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David James


Chief Learning Officer

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3 L&D Lessons from Google


As one of the world’s most admired companies, Google clearly get many things right. And having read Work Rules by Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, I’ll put L&D into that category.

This was evident the moment I read the phrase: 

"The biggest opportunities lie in your absolutely worst and best employees”

Based on Bock's insights, I've identified 3 key lessons that we can all learn from Google. None of it is rocket science, some of it we already know, and much of it could easily be applied to other organisations. So, here are my top 3 L&D lessons from Google:

#1: “The people in the bottom tail [of the performance rating distribution curve] represent the biggest opportunity to improve performance in your company.”

Google, like many organisations, have deliberated and experimented with different ways (and reasons for) performance ratings. Whilst others are doing away with them altogether, Google seem to have become clearer on the reasons they rate their people and more robust in the way they do so.

Considering the lowest rated performers as “the biggest opportunity to improve performance in your company” is very different from those companies whose approach is to exit a certain percentage of them each year. The rationale Bock provides is that if performance is simply down to people not being good enough, then that’s a negative reflection on Google’s recruitment, which they pride themselves on and have invested so heavily in.

So, despite the latest performance management trend being to not rateperformance, there’s still benefit in knowing which of your people do truly perform at an optimum level and those who do not... Yet.

Lesson: Identify high performers and low performers in your organisation - with robust, consistent criteria - and understand more about what is actually happening so you too can capitalise on the biggest opportunity to improve performance in your company.

#2: "Put your best people under a microscope”

Once you’ve identified your top performers, you need to fully understand what they do and know that differentiates them.

Bock recommends that organisations “put their best people under a microscope”explaining that “every company has the seeds of its future success in its best people.”

This clearly builds on Lesson #1: Once high performance has been identified with robust, consistent criteria, you’ll already know in what areas they are outperforming others and so the next step is to get into the mechanics of that performance. However, not in the form of a checklist and a one-off conversation. The opportunity here is to establish an ongoing conversation that will ultimately benefit the organisation - and performers at all levels - much more broadly.

Putting your best people under a microscope may also involve conversations with their manager, their peers and their team, to more completely understand what differentiates them.

Lesson: Engage your top performers in more than just a one-off conversation to understand exactly what they do and know that differentiates them. Enlist their ongoing support to understand their performance in detail, and to share what they do and know more broadly with the rest of the organisation.

#3: “Performance is highly context dependent”

Bock referenced the work of Groysberg in explaining that performance is “highly context dependent” and that “exceptional success rarely follows an individual from company to company”. This means that benchmarking and best practices from outside only tell you what worked elsewhere and not what will work within your company. It’s more effective to understand what makes the best people succeed in any unique environment. Bock explains that “if success depends on specific, local conditions then you are best served by studying the interplay of high performance and those local conditions."

This again, is something we’ve probably all known for quite some time. However, prior to the availability of modern technology tools, it could have seemed inefficient and labour-intensive to provide direct access to expertise and to share insights into what high performers do and know. Perhaps that’s why a default mode for many organisations has been to rely disproportionately on ‘expertise’ from outside. I was certainly surprised when I took over the L&D team at Disney at just how much we relied on external suppliers to train Disney people on things that, in my mind, Disney does better than most other companies in the world.

I’m not saying that everything should be designed and delivered in-house - as suppliers can bring a depth of expertise from outside an organisation that doesn’t exist within - along with expertise in delivery. However, generic content, remiss of an organisation’s context, will rarely lead to high performance, as Bock illustrated:

"Sending your sales people to the most expensive sales seminar, led by someone who sold products for someone else, is unlikely to revolutionise your sales performance because the specifics of what your company does matter."

Lesson: Where high performers exist in your organisation, give them a platform to share what they do and know so that everybody else can benefit. Generic is not only ineffective, it’s inexcusable today.

So how much more effective would your organisation’s Learning & Development be if you applied these 3 lessons from Google: by taking advantage of the biggest opportunity to improve performance in your company and openly sharing what your best performing people do and know?

This post was written by David James, former-Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company EMEA and now Learning Strategist with

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David James

Chief Learning Officer

Read more from David James

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