Chris Hood, Google’s Head of Business Innovation and Strategy and host of 'That Digital Show' podcast, talks about Google's team culture and burnout.
Hi everyone, my name is Dex Randall and this is The Burnout to Leadership Podcast where I teach professional men to recover from burnout and get back to passion and reward at work. Alright. Hello, my friends, this is Dex. And today I have a very exciting guest coming on to the show, Chris Hood, and Chris is the Head of Business Innovation and Strategy at Google, and he's also host of That Digital Show Podcast. He is a digital strategist, podcaster, thought leader, speaker and author really over the last four, five years and he teaches also at Colorado Technical University, also the New Hampshire University. And Chris comes from a background of media and entertainment, working with companies like Fox, Disney, Universal and Electronic Arts. So that's kind of an audit history of where he's at. Anything you'd like to add to that, Chris, about where you're at now. No, I think you did a wonderful job, that's... It's always funny to listen to somebody talk about yourself and then you're like, yes, that's it. Is that you? Yeah, that's me. Alright. Well, it's delightful to have you on today, thank you for coming along. I got millions of questions I could probably chat with you all day but let's start here. Because I think you and I have some common points of interest and that's where I'd like to explore. Basically, I'm a technologist too, I'm a software engineer from way back, but these days I'm more interested in the people side of tech, I'm interested in leadership team culture, innovation, change, all of which are in your wheelhouse as well, in which you speak about. And I think I've heard you describe your current role at Google as a combination of marketing digital strategy and consulting with customers, which is very much the kind of role that I played in the second half of my career. So here's what I'm not gonna do, I'm not gonna ask you how you ended up at Google, 'cause I know you talk about that a lot. I've listened to your Chris Adam's interview on a tech show earlier this month on that, so people can look that up if they want to. And here's what I would like to know about your transition to Google, first of all, what were the most useful skills that you transferred from your entertainment career into Google? It's a good question, and I've been asked the same question, and what I like to share with people is, everything in my past has allowed me to get to where I am today, it sounds a little cliche at times, but the reality is just that you can leverage any experience that you have, any skill set that you have, and you can apply it into technology or into a role or when we talk about envision. And why is that? We do it because everything we engage with today is all about experience, it's all about developing these unique and interactive engaging opportunities that we experience every single day of our lives. So if you really look at it, our lives have become technology, technology is just an answer of our lives. So you can put aside my background and my experience and focus on your individual, or if you're listening to this right now, what your individual skills are... And I'll kind of give you an example of this. I was talking with somebody recently, and they were explaining how their son was interested in technology, but their background was in fashion design and they couldn't comprehend how they could make this transition from fashion design into technology, and I explained that there are so many elements of fashion in technology, anything from user design and experience, but not only that, if we look in the video game space, creating custom outfits in your characters, developing unique use of design and fashion, arts and culture, all of that is inside of technology and it's something that we engage with on a regular basis. The company, Ulta Beauty, as an example, they're a beauty make up supplier, retailer, and yet they have unbelievable technology in their organization to help people better find, whether it's the matching color or whether it's the right shade of lipstick, they've got virtual try on types of things, and it's an example of how you can take something that is seemingly obscure, like makeup or fashion, and apply it today into technology, and there's multiple examples of that. So if we go back into what your question was, one of the things is story telling, and what you're gonna see here today as we continue our conversation, the ability to share these types of stories is a common theme in movies and television, it's all about stories, and then to apply that into a business role where I can then share stories and help people better understand technology in different ways, that's ultimately what I do. That's a great example of what I've been able to achieve over the years and has helped me greatly. Yeah, and I so much agree with that. I think that there's a really strong thread coming across when I look at the work that you talk about of bringing people together. Yes, technology underpins everything we do now. For some of us who are a little bit older, we are lucky we got into tech early because now we have that background, but this whole thing about helping diverse teams come together as humans to solve problems and create value I think is an area of such enormous pay off in this technology universe that we live in now, and actually one of my favorite quotes that I heard from you is, "Faced with a problem, technical teams will over