Replacing Fear and Greed -- Two Recent Visits to Google New York

Fear and greed; for my entire professional life I have understood these two emotions to be the great motivators. Make your numbers, achieve your goals, beat your plan, and you will be rewarded with a big bonus, or better still, a substantial increase in the value of your equity. Surprise your boss or your investors on the down-side and your company's stock takes a hit. Suddenly, the analysts won't call you back and the relatives sitting around your Thanksgiving table are grumbling about losing money and secretly think it is your fault.

After two recent visits to the Google's New York Offices (full disclosure -- the author has a close relative that works for Google) I came away disoriented and a little shell shocked. Much to my surprise, I found myself wondering if joy and curiosity, have supplanted fear and greed as the CCM's (Chief Cultural Motivators) at Google.

I'm a Google user and have been involved in scores of technology companies, yet I arrive at Google's New York headquarters with few expectations. The building itself covers a full city block. I am told it is the biggest building in the city, and I believe it. I know something is different when the security guard pulls out his cell phone and texts my host to tell him I have arrived before ushering me up to the fourth floor to meet him. A simple innovation but why have I never seen this before? As I approach the wide open reception area two people pass me on scooters. I notice a few more "parked" at a rack nearby. The couches scattered informally around the reception desk are filled with people. Most seem to be talking and texting at the same time. Already this place feels a little different.

Before lunch my host offers to show me around. Of course there are cubicles and conference rooms and video conference booths, but most people are working in living rooms on couches or hanging out in kitchens. There are white boards everywhere filled with material I would characterize as highly confidential but is yet another sign of the extraordinary degree of transparency that permeates the place. Before finally arriving at the cafeteria I pass a Lego play area full of unbelievably complex structures, including a replica of the very building in which I find myself.

I understand better the real-life scale of the building as we take the long walk to the cafeteria, where I am torn between pizza from the wood burning oven and scallops with pesto. I can also choose from a monster salad bar and an array of herbal iced teas and designer waters, but no Coke or Pepsi. I reluctantly pass on an elaborate display of pastry as I sit down for what I expect to be a low-key review of Google's culture of innovation in advance of a tour for a group of my students interning in entrepreneurial ventures in New York. Instead, I am being pitched on a project that would employ a Google owned technology at a major university. Before lunch is over, a few other opportunities are thrown out, all with global implications. The pair doing the pitching are 25 years old, live mostly at Google where the meals are free as long as they are working and are intensely engaged in projects they believe can become billion dollar businesses. By the way, neither of them is a techie nor has ever been on a scooter inside a building.

I walk out the door of this first visit dazed and confused but not quite able to articulate my thoughts. I am usually pretty good at connecting the dots but this time I am stumped. My only consolation is the knowledge that I have another chance to figure this out the next week.
When I arrive again, it is with a group of interns for a formal tour. The tour guide, as it turns out, is interested in recruiting students from the University of North Carolina (where I teach) to work as Google ambassadors. Maybe that is a coincidence but for whatever reason, the students who thought they came for a tour are getting a pitch. Of course, they loved it. After the formal tour, my hosts from the last visit meet with the class. The conversation is about doing "cool" stuff, about following your passion and about working your butt off, not for a big bonus or because you fear missing your goal but because you want to do something that matters to lots of people. When one of the "grownups" that is part of our group asks exactly how Google makes money our hosts make it clear that is not their priority. They say, "If we come up with things that people want someone else can figure out how to monetize them."

On the way out, one of my students who is particularly interested in early stage businesses stops to tell me that everything she thought about a giant company like Google was mistaken. Her new number one priority is to figure out how to work in the Google building in New York.
I have to admit that my Google visits challenged many of my assumptions as well. I kept thinking: Is this really one of the most successful multi-national companies in the world? And, by the way, who's in charge; the people on scooters and the people on couches? If this company is making so much money, why is everyone having so much fun?

It's that last question I continue to scratch my head about.

Of course making a billion dollars a month is fun. I have some vague idea how that might feel having been a witness to the dot com era and when the market capitalization of companies (but not the profits) doubled in a matter of days. I also learned during that time that the fundamental laws of nature and business are never suspended permanently which was underscored as the value of these same dot come companies plummeted. Secretly I have always believed all that happiness wasn't meant to last.

In the end, my fundamental question remains: can the sheer joy of doing work you love in an environment where you feel appreciated and empowered have the same motivational impact as the more draconian fear and greed? Among the techno-hip crowd in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, working at Google is no longer cool. Tell that to the thousands of twenty-something New Yorkers who have been given a chance to have some fun, take a chance and perhaps build something big. They might not get rich, at least not at this gig, but if they stick to their guns they probably won't get fired. What's more they are well fed and happy, even if they are working harder than they ever have before. I can't help but wonder, though it seems a bit naïve, whether Google has created an innovation culture that gives joy the corner office while fear and greed get pink slips.