When Talent is Not Enough
What's Wrong with Google, and the Reverse Imposter Syndrome
Everyone’s piling on Google lately. If I’m not too late to the party, I want to tell you something more.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article over 20 years ago about the consulting company McKinsey and their fixation on “talent.” It’s become corporate gospel, despite the disastrous failure of Enron, which subscribed to it wholeheartedly. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, worked at McKinsey. That’s the concluding section of this post.
1. Reverse Imposter Syndrome
Anytime you read about an elite company or school (Google, say, or Stanford), you tend to hear about imposter syndrome. As Psychology Today tells us,
People who struggle with imposter syndrome believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held. They feel that they aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think—and that soon enough, people will discover the truth about them. Those with imposter syndrome are often well accomplished; they may hold high office or have numerous academic degrees.
In other words, they feel like frauds. Merriam-Webster says it’s
a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one's ongoing success.
The literature is full of strategies to counteract it, like “don’t compare yourself to others.” But maybe those feelings are telling you something. Maybe on those days when some Googlers are calling for his head, Sundar Pichai wonders if he’s an imposter! I’m sure he puts that thought firmly out of his head.
What If You Really Are a Fraud?
In other words: actually, you have delusions of adequacy. Maybe you really don’t belong there. Did you ever think of that?
I’ve been in a few companies that would be considered “elite” (Xerox, Oracle, Google). Naturally I always compared myself to others and had no trouble at all finding people way, way smarter than I am. But you can find a million stories about someone who suffered from imposter syndrome, and how the poor sufferer defeated it. It’s more interesting to turn it around and look at those who did not suffer from imposter syndrome, but should have.
There are similar syndromes, like the Dunning-Kruger effect, or Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Intellectual Yet Idiot” (IYI). RIS does overlap with those to some degree.
Talking the Talk
The first thing we notice about an imposter is, he or she can really talk. After all, they interviewed and got hired there, didn’t they? They’ve mastered the art of appearing smart, without actually being so. Once you’ve been in some smart environments, you learn to talk the talk.
Patrick was a guy I knew at Oracle who fit right into the elite company he was in. He had worked at Sun and exuded confidence. No matter what the issue was, Patrick could hold forth on it, usually with aphorisms that left you thunderstruck by their wisdom. It was only when we had a major design task coming up, and while I set about writing documents, creating code prototypes, talking to people, and otherwise selling myself as the guy to do this, Patrick confined himself to learned talk about it. Guess who won that competition?
Parachuting Onto Third Base and Thinking You Hit a Triple
Just recently, a former Googler, Praveen Seshadri, wrote a brilliant article on Medium about what ails Google. Follow that link and read it now. I’ll wait.
Here’s a quote:
Within Google, there is a collective delusion that the company is exceptional. And as is the case in all such delusions, the deluded ones are just mortals standing on the shoulders of the truly exceptional people who went before them and created an environment of wild success. Eventually, the exceptional environment starts to fade, but the lingering delusion has abolished humility among the mere mortals who remain. You don’t wake up everyday thinking about how you should be doing better and how your customers deserve better and how you could be working better. Instead, you believe that things you are doing already are so perfect that they are the only way to do it. Propaganda becomes important internally and externally. When new people join your company, you indoctrinate them. You insist on doing things because “that’s the way we do it at Google”.
“Standing on the shoulders of the truly exceptional people who went before them and created an environment of wild success” — there’s a prime example of Reverse Imposter Syndrome right there. “I’m here and it’s great; therefore I must be great.”
2. Wealth and Entitlement
Paul Piff, a professor at UC Berkeley, gave a TedX talk about the effect of wealth on people’s behavior. The extreme leftist bias of virtually every social science and humanities faculty at Berkeley is more than enough reason to discount this heavily. You won’t be surprised that he found what he wanted to find: rich people are more likely to cheat, break the law, and feel that they are just better than poor people. They’re assholes, in other words.
Nonetheless, we have to admit that maybe he’s onto something there. A mediocre person gets admitted to an elite corporation like Google, or an elite college, and rather than suffering Imposter Syndrome they convince themselves they’re not imposters.
