Google is as famous for its perks as it is for its out-of-the-box thinking, bold leadership, and progressive view of failure. Despite what many think, however, it's not the free food, massages, and haircuts, or countless other amenities that drive employees to love working there (and that consistently lands the company as one of the very best places to work).

Google's vice president of people operations ("Google's fancy term for HR," as he puts it), Prasad Setty, offers a different perspective.

While speaking at a conference, Setty dismissed the perks as just that and instead shared a story that co-founder Larry Page often shares.

Larry's grandfather worked at an automobile factory in Michigan and would carry a steel club to work--because he never knew when disputes between labor and management would get ugly.

Page remembered that and decided his company would be the polar opposite; an organization where everyone felt like a family member. He wanted every employee to feel valued, experience meaning in their work, and feel like a member of a family. The philosophy underscores what Setty says are the three real reasons why so many people find Google a special place to work.

Setty insists, by the way, that as a leader you can implement these three things at your company too (and I couldn't agree more). So, what makes Google so special?

1. A powerful mission.

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and usable. Setty says this mission deeply connects with every Googler--and by no means do employees feel they've already accomplished this mission. The pursuit of it provides tremendous underlying motivation, though.

You can set a powerful mission for your business too.

Ground it in meaningful company values and repeat it often so employees can make the link to their own personal values. And don't confuse a mission with a big number. "Let's hit $100 million in sales by the end of the year" is a numeric goal, not an inspiring mission.  The mission should connect with the employees personally and emotionally.

2. Transparency.

Is there anything more transparent than when someone is not being transparent? We're too clever a species not to pick up on it. When we catch someone not being transparent, we don't forget it. And yet when we know someone is being 100 percent truthful, it can be memorable and inspiring--perhaps because we don't witness it enough. So if the halls of Google really do ring with transparency, I can see why it would be a special thing.

You can role model transparency as a leader, too. Certainly, by telling the truth. But also through less obvious ways, like being proactive and honest in giving feedback, by being vulnerable and admitting when you don't know something or need help, and by openly sharing (versus hoarding) information.

On this last front, Google leaders have a tradition of holding a company-wide town hall on Fridays where top execs share updates and answer frequently asked questions submitted by any of their tens of thousands of employees. This is an investment you can make too--and it is an investment, but one that will pay dividends.

3. Voice.

Google prides itself on openly encouraging every employee to speak their mind. An impressive 90 percent of all Googlers participate in their annual employee survey. For perspective, a 40 percent response rate was pretty good in one of my former companies. As Setty said, "We want our employees to feel and act like owners".

To that end, Google is one of the few large companies that still gives equity ownership (via shares) to every employee. They also mine their employees for feedback on their own products, what Setty calls "eating our own dog food".

While you may not be in a position to give equity to every employee, you can certainly encourage employees to speak up and actively role model doing so yourself. Lots of companies say they want their employees to speak up, but very few actually deliver on this as part of the culture. Make it a priority, then make it a reality.

Setty concluded that he knows actions they take to reinforce each of these things works because they leverage confirmatory data analytics. Much of this comes from experimenting and believing that "research trumps best practices".

In other words, Google doesn't just lift best practices from other companies and reapply. Instead, they do research to see what will work for their people within their own unique culture.

You can experiment too. If it produces a more employee-friendly environment, it's more than worth the time in the lab.