What I Learned about Corporate Culture by Speaking at Google

When I was invited to give a talk about my book The Squeaky Wheel for their Authors@Google YouTube channel in their New York City offices I was thrilled. But then I visited the Google offices and my excitement turned to worry. Could a talk titled How Our Complaining Psychology Impacts Our Lives and Relationships garner any interest at a company whose offices featured game rooms (in case you feel like playing pool or ping pong), sleeping pods (in case you feel like napping), massage rooms (in case you pulled a muscle during a rigorous ping pong game or napped in weird position), not to mention gourmet free lunches and food stations at every corner? I mean, what would Google employees have to complain about? Further, my talk was scheduled for noon which meant I’d be in direct competition with the free lavish gourmet lunch being served upstairs. Personally, if I had to choose between sushi on an outside terrace with a stunning New York City view and a talk about complaining psychology, I’d reach for the chopsticks in a flash (I hear ping pong works up quite an appetite).

After seeing that the auditorium seated over 100 people I became even more concerned because nothing makes for sadder YouTube viewing than watching a presenter speak to an empty room.

The First Lesson I Learned at Google

The first thing I learned at Google was that when a company has a corporate culture that fosters autonomy, creativity and personal responsibility among its employees, these qualities will come through in everything they do. For example, as I expected, flyers announcing my talk were posted all around the huge office floors (the space is so large they have scooter stations to help folks get around). However, I did expect the flyers to be accompanied by an additional more ‘subliminal’ marketing campaign.

For example, as I passed by meeting rooms I saw a sign posted that said, HAVING TROUBLE FINDING A FREE MEETING ROOM? Apparently, it can be tricky finding a free room for meetings at Google NYC. In small print at the bottom of the sign was an invitation to attend my talk and learn about complaining psychology.

In one of food stations I saw a deep tray stacked with melting ice cubes. Apparently, the ice cubes are brought in every morning but they tend to melt before the day is over making it hard to find ice cubes in the afternoon. A posted sign said WISH WE HAD AN ICE MACHINE? Again info about my talk was in small print below. There were similar signs throughout the vast space in all of the ‘problem’ areas.

I thought the idea (implemented by my host at Google Tomer Sharon) was both hilarious and brilliant. Of course, it’s impossible to know whether the ‘subliminal’ campaign had an impact on attendance or not but suffice to say, the auditorium was full by the time my talk began.

The Second Lesson I Learned at Google

The second thing I learned at Google was that when a corporate culture fosters autonomy, people are free to express themselves and ask all manner of questions without feeling judged. I decided to leave 15 minutes for a Q & A at the end of my talk but was worried there would be no questions (another potentially sad YouTube moment is when “Are there any questions?” is followed by the sound of chirping crickets).

My host reassured me that at Google talks, people always have questions. Questions are great things in companies. Employees that feel free to ask and to question are also free to challenge, to brainstorm and to problem solve.

Indeed, the Google folks had many questions for me, ranging from dealing with New York City taxi cab complaints to complaints about colleagues, and even a complain about how to complain about another person’s complaint. We even went slightly overtime and had to cut some questions short.

The Third Lesson I Learned at Google

In a previous post (Toes, Toes Everywhere) I discussed my uncanny ability to offend people inadvertently when giving talks. The third thing I learned at Google (albeit not about corporate culture) was that my toe-stepping streak remains intact.

During the talk I made a hilarious quip about how annoying it is that customer service representatives always have foreign accents (hilarious, I thought, because I too have an accent). It got no laughs whatsoever. I wasn’t sure why until the Q & A began. After having to ask the first questioner to repeat their query three times because I couldn’t understand their accent, the penny dropped and I had my answer.

I had a great time at Google! After the talk I went back to my own office, looked around and felt somewhat empty and bereft. I have a very nice corner office in midtown Manhattan with a great view of the Flatiron building from one window and of Queens from the other.

But inside, there’s not a ping pong table or sushi roll in sight…

Copyright 2011 Guy Winch

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