How to Build and Rebuild Your Company: Stories from Google and Zynga

At KPCB’s recent 12-200 CEO Workshop, KPCB Partner Mike Abbott interviewed Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google, and Don Mattrick, CEO of Zynga, on their advice for successful company building. Here are some of the insights they shared with the audience.

How Google Handles Hiring

Google’s disciplined approach to hiring comes from the belief that prudence helps the company avoid costly mistakes. “Hiring decisions are sticky,” said Laszlo Bock. “And if you make a mistake, not only is it hard to get rid of somebody, but they have a toxic effect on the rest of the environment.” In the trade-off between speed and quality, Google has learned that quality matters much more.

  • Hire the Best from the Start

Indeed, in interviews with Google’s first employees, the “incredibly high bar for quality” is at the top of their list of reasons why the company has succeeded. Even today, few of Google’s employees are “managed out,” Laszlo said, “because we hire for the capacity to learn and improve.” Rather than trying to turn average performers into stars– better to invest the time and resources, and to slow down the process if necessary, to hire the best people from the start.

  • Hiring Committees help Ensure Objectivity

Rather than delegating hiring to managers, Google uses hiring committees to keep quality high. “One of the insights Larry and Sergey had was that when you start a company, the founders know exactly what they want to get out of people,” Laszlo said. “But then they hire someone who only has a 95% understanding, who then hires others, and so on until you’re diluting the quality of new hires.” Hiring committees are a way of objectively assessing the fit of the candidate with company goals.

  • Assess Cognitive Ability

Many qualities go into assessing a candidate, but Laszlo emphasized the importance of screening for general cognitive ability first: “We rigorously try to assess cognitive ability as well as learning ability,” he said. “In most cases, a reasonably smart person is going to figure out a good answer, whether they know the subject matter or not” – and may be the one to come up with an unconventional solution.

  • Leverage your Network to Attract the Best

And while Laszlo acknowledged that startups often have difficulty attracting the best talent compared to established companies like Google, he urged founders not to lower the bar and instead use resources like the networking power of their VC investors to both source and evaluate additional potential hires. “If potential candidates are not in the top 10%,” Laszlo said, “you should keep looking.”

Onboarding New Hires

Don Mattrick drew on his experience at Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and Zynga to discuss best practices for onboarding. One key, he said, is to encourage new employees to listen and learn from the people who are there before suggesting solutions. “A new person coming to any place should respect what was the thing that caused the place to exist and to create some value in the first place,” Don said, citing the “two ears, one mouth” rule. Only afterward, he said, should you “then try to step back and offer some ideas or insights that empower” the team you are joining.

Laszlo shared that Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s former head of product, changed the onboarding paradigm by sending information packets – including confidential information – to new hires as soon as they were hired, not on the first day of work. By “treating you like an employee before you start,” he enabled new hires to get up-to-speed well ahead of their start date and significantly accelerated their integration into the team. Laszlo also, like Don, highlighted the need for new hires to listen to what old-timers have to say instead of trying to rewrite the book.

Hiring Executives

Don Mattrick was part of the team that hired Zynga’s new CFO. It was not a simple process. “I was the frontline interviewer for 38 different CFO candidates, plus we created a competency-based panel of two Bay Area CFOs to also assess,” he said. “We spent time thinking about the criteria. We gave them homework. We graded the homework. We talked about culture fit.” After all of that, Don conducted reference checks on the candidate to see how the story he had heard matched up with a candidate’s previous performance.

“It’s so, so important to get people who are going to raise the bar and inspire and execute and can lead,” Don said. He noted that the “simplest way to get people switched on” is to “tell them the story of how your business is going to win and why you’re going to grow faster than the competitors.” Recruiting talented executives who can tell this story and then execute on it, bringing the story to life in practice, is a key responsibility of any company builder.

Maximizing Value from the Board of Directors

For Don, the board of directors adds the most value by applying different frames to difficult problems that the executive team may not be able to address itself. Boards can help with “how to think about the challenging strategic inflection points,” he said.

Laszlo emphasized that the best directors have an “appreciation of the distinction between the job management has to do and the job that the board does.” Management must handle day-to-day operations decisions, but the board is well-positioned to spot key trends and point the way for the company. As an example, he cited how Google’s board pushed the company to embrace mobile more quickly: “Even the smallest signals and nudges tell us so much and give us so much insight.”

How to Be a Successful CEO

Don emphasized that a good CEO cannot simply rely on external praise to gauge his or her performance. “If every time you’re complimented you behave a certain way, you’ve lost the power to self-assess and motivate yourself,” he said. He also described how at the beginning and end of every day, he asks himself: Did our business get better? Did our team get better? What would I do differently? These questions help him keep his focus on the big picture amid the day-to-day flurry of activity.

Laszlo addressed an issue that affects many tech CEOs: they are introverts who derive their energy not from mingling with others but from spending time alone, while leaders often must be out there in the world. But introverts can be out in the world too. “The ability to go out and work a crowd is related to two things: practice and comfort,” he said. “These are both discrete skills that can be learned. It’s an essential part of any leadership job – putting people at ease, building rapport, getting your message across. But what you find over time is that it gets easier.”

Ultimately, the best CEOs are defined by how they get others to collaborate and create. “There are very few things that get done in the tech space by one personality type and one individual,” Don reflected. The key, he said, is to “find ways of engaging people against their strengths and creating a high-performance team.”