Amit Singh of Google for Work: A respectful clash of ideas

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Amit Singh of Google for Work: A respectful clash of ideas
What were your early influences?

I grew up in India. My dad was in the armed forces, and at an early age I went to a boarding school in Delhi and learned most of my leadership lessons there.

There were a lot of sports teams, and everyone belonged to one of five houses, as they were called.It’s quite an interesting experience at 12 years old. You learn sharing, and with boarding school food you were always starving. So you learn negotiation — one jam roll is worth 10 butters, for example. You really stayed together as a team because there’s a lot of rivalry with the other houses. It’s like Harry Potter.

I also remember wanting to be on the basketball team, but I’d never played basketball before. And I wanted it desperately enough that I used to wake up a few hours before everybody else and just practice by myself. I did that for six months. Then I made the team and eventually became the captain. As a senior, I was the prefect, in charge of our house.

When did you move to the United States?

I did my undergraduation at the Delhi College of Engineering, and then I did my master’s in industrial and management at Rensselaer Polytechnic in upstate New York. I didn’t know much about technology at that stage, but I got a job right after that with Oracle.
And what were some early leadership lessons for you?

I learned the hard way about the importance of coaching people rather than jumping in and doing the work for them. A lot of folks have a tough time with that balance, and I did, too. Instead of giving people advice or coaching them on how to present something, I would go and do it for them or write their presentation.

Over the years, I have tried to find the balance of when to jump in and when to coach. I’ve also learned how to coach. A lot of folks wait until a formal review, and I’ve always felt that the best coaching is in the moment and actionable.

It’s about trying to make somebody better versus criticising someone for doing something. Done right, people love it, because you’re really invested in their success. The flip side is that if you just say what’s wrong, then people feel terrible.

How do you hire? What qualities are you looking for?

Are they open, do you like them, does their style mesh with yours and the rest of the team? Do they care about things beyond just their own success? Those are things that are hard to test for. You have to spend time with people to get to know them.

I typically do a lot of reference checks. It’s amazing what you’ll find if you just are persistent and ask the right questions. And hiring for a specific role because they just did that role elsewhere is a good starting point, but I look at candidates much more broadly.

Can this person stretch? Can we make a judgment that this person can learn new things, and it doesn’t have to be business-related. They could be passionate about something completely different.

We also have a broad set of interviewers — we have a minimum of four at Google — that gives you diverse points of view and then you connect to see if this is the right person. Diversity of thought is actually the most invaluable thing in a business community. If we’re always agreeing with each other, then we haven’t gone down paths of debate that allow new ideas to emerge.

Some of the best discussions are passionate but respectful, so that you leave a meeting without feeling like you’ve lost something, even though your point of view may not have been the one that was adopted. That is what fosters innovation in a company — a clash of ideas, but a respectful clash.

The balance is how to get it right, and the people you introduce into that mix and the culture you create around debate are the two variables.

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