Elite Colleges and the Entitlement Effect
In an article in The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz bemoans his inability to make small talk with the plumber standing in his own kitchen, “a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent”:
It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them.
We can substitute “Google” or “Apple” or “Meta” for “Yale and Columbia” and it still fits: if you’re at one of those FAANG companies, you’re encouraged to flatter yourself merely for being there. “You’re not an imposter; you belong here!” is the message.
3. Peacetime and Wartime Leaders
Have you ever heard of Lloyd Fredendall? I didn’t think so. You’ve probably heard of World War II generals and admirals like Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, MacArthur, Rommel, Nimitz, and Halsey, but not him. He led US forces to their worst defeat of the war, at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, and was relieved of his command by Eisenhower.
Fredendall had served since the turn of the 20th century.
After service in the Philippines and other overseas and stateside assignments, Fredendall shipped out to the Western Front with the 28th Infantry Regiment in August 1917, four months after the American entry into World War I. He held a succession of instructor assignments in the army's schools in France, and commanded one of its training centers. He built a record as an excellent teacher, trainer, and administrator, and ended the war as a temporary lieutenant colonel.
So, no combat duty in the war. Let’s look at what some of the other officers I mentioned did in World War I (source):
Patton and MacArthur led troops in combat
Montgomery led troops in combat
Halsey was in the Atlantic, commanding torpedo boats and destroyers before getting command of the USS Shaw
Nimitz served as chief engineer of the Maumee, which was a refueling ship for U.S. Navy destroyers crossing the Atlantic and with which he conducted the first-ever underway refueling.
Eisenhower was desperate to get into combat, but he finally made it to France only as the war was ending.
So these really were wartime generals. No wonder the Allies won World War II.
Between the wars, of course there was no combat, but Fredendall stayed in the Army and was promoted to general in 1939. Somehow or other, he convinced Marshall and Eisenhower that he was fit to command a fighting corps. After all, he’d taught troops how to fight! Wasn’t that almost the same thing?
Remember what I said about “talking the talk.” Reverse Imposter Syndrome people are very good at talking to their superiors.
One of his first actions as battle approached was to protect himself, personally:
During the advance into Tunisia, Fredendall used an engineer company of the 19th Engineer Regiment to build a large, dug-in corps headquarters bunker 70 miles (110 km) behind the front in a place called Speedy Valley (nine miles southeast of Tébessa). Blasted and drilled out of solid rock, the bunker (actually two U-shaped complexes running 160 feet (49 m) into the hillside) took three weeks to construct.[An anti-aircraft battalion was emplaced to protect the headquarters. Fredendall also ordered a bulletproof Cadillac similar to Eisenhower's, and regularly phoned Oran to find out why it was not being delivered faster.
You can read about how his troops fared in his first and last battle here. 300 Americans were killed and 3,000 were listed as missing (probably prisoners, or dead but not found). He was relieved of command by Eisenhower, but not forced out of the Army, and he was returned to the States to conduct training operations. He was promoted to lieutenant general only four months later, in June 1943. In other words, he failed up. A real imposter knows how to do that.
Fredendall was a peacetime general out of his element in an actual war; you know, the kind with shooting and explosions and stuff. In fact, he’s a prime example of Reverse Imposter Syndrome: he thought he was good enough to be entrusted with men’s lives, but he wasn’t.
Ben Horowitz’s Essay
Since to a certain class of person (I’m including myself there), everything in life is contained in The Godfather, here’s a quote from our bible:
TOM HAGEN Mike, why am I out?
MICHAEL CORLEONE You're not a wartime consigliere. Things may get tough with the move we're trying.
In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.
Which one of those describes Google in the last 12 years? The answer should be clear. But now it’s war!
Sundar to the Rescue!
Now let’s look at Sundar Pichai’s background. (I’m not putting him in a box with Fredendall, by the way: Sundar led the Chrome teams and actually did produce things). However, from Wikipedia,
He holds an M.S. from Stanford University in materials science and engineering, and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania,
Pichai worked in engineering and product management at Applied Materials and in management consulting at McKinsey & Company.