engineer a solution to it, rather than just getting people in the same room." It kind of made me laugh 'cause I am a software developer, it's a stereotype that we don't talk to people, but actually there there could be a grain of truth in that. And also for me it's... I work with people in burnout and it's a very strong thread in people in burnout that they'd like to throw more fire power at the problem rather than get together with people to form a solution, and I just wondered if you had any more perspective on that in the way that you're working in Google now. So what's interesting in there is, like you said, there might be a stereotype, but if we remove the stereotypes from that particular example, there is clear scenarios where people don't want to include other people in whatever the work is that they're doing. The ability to collaborate is a challenge at a lot of organizations. And you know what, when you talk about burnout, there is a certain level of burnout that contributes to potentially that lack of collaboration, like "Just tell me what you need me to do, let me focus on it, I'm gonna just go off into my corner over to my desk, I'm gonna get the work done and I'm gonna deliver it." And in there there's often times where you don't even necessarily know why we're doing something. "Here's a task list, I'm just gonna go down that task list, one, two, three, four, five, complete it" with no real insight as to what the benefit is, what it's contributing to the organization. I can't tell you how many times I've spoken with engineers and they've said, "I don't know what this is for, what's the bigger picture?" And engineers want to know, they want to know that the work that they are doing is contributing in some way to the success of the organization, and they wanna know that they were a part of that. And so I do think that a lot of times that burnout can come and you're not listened to when your opinions are not heard, when you don't have the opportunity to collaborate. All of those things create tension and insecurity in a workforce within us individually. And so what I've learned at Google is that we can get past a lot of that burnout by being more inclusive, listening to people, bringing people into the conversation, sharing with them, and at times over sharing with them, and giving them full, open platforms of communication so that they can be ultimately more productive. That doesn't mean you're not gonna still have burnout, we get burnout for a lot of different reasons, some of them are gonna be personal reasons, some of them is because it's just not the right fit in terms of the role and what you're asked to do, some of them are going to be because of people and relationships and disconnects between management. But it's amazing how much of that overall burnout can be removed once you begin to include people in collaboration, basic conversation about what's going on, insights into the organization and why we're working toward something, strategy and making sure that there's a right fit, making sure that you are heard, making sure that you are comfortable and you feel protected. The last thing we wanna do is to say, "Hey, share with me your idea," and then we open up, share ideas and somebody says, "No, that's not a good idea. Next." If you don't have that safety of feeling like you cannot only be heard but your opinions matter, then yeah, we're going to get discouraged and that burnout is gonna happen a lot faster. I really like your point as well about sharing with engineers the why, because an engineer doesn't really solve the "what" an engineer always solves for the "why". So if you're gonna tie their hands behind their back by saying, "I want this feature," it's gonna be without context, without why we're doing it, I think it's always very difficult and it's such a common way of working for so many of us, that this is the problem I want you to solve but not why I want you to solve it. I think that's quite interesting. And also the way you need to go about burnout, I've heard you talking already on another of your videos about innovation and psychological safety, so you're talking about the Google survey, finding that the highest performing teams have one thing in common, which is psychological safety, the belief that you won't be punished for making mistakes. And you know, there's a lot of heavy hitters who were behind the same notion, like Brene Brown and others, Jim Collins, talking about the same thing. So I wonder how you actually... Because you are so self aware around that, how do you or how does Google promote that experience of psychological safety within the teams? 'Cause it's not an easy thing to do for many people. Yeah, it starts in the culture. A challenge with any organization is that culture can't change overnight. You can't just say, "Hey, I want you all to be psychological safety experts" and expect it to just happen. Those types of things have to be rooted inside of the culture from day one or from a specific point in time and they have to nurture and mature over time, and as they do mature over time, you no longer have to really teach it, it just becomes a part of the DNA, it becomes a part of how we conduct business on a regular basis. There is no point in time in my job at Google where I say, I may not want to say this, or I'm not sure this is the right audience or I'm worried that if I mention this, somebody might say something back to me, whatever it is. I just don't think that way, because the culture around me has been created to continuously support ideas and