

The piece makes clear that this is not just advice from Google’s leadership, but the results of a major research initiative and based on thorough data collection and analysis at Google itself.     Rather than being a grab-bag of assorted techniques, it is a rank-order list of effective tactics, organized in order of importance, and so the conclusion to be drawn from those items near the bottom is that they simply aren’t very important. Interestingly,

technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

Technical expertise ranks dead last.   I wonder how my colleagues in educational leadership view this.

It is my humble opinion that in educational leadership, pedagogical expertise is highly valuable.  It is not just my thought, but a key motivator in how I spend my time, seeking very seriously to continue my learning and growth in this technical expertise.   Also, I have to say I have some mild resentment about the appointment of those without pedagogical expertise (but perhaps strong management and people skills) to the position of principal or school-leader, and so I am sorry to see that the Google research would suggest this is a reasonable practice:

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

One reasonable response of course is that Google is a technology company and schools are not, so we should be wary of extending the analogy of their research conclusions too far.

The list, in order of importance, with a few comments:

1. Be a Good Coach: provide constructive feedback, with positive and negative, and meet one-on-one often.

This is first, and it should be no surprise to informed educators: we know that being a good coach is essential teaching practice.   But do we practice frequent constructive feedback regularly enough?   Regrettably, I know this continues to be a major area of opportunity for my own growth as a manager.

2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage.

Surely this is something at which we in educational management, with our high regard for faculty autonomy, are excellent, though the rise of standardized testing and teaching practice manuals has worked against this practice.   Second in importance, this advice reiterates the counsel of Dan Pink in Drive, that providing employees greater autonomy greatly provides their performance and innovative capacity.

3. Express interest in team-members success and personal well-being. Get to know their personal lives, and make sure they feel welcome onto the team when new.

Someone once advised me you have to ask everyone everyday about their dog, something that is simply not that easy for me.    The lesson here is also applicable to what we should never forget to teach our students: caring about others will be a great job asset.

4. Don’t be a Sissy: Be Productive and Results Oriented Focus on what you want to achieve, and help achieve it; help employees prioritize.

I’m not satisfied with the term “sissy;” it is not in my vernacular and I don’t like it.   In education of course we are in pitched battle about the rise of “results oriented” management in schools and districts.   If the wisdom is to seek data and use it to inform judgement, I can welcome it; if the call is to let data replace judgement, leave me out of it.

But this message is not just about test scores– it is also about organizing our work (professional development, educational initiatives, technology improvements) to align with our school’s mission and priorities, and this is something we can not be reminded of often enough.

5. Be a good communicator, and listen to your team. Communication is two-way.

Yes– I am sure we all put this high on our personal lists.  I’d add that we should work toward multi-modal communications– electronic, written, oral, visual– and that we not rely on the open-door policy that awaits people come to us: we have to go to them, out into their classrooms and spaces.

6. Help your Employees with Career Development.

I have the suspicion that this is an aspect of management about which educational leaders could learn from corporate managers.  This is in part due to our having so much less clearly a many-runged ladder of career advancement, and we typecast our people quickly into career teachers, not-going-to last-er’s, and future principals.  The last, maybe, when we have time for it (and not often enough), get some of our support and mentoring; the others get none.  We should find more ways to understand the aspirations of those whom we manage and lead, and find more opportunities for them to advance and grow.

7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.

The “vision thing,” as it was once described, is not easy for anyone, even for future Presidents such as George H.W. Bush: myself, I think it can only be developed and articulated as part of an ongoing process of learning, research, writing, sharing, receiving feedback, and sharing further.   But it is important, though we should remember that in this rank-order list, it is much less important than those items atop.

8. Have key technical skills so you can advise the team.

On the list, but dead last. I am curious to inquire of my colleagues: do you think this belongs dead-last?  Does it belong higher than some or all the others in school leadership?  Or is it simply an eight-way tie: they are all so important that rank-ordering them is a futile enterprise?


  1. Steve said:

    Really interesting analysis thank you. I believe one can be an effective leader without the technical knowledge oneself. I stil clearly remember the moment, as part of a coaching course many years ago, when we learned a coaching technique to help others solve a real life problem without any prior knowledge, simply by asking the right questions. More intriguing for me is the ‘vision’ being so low at no7. How can you coach and empower people, and communicate with them effectively on how to be results oriented, if you are not clear what the target is?