Let’s see: Stanford, Wharton, McKinsey… what does that tell you? The great thinker Nessim Nicholas Taleb says this in Antifragile:
… we tend to think that innovation comes from government, from planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who has never innovated anything) or by hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything). This is a fallacy — note for now the disproportionate contribution of uneducated technicians and entrepreneurs to various technological leaps, from the Industrial Revolution to the emergence of Silicon Valley, and you will see what I mean.
Sundar is from the Harvard / McKinsey school, where you’re judged largely on how well you talk about things and sound good doing it. At McKinsey, you’re 25 years old and thrown in with senior VPs and CEOs who are paying handsomely for your time and taking your advice seriously. Or at least pretending to. You’re a Master of the Universe in training.
4. The Talent Myth
Yahoo Finance has an article “Google's Secret To Attracting The Best Talent In The World.”
The tech company has figured out the secret to attracting the best talent in the world, while also allowing people to truly enjoy their work.
McKinsey’s spokespeople practically scream the word “talent” out of every window, like in this article:
Attracting and retaining the right talent
Why is talent important?
Superior talent is up to eight times more productive
It’s remarkable how much of a productivity kicker an organization gets from top talent. A recent study of more than 600,000 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes found that high performers are 400 percent more productive than average ones. Studies of businesses not only show similar results but also reveal that the gap rises with a job’s complexity. In highly complex occupations—the information- and interaction-intensive work of managers, software developers, and the like—high performers are an astounding 800 percent more productive
Wow: 800 percent more productive! You better get yourself some of that “talent". Oh wait; they’re too expensive for you. The Big Three consultants, plus Big Tech are snatching them all up.
Sundar Pichai says in his layoff announcement:
I have some difficult news to share. We’ve decided to reduce our workforce by approximately 12,000 roles. We’ve already sent a separate email to employees in the US who are affected. In other countries, this process will take longer due to local laws and practices.
This will mean saying goodbye to some incredibly talented people we worked hard to hire and have loved working with. I’m deeply sorry for that. The fact that these changes will impact the lives of Googlers weighs heavily on me, and I take full responsibility for the decisions that led us here.
So, talent is the key? Let’s look at Business Insider’s 2011 list of the “best CEO’s of the last 30 years.”
Why “best”? If you do a Google search, almost all the links are designed to sell you on getting an MBA. They’ll say things like “96% of the Fortune 500 companies are planning to hire MBAs!” They tell you the salaries a beginning MBA can expect from the big three consulting companies (McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group). But as anyone who’s met top execs from most of those giant companies will tell you, they tend to be as dull as cold mashed potatoes. They got there by getting along with everyone.
Where Did the “Best” CEOs Go To School?
Here is Business Insider’s list, from 12 years ago:
Steve Jobs, Apple
Jack Welch, GE
Bill Gates, Microsoft
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan
John Chambers, Cisco
Steve Schwarzman, Blackstone Group
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
Larry Ellison, Oracle
Howard Schultz, Starbucks
Eric Schmidt, Google
Rupert Murdoch, News Corporation
Lou Gerstner, IBM and RJR Nabisco
Fred Smith, FedEx
Meg Whitman, eBay
Ted Turner, TBS and CNN
Mickey Drexler, Gap and J. Crew
James Sinegal, Costco
Bob Iger, Disney
Alan Mulally, Ford
Indra Nooyi, Pepsi
Let’s see how those folks were educated:
MBA from top school
Indra Nooyi (Yale)
MBA from school other than top
Chambers (Indiana U)
Drexler (Boston U)
Did not finish college
Graduated from top school; did not get MBA
Graduated from school other than top; no MBA
Schultz (Northern Michigan University)
Sinegal ( San Diego State University)
Iger (Ithaca College)
So, 5 of those 21 have an MBA from a top school, and only 7 (1/3) have an MBA at all, while 8 didn’t go to a top school or didn’t finish.
Where Does the “Talent” Gospel Take You?
Let’s look at what one company that took the McKinsey “talent” gospel to its max: Enron.