perspective and all of it without fear of retaliation or laughter, anything else we wanna put in there. So organizations who are trying to reach this have to make the decision, this is what we're gonna do, and start doing it. But again, you can't expect that it's just gonna magically happen overnight. The problem with a lot of organizations is that because that's not rooted in their culture, there is that fear, there is the retaliation, even at times unfortunately. I've been in a lot of jobs where I was not gonna say what I think needed to be said, I was not gonna voice my opinion because I knew if I did, my manager or a leader or somebody was gonna come back and call me into his office and say, why did we say this? And again, it's an example of different cultures within different organizations where one organization just does not deal with it and just allows that corporate politics and toxic environments to fester and then in another organization where it just isn't there, because the culture has always defined that this is how we're going to operate and everybody's opinions matter. Yeah, it's quite interesting 'cause a lot of people in burnout are a bit like you first describe, they're a little bit too on the back foot, they're not feeling very successful in their role, they're feeling there are challenges in the organization and they won't step forward and say things, they wanna work alone because that's kind of the safest thing. So it's quite interesting, this idea of creating psychological safety in teams in the culture because, well, partly because it involves vulnerability, it involves authenticity and honesty, which isn't the culture that many people have grown up in, and I think that that's very difficult, but also people do walk into organizations where there is no psychological safety, or there's very low psychological safety, and they can't control for that. So when I work with people in burnout, what I do is I'm teaching them to create internal safety that they can't find in their organization, 'cause I'm wondering, when somebody comes into a Google team then so... You feel free to speak your mind at Google, I wonder what kind of a new guy in the team... What do you see happening for the new guys, how do they respond to this kind of radical honesty, radical candour, if you like? Well, there's a couple of different ways that we could address that, the first is, let's just say new person shows up to work, they are on a team meeting and they're seeing everybody being vocal and contributing and speaking their mind and whatnot, and I'm sure for those individuals they're thrown off a little bit. They're like, "Whoa, I'm not used to this." Like, "Oh, this is a little crazy, people are actually sharing." So I'm sure that it's eye opening to a lot of new employees as they're starting to figure that out, navigate the culture, trying to adapt to the culture, and all you can do is continue to conduct meetings like we normally would. And I think people typically ramp up fairly quickly on that, they get a sense like, "Oh wow, I can share, oh." And after the first time you do it, oh, I shared this, I was vulnerable in this moment, hearing my team meeting with my boss in the room, and I was rewarded in some way for that, that's a new experience, I like that, I'm gonna keep doing that, but I'll take this all the way back. Because the other way that we can look at this is actually in the hiring process. And at Google, we have a very unique hiring process and part of that allows us to identify individuals who are going to be open, who are going to contribute, who are going to have some understanding of psychological safety, and we want to bring individuals into the culture that have a natural fit in the culture. And so again, there's a really interesting case study when you start to look at the hiring practices of different organizations and you say... Now again, this is the number one thing that everybody comes to me, well, you're Google, everybody wants to work for Google, you've got a laundry list of people who are lined up at the door to apply and you get thousands of resumes a day because you're Google. We are not Google, we have this problem, we don't get as many resumes, we get maybe two or three applicants per job, people don't necessarily wanna work for us, etcetera, etcetera. Well, there it is. Why don't they want to work for you? It's not because you're not Google, it's because there is a cultural challenge that you potentially have. And so what these companies end up doing is, well, we're going to hire the first person available to us that meets all of our criteria and none of that criteria is, do they fit into the culture that we want to build and we want to establish? And they can't do that because they got a limited number of individuals and so you're hiring people that potentially are bringing in levels of toxicity into an already toxic environment and they're all trying to navigate around each other. And again, some might say this is a catch 22 but you ultimately have to decide what's the path that you wanna do if... Start doing it, build that culture and then what I think you'll find is that because you have that positive culture within your organization, you're going to start seeing an increase of people who want to work for you, you're going to have individuals who stay longer, the churn rate of employment is going to reduce because you're building up the culture that is going to be supportive of those individuals. So it has to not only start with building the culture that you wanna have but then being very specific about the hiring process that will contribute to that culture instead of continually to create chaos within it. Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think it's actually a little bit naive to think you can hire on skills without culture, without a cultural fit. And I do think, Jim Collins in Good to Great articulates this so beautifully about how to embark on changing culture if you don't have that culture already that will attract and keep the right people. He talks about how to build that for so many organizations that are not there yet and therefore they are not attracting the cultural fit that they would like to attract. But when we think about that, so when we think about leadership and running teams and hiring policy and culture, where do you think that leaders go wrong the most often in that area? Where do leaders go wrong in that area? Yeah, what are the challenges, do you think, for leaders in that space? Well, again, I think there is a level of desperation, "I need to hire somebody, I need that individual today, I'm just going to hire someone." That's acting out of desperation, that's not acting in the best interest of the organization or saying, "You know what, we're gonna have to figure it out for the next couple of weeks, but I'd rather kind of juggle things for the next couple of weeks than just to hire somebody just for the sake of filling a seat." I think that's a big mistake for a lot of organizations. I think the other big mistake, and I'm sure I'll get a lot of flack for this, it's that you're allowing hiring managers to actually do the hiring. At Google, our hiring managers have nothing to do with the hiring process, and there's a whole philosophy around what our approach is to remove bias out of the hiring process, but we've all been there as well. We know darn well that... I can tell you a number of stories where you've got a new leader coming in, the leader comes in, basically lets everybody go because they don't know those individuals and then they hire all of their friends into the organization, because they trust their friends and it's just an opportunity to hire people they know. And they bring them with them along the entire path. When they leave, they go on to another job and they repeat the process, and it's a process of leaders basically firing and hiring just for the sake of getting their friends into the room. And no one can say that that doesn't happen, it happens all over the place and that is a problem because one, you're maintaining the negative culture and two, you're allowing somebody to dictate what your culture is in that environment. If you could remove all of that and you can say, "Look, we're going to hire the best individuals who possess the best skills, who fit the best culture" and you're going to get those individuals and you as a leader have to lead them, you'd be amazed at how much improvement to the culture you would see materialize. But again, that's a decision that leaders and organizations have to make. Yeah, that's quite interesting. I understand the rationale behind that and I can see why you think that that might be contentious, 'cause there's not a lot of hiring processes. But I'm curious then, in what... In your time at Google, what challenges have you faced yourself in that leadership capacity? None. Really? How come? Tell me, tell me more. This is what's so interesting about the different cultures of different organizations. My personal experience, going from a company in my past, several companies in my past, not to name names, but those companies were extremely toxic and the culture was always negative and then moved into Google, and when I got to Google I began to see that it was nothing like what my experience had been. I went into Google prepped with all of the typical stereotypical skills in mind like, "Okay, do I begin to track who I talk to and who I don't talk to? Who's friends with which person, because if I know they're friends, then I can't say something to this person, because I know it's gonna get back to that person. When I'm in meetings, observe and don't speak." All of these things that you kind of go through to what we call play politics in my job I no longer had to do. And it was very eye opening, but even if we extend past that, I've mentioned several times, the culture of Google is different. All of these things about psychological safety and more are at Google. And so I have never had a challenge with any leadership, I have never had a leader within my organization take one of my ideas and claim it to be their own. I've never had somebody tell me to do something that simply and frankly didn't make sense. I didn't have a manager come up to me and say, "Well, let's keep that to ourselves and not share." All of the typical things that you would encounter in a toxic environment, I have not encountered at Google. And all I can do is contribute that to the hiring process, the culture and the way it's... The way the organization is the lead. And if anybody is sitting there thinking, "Well, I can't do that in my organization," there is more than enough materials out there where you can look at how Google approaches things and begin to replicate those within your organization and you can make those changes. It's not impossible. Yeah, I would agree with that, it can be... It can happen in any organization and that's why I think Good to Great, the book, it's kind of an instruction manual for people who aren't sure where to start with that. And I say as well, when I work with people