Google is a big company, and I don't just mean that since it holds enormous influence over our everyday lives. That's true, but it's also a physically large company; Last year Google passed the 100,000 employee mark, doubling its headcount since 2015. That's a lot of growing, and it has caused some problems at the world's largest search engine.
Now, Google's Chief People Officer, Eileen Naughton, says she will leave her role. According to Fortune, her decision reflects a desire to "be closer to her family." Fortune also reports that Naughton will take a different role with the company, though the timing of any move is unclear.
The announcement comes amid a particularly turbulent period for Google, with a dramatic increase in tensions between executives and employees over the past few years in response to the company's handling of a range of concerns. Last November, Google ended its long-standing all-company meeting because it had become a forum for employees to express those concerns. In November 2018, as many as 20,000 employees walked out in protest of the company's handling of sexual harassment complaints.
More recently, the company's Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, resigned last month after an investigation into sexual misconduct involving an affair with another Google employee.
For her part, Naughton has sought to improve the process for employees who file complaints about harassment and misconduct. That includes introducing a program in 2018 that allows victims to have a colleague present when filing a complaint with HR.
Still, she has had little success changing the public narrative around the company's culture, including how it treats contractors and temporary workers. That's despite increasing pay for those workers and offering benefits. There is no shortage of former Google employees willing to share their experience (and criticism) online.
Google's challenges aren't particularly unique, especially among tech companies. There are plenty of recent examples of companies that grew fast and ran into challenges handling the inevitable complexity that comes with working with large numbers of people. WeWork. Uber. Tesla.
Unlike those companies, however, which regularly courted controversy through their flamboyant and charismatic founders, Google has long tried to avoid any kind of drama. That's what makes it such a big deal that the company has seemingly been unable to adequately respond and address employee concerns.
This leads us to a lesson for entrepreneurs about the cost of growth:
Growth is exciting, and it's often viewed as an indicator of success. Outwardly, it often appears that way. The problem is that growth, especially in terms of hiring people, introduces an almost exponential layer of complexity. Growth has a real cost, and not just in terms of additional salaries or benefits. In fact, the biggest cost is in the effect it can have on your company's structures and culture.
Google is profitable, largely due to its dominance in search advertising. When all of the numbers are trending up, it can be easy to overlook how to adapt and change your culture as you scale. Remember, profits don't drive culture-- people do.
And, as you add people, you should already have the structure in place to support not only their work but their concerns. The challenge is that it's almost impossible to understand how to be a company of 100,000 people when you're a group of 50. That's okay, but when you're a group of 50, ask yourself what would need to change if, in six months, you were a group of 100. Then start preparing now.
You can allow the culture of your company to follow growth, in which case your company will be at the mercy of the challenges and experiences of the people you hire. Or, you can be intentional about building a company culture in a way that reflects, respects, and adapts to your people. Create systems and processes now that will allow your company to thrive later.
Because later is coming. The only question is whether your company will be ready when it does.