Gladwell tells us:
When Skilling started the corporate division known as Enron Capital and Trade, in 1990, he “decided to bring in a steady stream of the very best college and M.B.A. graduates he could find to stock the company with talent,” Michaels, Handfield-Jones, and Axelrod tell us. During the nineties, Enron was bringing in two hundred and fifty newly minted M.B.A.s a year. “We had these things called Super Saturdays,” one former Enron manager recalls. “I’d interview some of these guys who were fresh out of Harvard, and these kids could blow me out of the water. They knew things I’d never heard of.” Once at Enron, the top performers were rewarded inordinately, and promoted without regard for seniority or experience. Enron was a star system. “The only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent,” Lay, Enron’s former chairman and C.E.O., told the McKinsey consultants when they came to the company’s headquarters, in Houston. Or, as another senior Enron executive put it to Richard Foster, a McKinsey partner who celebrated Enron in his 2001 book,“Creative Destruction,” “We hire very smart people and we pay them more than they think they are worth.”
The management of Enron, in other words, did exactly what the consultants at McKinsey said that companies ought to do in order to succeed in the modern economy. It hired and rewarded the very best and the very brightest—and it is now in bankruptcy. The reasons for its collapse are complex, needless to say. But what if Enron failed not in spite of its talent mind-set but because of it? What if smart people are overrated?
Before we delve into what Enron actually did with all those talented people, a prelude:
What Do Talented Googlers Do?
Let’s list some Google-cancelled products and their official kill date:
Google Play edition Android phone (2015)
Google Video (2012)
Nexus Q (2012)
Google X (2005)
Plus (not clear when it actually died)
Play Music (2023)
There are others not in this list: Fiber, Stadia, Loon, and Zagat come to mind, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten more.
Personal note: Each week at the TGIF meeting (which was moved to Thursday so that people in Asia could watch it on Friday), I would see some executive holding forth about one of these. I don’t know how many of them had MBAs from a top college, but I did notice that, after a while, they all looked the same: they all had collared, button-down shirts, not tucked in, and they all seemed to be in their mid-30s and very good looking.
Enron: What Did They Do With All Those Talented People?
Gladwell mentions that Enron’s philosophy was to get out of the way of these uber-talented people and let them do what they wanted:
In one oft-told story, Louise Kitchin, a twenty-nine-year-old gas trader in Europe, became convinced that the company ought to develop an online-trading business. She told her boss, and she began working in her spare time on the project, until she had two hundred and fifty people throughout Enron helping her. After six months, Skilling was finally informed.“I was never asked for any capital,” Skilling said later.“I was never asked for any people. They had already purchased the servers. They had already started ripping apart the building.They had started legal reviews in twenty-two countries by the time I heard about it.” It was, Skilling went on approvingly, “exactly the kind of behavior that will continue to drive this company forward.”
Kitchin’s qualification for running EnronOnline, it should be pointed out, was not that she was good at it. It was that she wanted to do it, and Enron was a place where stars did whatever they wanted.“Fluid movement is absolutely necessary in our company. And the type of people we hire enforces that,” Skilling told the team from McKinsey.“Not only does this system help the excitement level for each manager, it shapes Enron’s business in the direction that its managers find most exciting.” Here is Skilling again: “If lots of [employees] are flocking to a new business unit, that’s a good sign that the opportunity is a good one. . . .If a business unit can’t attract people very easily, that’s a good sign that it’s a business Enron shouldn’t be in.” You might expect a C.E.O. to say that if a business unit can’t attract customers very easily, that’s a good sign it’s a business the company shouldn’t be in. A company’s business is supposed to be shaped in the direction that its managers find most profitable. But at Enron the needs of the customers and the shareholders were secondary to the needs of its stars.
Now we can understand how all those Google products that turned out to be duds got launched: some talented executive wanted to do them, and other Googlers joined him or her.
Another personal note: it’s an article of cynicism among Googlers that, once you launch your product, you get promoted and then you transfer somewhere else. The new people who take over your project are never as interested in it as you were, and thus, it dies a slow death.
Reverse Imposter Syndrome
Wealth and the Entitlement Effect
Peacetime and Wartime Leaders
The Talent Myth
So which is it? There’s no reason why we have to pick just one; it’s all of them. However, #3 and #4 seem to have the most explanatory power for me. There are certainly some imposters, and there are certainly people who think they’re better than anyone not in a FAANG company, but Google is in a war, and it does not have wartime generals. It has talented people who talk the talk.