in burnout, people in burnout are pretty much at the end of their road, everything has crashed for them, everything looks like failure, disaster, danger but those people, when they recover, they tend to come back to the kind of leadership that you're talking about, they tend to be really big hearted people who create their own culture of, if you like psychological safety and then suddenly this way of communicating authentically and openly starts to emerge, and I always find that quite fascinating that comes from people in burnout. But I think... We're a little bit short on time, but what I really would love to find out from you in the context of this conversation, if... What your plans are or what your ambitions are in your role in Google in terms of these things that you're aspiring to create a Google? Are you more on the technology and customer solution side? I'm sure there are aspirations that I have, I'm not sure if there's anything aspirational specifically at Google or for my role. What I know is I wake up every day and I enjoy going into the office and I enjoy doing what I'm doing. I enjoy that I get to have conversations like this with people, I enjoy helping organizations change into stronger companies. I enjoy having conversations with customers about brand and unbelievable ideas and again, being at a company that helps embrace those ideas or even make those ideas come to reality. We look at things like the flying car, I don't know if Google's gonna be at the forefront of a flying car, but I know that I'm in a position where if that was to happen, I could potentially be a part of it. Those things are exciting. I think, again, the key in all of this though is, what might be the number one reason for burnout, like if we were to establish what is the number one reason of burnout, and I don't... You might have an idea, the thing that's coming to my mind is simply feeling appreciated. The moment that I no longer feel appreciated for the work that I do, the effort that I make, the ideas that I bring to the table, etcetera, etcetera, then yeah, I might start to get discouraged and I might start to get burnt out. Coming into work every day to do the same routine and not being appreciated for that. And at Google, I genuinely feel that every day I come in to work, I'm appreciated. I'm appreciated for what I bring to the table. And I think if all of the listeners have a chance to work for an organization where you wake up every day and feel appreciated, the number of people who are faced with that burnout will probably start to go down dramatically. Yeah, I think I would agree with that too. And the flip side of being appreciated, when you're not appreciated, it's feelings of failure, feelings of not contributing in a meaningful way, of letting people down, letting yourself down, it's... Really it all adds up to a feeling of self disappointment, I wasn't the person I wanted to be or I didn't make the contribution I wanted to make in that role. So I think appreciation is pretty near the mark, even being noticed for a lot of people. But the way I work with people in burnout, because I can't change the organization that they work for, is I do do a lot of work on self appreciation, a little bit like creating internal psychological safety so that they can show up at work and feel good, this self appreciation. Anything you internalize is gonna be more readily available to you than anything you're looking for outside of yourself. So I teach people to create that kind of resilience inside of them that they can carry with them to work, where it doesn't matter quite so much what kind of appreciation they do get. But I would agree, it's really a lack of efficacy, a lack of appreciation, a lack of feeling of contribution, and therefore a feeling of failing in their role. And because the role is so central to identity, the work role for many people that I work with is so core to their identity, it's kind of an ego insult as well. I agree with everything you said. I would share one, maybe counterpoint or one, maybe additional perspective. Don't let your job be your identity. Your identity is who you are as an individual, your job is just something you do. And so I think if some people can wrap their heads just around who are you as an individual and that your job is not going to define who you are, then no matter what environment you're in, you can still maintain that identity. Absolutely. And the core of what I teach is being a human being, not a human doing... Yes, there you go. On that same vein. We're pretty much out of time. I'm so glad that you came on the podcast today, thank you so much for your contribution. It's been a delight speaking with you. I've got one final question though if that's okay. Yeah. What's on your bucket list? My bucket list, the biggest bucket list that I have going right now is, I just finished a middle grade fantasy fiction novel, I've got the manuscript and I'm looking to find an agent so I can get it published. So I wanna go the traditional route instead of self publishing. Thank you for all of those people who are gonna ping me with self publishing tips. But yeah, I'm looking for an agent and that's the biggest thing on my bucket list right now is to get published. Amazing. Wish you all the best for that, I will look forward to seeing it when it comes out. Sounds good. If you're in burnout and ready to recover, come and join my Burnout to Leadership program. You can book in to talk with me at burnout.dexrandall.com. Just tell me what's bugging you and let's make a plan to fit.