Meet Stacy Savides Sullivan! An Annotated Q & A

Elinor Mills of CNet conducted a Q and A session with Stacy Savides Sullivan, the Chief Culture Officer at Google.

Why?

"There's no question that Google is a trendsetter," Ms. Mills writes by way of introduction. Also there's: "With its lava lamps, simple doodle design, pampered employees and millionaires in its rank and file…"

Lava lamps, doodles, pampered employees and slumming millionaires!

"… it has become a cultural icon and an emblem of the gold-rush promise of the Web."

Oh, the gold rush. Hm.

"Google was ranked by Fortune magazine as the best place in the U.S. to work, and it has reached another zenith by becoming the most popular Web site. It's even become a verb in the dictionary." We know!

"Sullivan's mission is simple: retain the company's unique culture and keep the Googlers happy."

That seems difficult, doesn't it? I mean, they're huge, and aren't they buying everything in sight? It must be hard to stay Googly. At least as hard as it was to stay Altavisty! Or Friendstery! Well, let's get into Sullivan's explanation–how long, Mills asks, has she had the title "Chief Culture Officer?"

"Sullivan: I've had that role since last summer, and in addition to being chief culture officer I'm also director of human resources."

Hm. Wait. We were thinking Chief Culture Officer was just a fancy name for human resources director. Were we wrong?

"I work with employees around the world to figure out ways to maintain and enhance and develop our culture and how to keep the core values we had in the very beginning–a flat organization, a lack of hierarchy, a collaborative environment–to keep these as we continue to grow and spread them and filtrate them into our new offices around the world.

Pffffffffft!

"We want all of our employees to play a part in being involved in keeping our culture the way it is today but also growing and developing it. So some of it is coming up with different programs or processes, and just being there to talk with people when they have issues, setting up Web sites where people can report bugs in their culture and ideas on how to improve it, and those types of thing. It's hard to imagine how you can keep a flat organization with 12,000 employees."

I think I can identify a bug in our culture.

"I would characterize the culture as one that is team-oriented, very collaborative and encouraging people to think nontraditionally, different from where they ever worked before–working with integrity and for the good of the company and for the good of the world, which is tied to our overall mission of making information accessible to the world."

Paging George Orwell!

"I think one of the hardest things to do is ensure that we are hiring people who possess the kind of traits that we're looking for in a Google-y employee. Google-y is defined as somebody who is fairly flexible, adaptable and not focusing on titles and hierarchy, and just gets stuff done. "

And so it goes, and Mills asks about how they interview employees.

"You know, there are no standard questions that I know of. But we might ask a question. This is just hypothetical, but it could be 'How many bread boxes could you fit in an airplane?' or something like that."

"That's certainly not going to show if somebody is adaptable or flexible, but it's certainly going to show someone's thought process and reasoning, the way they can rationalize a true answer to something."

Because the True Answers always require rationalization.

"Obviously, there's no right answer, but we're just trying to figure out how people think and the kind of the steps that they take."

Yes, show your work! If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear! Well, once you're in, they make sure you're happy. I mean they make sure of it:

"The last few years we've been doing a happiness survey as part of our annual global company survey. Four or five years ago, Larry and Sergey wanted to find out how happy people are and what it's going to take to keep them working at the company. We're trying to figure out how committed people are to the company, what's causing that commitment level to be high or low, what makes a difference to them and their management and direct managers. The results ended up being centered a lot on career development and growth. So career development is more of a focus than giving more stock options or increasing salaries."

Mills then asks: "What do you think is the most appreciated perk? What do you get the most positive feedback on?"

"It would have to be the food. We have some type of lunch in every field office right now, every Google office. In places where we have room to have a cafeteria, we have our own and we hire our own chefs. But in many of those places we just bring in catered food."

Write in if you know what they do in our fancy New York offices, where we hear all kinds of desperate associates at large law firms are banging down the door for a job.

"Here in Mountain View, we started having the cafes back in '99."

We'll let that one hang there, for effect.

"And the reason why it is such an incredible perk is it keeps people on campus, it's all organic, it's healthy."

"At the headquarters we have breakfast, lunch and dinner. "

Now comes the big question:

"How are you dealing with the possibility that there will be an exodus of people leaving when their options fully vest after four years?"

The answer is … chilling!

"Well, we have people now that are hitting their fourth year, actually, last year and this year. So, we are tracking it and watching for when different people are coming up each month and we're starting to touch base with them, asking: how are you doing?"

"Are you working on something interesting? Do you like what you're doing? If not, what is one or two things that would make your life better here or increase your commitment level?"

"So we're trying the personal touch approach right now because for many of these people providing more money or stock isn't really going to be the key driver to keeping them at Google. So to answer your question, yes, we're definitely concerned about it and we will continue to be concerned about it, probably forever."

Let's lighten the mood a bit. Ms. Sullivan?

"I think planning the ski trips over the years has been crazy. We've done Google-wide ski trips since 1999. Different groups go up and we spend the night and there's a lot of team-building and bonding. Those have actually been the most memorable and actually the most fun (events)."

At the end, Mills sandbags Sullivan with the only question we could possibly have left: Has Sullivan seen V?

Actually, no. The question is: "What have we not covered that you think is germane to what you do at Google?"

"I think for any company that is growing as quickly as we are the work-life balance component is actually quite high. We don't typically have early-morning meetings or late-night meetings. And people are welcome to do things via conference call at home and we pay for people to connect from home. We have a good paternity-leave policy where the dads can take off a couple of weeks when their spouse has had a child and we pay for peoples' meals when they have new babies for the first few weeks. We've all heard about the ability for people to bring their dogs to work. And you have such a litany o
f perks and benefits and things that would encourage people to stay or even join. And we have a benefit where we reimburse people up to $5,000 if they buy a hybrid or electric car. And we have shuttle service (for commuters) to and from San Francisco, the East Bay, Santa Cruz."

So, are you Google-y?

Related: Google, the Musical

(Disclosure: Written by my brother, Bill.)