Google’s Former Career Coach Recommends This Trick to Boost Employee Engagement

February 19, 2019

Starting in 2008, Google has conducted extensive research into what makes a great manager. They called it “Project Oxygen” and, over time, identified the 10 behaviors that Google’s best managers share.

Number one on the list? Being a good coach.

Knowing how important this is, Google has baked coaching in at every step of its employees' career paths, from new Googlers receiving help navigating the culture to executive development training for leaders.

This program has been widely successful, with coaching sessions receiving an average employee satisfaction rating of 4.8 out of 5. The program is also frequently cited as one of the key reasons why Google is one of the world's best companies to work for.

With employees switching jobs more than ever, keeping your best talent engaged and motivated is essential. Here’s how Google supports career development and retention through coaching—and one simple trick recommended by a former Google career coach that you can start using right away.

Google’s Career Guru program allows existing employees to support their peers

Google has no trouble attracting great talent, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fight to keep them. The company is deeply invested in career development and coaching to help its employees find their path. In 2010, it launched Career Guru, a program through which employees can receive one-on-one support from experienced Google alumni.

According to a 2016 report by The Conference Board, Google uses its Hangouts video conferencing tool to connect interested Googlers with one of its 350 internal coaches (Gurus) around the world. Employees can pick their Guru based on their bios, which list their skills and areas of expertise.

During the coaching session, participants can discuss a range of career-related topics, from career planning and leadership skills to sustainable well-being and preparing for parental leave. Often, a single engagement is enough, but coaching can continue for up to eight sessions as needed.

To become a Guru, employees need to have been with Google for at least two years and must work at a senior level or be a subject matter expert. Initially, Gurus had to be nominated by leaders and HR business partners, but as the program evolved, the team began accepting applications directly from employees who had a passion for helping others.

Before their first session, Gurus undergo three hours of training, where they learn Google’s preferred coaching model (more on that in a minute). They also get a chance to do some practice coaching, then receive concrete feedback about how they did.

Feedback continues to play a vital role throughout the program, as Googlers complete feedback surveys at the end of each session. If a Guru receives three or more unfavorable ratings, the team will discuss the feedback with them, provide additional support, and offer suggestions for improvement. Gurus also have the option to take a break from the program for personal reasons, or because their work priorities have shifted.

This program has proven hugely popular among Googlers, who consistently rate their Gurus highly. Within the first two years alone, more than 900 Google engineers took advantage of the program.

This is a smart strategy because it leverages both the enthusiasm and institutional knowledge of existing staff, all while avoiding the expense of hiring an external coach. As Amy Lui Abel, managing director of human capital at The Conference Board points out, no one knows the ins and outs of a company better than its employees—including any departmental “landmines” people should be aware of.

A program like this can also keep coaches engaged in their own work by reminding them what they love about it. They become ambassadors for Google’s talent brand, and may find a real sense of purpose through helping others.

Google uses the GROW coaching model to get the most out of every coaching session

According to Google’s research, there are six crucial components of good coaching. These are:

  1. Providing timely and specific feedback
  2. Delivering hard feedback in a motivational and thoughtful way
  3. Tailoring approaches to meet individual communication styles in regular one-on-one meetings
  4. Practicing empathetic "active" listening and being fully present
  5. Being cognizant of your own mindset and that of the employee
  6. Asking open-ended questions to discover an employee's acumen

Google doesn’t want its Gurus to just tell employees what to do. That’s not what coaching is all about. Instead, Gurus are encouraged to ask intelligent questions that help them understand the employee’s individual values and behavior. This allows them to help the person find the right solution for them, while also giving them the tools to find their own solutions in the future.  

In order to do this successfully, coaches are trained to use the GROW model, which works like this:

  • Goal: clarify the person’s objectives and the key results they want to accomplish
  • Reality: understand the employee’s current situation and what’s stopping them from achieving their goal
  • Options: consider what the person could do to overcome their challenge, helping them brainstorm and explore all the possibilities
  • Will: discuss the specific steps the employee will take to accomplish their goal

Using this basic framework for each and every coaching session ensures they remain consistent and productive. It also helps eliminate bias, since coaches don’t jump to conclusions, but work to fully understand the situation.

GROW is an easy framework that any company can adopt when providing career coaching. Google has also compiled more in-depth materials in this re:Work guide to help companies support and develop their managers and make their coaching sessions more effective.

Mind mapping helps employees visualize the steps they can take to reach their goals

Building a fully fledged career coaching program can take time, and some employees may not feel comfortable becoming coaches. But there are quick and simple tricks that anyone can use to help employees find happiness and success in their work.

Author Jenny Blake served as Google’s Career Development Program Manager until 2011 and played a pivotal role in building the Career Guru program. She recommends an easy mind-mapping exercise that lets employees think through their goals for the coming year.

“My favorite way to brainstorm creatively, whether it's about values or setting goals for the new year, is through mind maps,” Jenny says.

Encourage managers to sit down with employees one-on-one and ask them to write the year or month in the center of the page, then draw spokes out to the big-picture goals they want to achieve. They can then surround each goal with actionable steps that will help them get there.

For example, if one of an employee’s goals was to become a team leader, they might write down steps like taking an online leadership course and taking lead on a smaller project first.

“The goal is to break out of linear thinking,” explains Jenny. When someone is drawing their mind map, she recommends, “Go broad. Go big. Go sideways, and then experiment to see which of your ideas is most likely to lead to a resonant next step.”

This is a great exercise to use in performance reviews, but it also works as part of a more casual discussion. By taking a few minutes to map out their goals and talk through them, employees can figure out what they really want, and you can get a feel for their ambitions at the company. You can also help them figure out which steps are most important to achieving their goals, helping them set their priorities.

Best of all, this technique is quick and even fun to do—and totally free.

Career coaching doesn’t have to cost anything—but it can mean a lot to employees

As competition for talent heats up, consulting firm Randstad predicts that on-demand job training will be a major workplace trend in 2019—and that more companies will turn to career coaching to help employees develop their careers within the organization.

“In the past, organizations rejected the notion of personalized employee coaching due to the perceived high cost or limited availability of services,” explains the report. “Companies can now deliver highly effective career development programs in short, micro-learning bursts where employees initially engage with a coach and then return when it’s time to define the next set of goals.”

Start small with fun exercises like mind mapping and gather feedback. If employees respond well, you might consider building a bigger program that allows staff to support each other and share their expertise to mutually grow their careers.

*Photo from Google 

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