    March 17, 2011
    • Brett said:

      The vision thing is an interesting conundrum, especially in light of being productive and results-oriented weighing in above articulating a clear vision. My take away is that it is easier for someone to be able to articulate a vision or a strategy and quite another thing to be able to employ the skills to bring it to fruition (all of the other skills that ranked above vision).

      In regards to the author’s concerns about the value of pedagogical expertise being diminished by these results, I agree with Don that Google’s research doesn’t seem to say it isn’t important, but that the having the other skills are more essential.

      March 18, 2011
      • Lee said:

        Interesting. I am however laughing at the need to use the word “pedagogical”.
        Love the plain english.

        March 25, 2011
  2. Don Falls said:

    I think that administrators could learn alot from this body of research. Despite what we want to believe, many adminstrators do not display these characteristics nor does the educational bureaucracy promote many of these techniques. The one area where this is increasingly true is the micromanagement of the classroom and curriculum. The “gatekeeper” (see research by Steve Thornton) role has been eroded by the imposition of “boxed” curriculums directed from district offices. Further, many of those going into administration are frankly the weaker educators that lack the necessary skills to effectively run schools. This is a problem at all levels of education not just the school site. This is not to say that there is not many good administrators that possess and utilize the best techniques of management, but far too many are weak, ineffective leaders that continue to promote the status quo and crush creativity. On the issue of technical expertise, I don’t think Google’s research suggested that managers should not have technical prowess but that workers do not look to them for technical assistance. I agree that school administrators should possess a strong and intellectual knowledge of pedagogy (too many do not) and should be up to date on the latest research. However, administrators must resist the tendency to micromanage and defer to the expertise of the classroom teacher.

    March 18, 2011
  3. Vision and communication skills would be closer to the top of my list. Not micromanaging is more of part one’s vision than a real skill. It shouldn’t be that hard to get out of the way. I was an administrator for 30 years and teach leadership courses for teachers who want to be leaders. Certainly there is no need for a leader to write code and you probably wouldn’t want a leader to use their time to do so. They should know what technology can do and have a vision of how it can be used as a tool to improve learning and motivate students. At the least a leader should be able to use the Web for daily professional development (like using resources at DrDougGreen.Com) and use a spreadsheet for budgeting. A leader should also be able to type fast enough so he or she can do their own work and emails. What is missing from this list is appearance. It does matter how you look. You don’t have to be pretty or handsome to dress well and stay fit. If a leader can take care of diet, exercise, and manage their own stress level, they are off to a good start.

    March 20, 2011
    • Derek L. McCoy said:

      Understanding the difference and importance between micromanaging/technical skills and setting a vision has been part of my leadership experience over the last couple of years. I’ve always taken pride in being knowledgeable of several tools but I’ve noticed that has been a hindrance in getting teachers to buy in or understand the need to integrate a tool into instruction. Looking back, I’ve focused a lot on making sure targetted personnel knew ‘Step 1’, ‘Step 2’, etc. Now as a principal, I realize we have to focus on outcomes and making sure this impacts student learning. The other part of the micromanaging point is empowering – we need to empower/trust teachers to learn and implement once they buy in.

      March 20, 2011
      • I agree that when a principal has high-level technical skills that it can be a hinderance to adoption by teachers. They tend to think that if the “high-tech” principal can do it, I probably can’t. This is also true for innovators in the teacher corps who people don’t tend to follow because they don’t think they can. What is needed in your teacher population are people who have the vision, are willing to try something, and are teachers that others think they can follow. You want your teachers to think “if she or he can do it, so can I.” I have studied the diffusion of innovations extensively in educational environments and this is a common theme. I hope this helps.

        March 20, 2011
  4. robert moryc said:

    could a manager PLEASE call me.one of your tecs said enerything is fine… now4 things are out….i cuun not get to the phone nombers because they have been busy for about 5 o66 days and nights… the only the person wanted to is sell me ins… i have been taken advantage of in the worst way… i hane to go to the hospitla saturda but should be home by one.. my number is 0415795460. call any time even if its 3 in the morning, or PLEASE leave me your number… i have been done wrong very badley, i an sure you can see that.thank you…sinserly robert morys…i an at the end of my rope and just trying to hold on

    September 27, 2013
  5. James said:

    The actual list of attributes of good managers was more than 40 items. These were the top eight. In other words, every one of them is necessary in order to be a good manager, including having technical skill in the area you are managing in.
    Also, if you think you would order them differently you are missing the point. The was entirely data driving, as opposed to our anecdotal evidence.

    July 1, 2015

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