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Management in Practice

How Do You Hire When Everything Keeps Changing?

How do companies with rapidly evolving business plans and a constantly shifting competitive landscape hire the right people for tomorrow, let alone next year? While education and training still matter, Laszlo Bock, head of people operations at Google, says that the company looks for people with the ability to learn, solve problems, and step in when leadership is needed.

When human resource management was emerging as a profession in the 1970s, the state of the art was strategic manpower forecasting: looking far enough out to be sure a company had enough engineers, chemists, or managers moving through the corporate pipeline to meet future demand. Today, as technology and innovation create new products, markets, and even entirely new industries, companies must reinvent themselves to keep up. They need employees who thrive in constant change—a skill that's more difficult to define than traditional functions.

A Global Talent Competitiveness Index, produced by INSEAD in 2013, warns of a “potential shortage of about 40 million high-talent people across the world in the next two decades, or 13% of the demand for such workers.” While there are specific gaps in technical skills, the report emphasizes a gap in skills that are harder to quantify: “In a global knowledge economy, innovative firms require leaders with specific leadership skills such as anticipating the future, fostering creativity, having a collaborative mindset, networking, communicating a strategic vision, and responding to emerging (global) trends.”

Technological change has outpaced many job descriptions, with speculation that computers will eventually replace knowledge workers. Some companies are responding by asking workers to focus on the truly difficult problems. Angela Lee Duckworth, a MacArthur Fellow and associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the trend to Strategy + Business: “Through their explicit practices and their implicit culture, these companies encourage doing things for a long time, being loyal, going deep into problems, and working at the edge—where an employee's challenges exceed their current skill levels.”

In such an environment, it makes sense to put less emphasis on hiring the right person for a specific task—why find the right peg to fit in a specific hole if the holes keep changing? Instead, figure out the qualities that are useful under ever-changing circumstances, and find people who possess them. Laszlo Bock ’99 is responsible for overseeing that process at Google, a company that faces all of the challenges enumerated above: it's global, it's working in extremely fast-changing industries, and its business depends on finding the highest quality knowledge workers.

“The skills that are most important to us are universal skills,” says Bock, who is senior vice president of people operations at Google, in conversation with Yale Insights. He points to problem-solving ability and the capacity to learn and acquire new skills. “The most important thing we looks for is what we call emergent leadership. The notion that you're willing to step into a problem when you see something that needs a solution that you happen to know how to fix. But just as importantly, you're willing to step back and relinquish power when the need for your expertise or skill set has passed.”

That doesn't mean Google isn't looking for expertise. “You absolutely need people with specialized expertise in the mix—we have world experts in machine learning; we have world experts in taxation,” Bock says. But he says that the company takes a portfolio perspective in which most employees are chosen for inherent abilities. “The most important thing is to have these universal and general attributes which allow you to pick up new ideas and apply them in new and interesting ways.”