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The Innovator

Greatest Challenge: Develop a systemic way to measure how employees feel about the company; find ways to retain high performers.

Greatest Achievement: Created "Googlegeist," a state-of-the-art scientifically constructed employee survey.

Thursday, July 1, 2010
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Prasad Setty, a self-described "numbers guy," never expected to find himself in HR.

"If you'd asked me in business school if I would be spending time in HR, I would've laughed, because I thought HR was soft and fluffy and that I had no intuition for people issues," says Setty, who holds an MBA from the Wharton School and a master's degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

And yet today, Setty is happily ensconced in HR at Google Inc., albeit in a numbers-driven role, serving as the company's director of people analytics and compensation.

"Google is a great place to try a data-driven approach to HR," says Setty, who joined the Mountain View, Calif.-based technology behemoth in 2006 after stints at McKinsey & Co. and Capital One.

"Prasad has this unique ability to understand data very deeply while understanding what's important to the organization on a people level," says Laszlo Bock, Google's chief HR officer and Setty's boss. "He's brilliant at figuring out what questions to ask. When we met Prasad, we said, 'This is someone we want to build an organization around.' "

At Google, Setty's mandates included finding better ways to determine what's on the minds of "Googlers," as the company's employees are called, and making sure top performers stay with the company and continue to innovate throughout their careers.

In so doing, he's found a way to match numbers and HR in exotic and exciting new ways, encouraging his HR staff to push the boundaries of what can be done within the profession. This is partly out of necessity: Given its unique culture of constant invention, Google simply isn't interested in copying best practices from other large companies.

"Google is not a place where I can go and say, 'GE is doing this and so is IBM, so let's try it here, too,' " says Setty, a shoo-in as one of HRE's 2010 HR's Rising Stars. "This is an organization where people prefer to rely on internal data and want to see what works here."

Setty oversaw the creation of "PiLab," a team of scientists and researchers (the number fluctuates throughout the year) who work within HR and delve into organizational issues, grappling with questions such as, "How do we build a decision-making system that avoids cognitive errors?" and, "How do we prove the impact good managers have, and then make more of them?"

"I thought PiLab was exactly the kind of thing Google would benefit from and the best way to leverage the scientists' talent," says Setty.

One example of PiLab's work is Project Oxygen, an effort to measure the impact of good managers, identify the traits that separate good managers from bad ones and then use that information to help develop better managers throughout the company.

Setty and his team also developed "Googlegeist" -- meaning "the spirit of Google" -- which is an annual employee survey of Googlers that's achieved a participation rate of 85 percent among the company's 20,000 employees and has led to a number of new initiatives at the company as a result of the feedback from employees. Perhaps one of the more notable aspects of Googlegeist is what it does not focus on; namely, employee engagement. 

"Engagement is one of those nebulous concepts that appeal to HR people, but are very tough to get across to business leaders," he says.

Bock shares Setty's skepticism.

"It's impossible to define what 'engagement' means," Bock says. "Does it mean, 'I like my work?' Does it mean, 'I like my boss?' It's such a general term."

Instead, Googlegeist simply asks employees whether they plan on staying or leaving. Googlers also have the option of taking the survey anonymously or confidentially by name. If they take it confidentially, it means Setty can tie their feedback to other data within Google's HR systems so his team can do things such as, say, compare the retention scores of high performers to low performers. The percentage of employees who choose to participate by name, as opposed to anonymously, has climbed steadily -- in the latest survey, 96 percent did so.

"The survey lets us validate whether or not our retention strategies are working," says Setty. 

Results from Googlegeist are shared annually via detailed reports with the company's executives and managers, and the company makes a point of letting employees know about the actions it takes in response to their feedback, says Setty.

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"Participation rates in employee surveys tend to die down if people feel no action's taken as a result of their feedback -- people tend to get cynical about them," he says.

Yet another problem Setty and his team have tackled is one that many companies might find odd: attrition rates that are too low.

"We wanted to make sure that the best performers were staying and the poor performers were being identified, given opportunities to improve and, if that didn't work out, that they moved on to other places where they could thrive," says Setty.

Setty and his team developed a system whereby quarterly performance evaluations reveal who the company's lowest performers are. When performance deficiencies are uncovered, HR meets with the employees' managers to determine what to do -- in some cases, they determine it's a one-time issue and no action needs to be taken. Employees with consistently low evaluations are provided with coaching and training to help them improve. If these approaches don't work, the company assists them in finding employment elsewhere.

"We want to make sure that, considering the effort we put into hiring the best people in the first place, everyone gets the opportunity to course-correct," says Setty.

Perhaps it's ironic, given Setty's initial aversion to HR, that his boss sees him as a natural-born HR leader.

"I think Prasad could be the head of HR today, he's got such a unique skill set," says Bock. "He's got tremendous business insight and people acumen. He's not an extrovert, yet he's built a tremendous team here that's very loyal to him." 

These are the other 2010 HR's Rising Stars:

A Dynamo in The Energy Field: Tana Cashion

The Quintessential Collaborator: Nancy Wolfe

Inspired by Human Performance: Adam Malamut

The Change Agent: Kevin Close

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