42 Rules to Lead by from the Man Who Defined Google's Product Strategy

42 Rules to Lead by from the Man Who Defined Google's Product Strategy

Former Google SVP of Products Jonathan Rosenberg on the quintessential lessons every leader needs to learn.

This article was first published in 2013.

Almost four years ago, Jonathan Rosenberg sent an email around Google stumping for more open systems, products, and services. As SVP of Products, he argued that more openness would mean a better Google and a better world. But not everyone agreed. In fact, it set off a fiery internal debate that culminated in the Google Blog post: "The Meaning of Open," authored by Rosenberg. At the time, he was building teams around Chrome and Android. And his prescience paid off. Today, they are two of Google's most strategically important gains.

It wasn't all wins, though. Rosenberg will be the first one to tell you that a lot of failures, false starts and tough breaks got him there. He shared these hard-won lessons in a lecture to students graduating from Claremont McKenna College, his alma mater, and we’ve brought ‘Rosenberg’s Rules’ to you.


#1 Be a broken record.

“When you think you’ve communicated something too much, you’re probably just beginning to get through,” says Rosenberg, stressing the importance of all-hands meetings, regular emails, office hours and team off-sites. Even if you’re truly surrounded by the smartest people you’ve ever met, assume all of them are busy with a hundred other things on their mind. “There is no such thing as too much communication.”

#2 Share everything. Hide nothing.

“At Google, our default mode was to share all information,” he says. “We strived to empower everyone equally from an information standpoint. In the internet age, power comes from sharing information not hoarding it.” Employees like being trusted and hate being surprised. A policy of complete transparency feeds these needs.

Back up your position with data. You don’t win arguments by saying, ‘I think.’ You win by saying, ‘Let me show you.

#3 Every word matters.

A leader’s words should always be thoughtful and precise — everything you say will be interpreted. “Be crisp and direct and choose each word wisely,” Rosenberg advises. “Communication isn’t rambling on in long-winded emails or spewing out every thought that comes to your head.” He quotes author Elmore Leonard. When asked what has made him so successful as a writer, Leonard famously said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.”

#4 Tell stories.

Great leaders are great teachers. And great teachers are great storytellers. “Narrative is how we learn. If you want to be a leader, you will teach and tell stories. The two are inseparable.”

#5 Stop talking, already.

You’ll never learn anything if you’re too busy talking. “Listening makes you more humble, more intuitive and smarter,” Rosenberg says. “Talking does none of these things. It just enamors you with your own eloquence. Too many people spend their time talking about how they think something works, when they could just listen to someone who knows. “But if you must talk, ask questions. People learn more from your questions than from your answers. It makes them think and explore the choices with you.”

#6 But, if you know the answer…

There’s a time for listening and there’s a time for straight talk. If you do know an answer beyond a shadow of a doubt, say something! Anything else wastes everyone’s time. “State the answer and don’t ask more questions,” Rosenberg says. But with one caveat: “Back up your position with data. You don’t win arguments by saying ‘I think.’ You win by saying ‘Let me show you.’”


#7 Ditch the pecking order.

“You shouldn’t be able to figure out a company’s org chart by looking at their product. You can’t see the Apple org chart when you look at the iPod or the Amazon chart when you look at the Kindle.” Rosenberg has a favorite Eric Schmidt story to go along with this learning. While working at Sun Microsystems, Schmidt took a server out of a box, and when he opened it up, he saw eight documents labeled “Read me first.” It turned out that eight different people on the project thought they had the most important opinion. “And the poor product manager at the bottom of the totem pole just threw them all in,” Rosenberg says. “That’s not the right decision for the end user.” A good leader cuts through the ego and picks the best opinion.

#8 Avoid the HPPO.

HPPO stands for “the highest-paid person’s opinion.” When you have a problem or a question, don’t naturally accept the HPPO in the room. Title means nothing. If someone’s experience has value, they should be able to frame a winning argument. “Everybody at every level should have an equal voice in the outcome, based on the strength of his or her arguments.” Rosenberg names Jim Barksdale as his favorite HPPO. As CEO of Netscape, Barksdale once said, “If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

#9 Crush bureaucracy of all kinds.

“The most important attribute in organizations is the ability to get out of the way. That’s why we didn’t have general managers at Google. A general manager’s job is to put his business interests ahead of the company’s. Don’t do it.”

#10 Crowded is creative.

There’s a certain electricity that comes from working in a crowded, bustling space. “Offices should be designed for energy and interactions, not for isolation and status.”

Working from home is a malignant, metastasizing cancer. Ban it.

#11 You need strategies and tactics.

Many people don’t know the difference between strategies and tactics, or they think they only need one or the other. Not so. A winning strategy is made up of the tactics that produce a victory. “There are people who are great at strategy, and there are those who are great at tactics,” Rosenberg says. “That’s why we have teams.”

#12 On teams, think small.

“At Google, we learned that the size of a small team is about the size of a small family. In software development, the worst thing you can do is put more people on a project.” Empower small teams, and they can often do more than a big one. Rosenberg quotes famed anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

#13 Show up.

True for everyone, and more for leaders: “Working from home is a malignant, metastasizing cancer,” Rosenberg says. “Ban it."

#14 Be original.

“Never ever suggest copying your competitor. Their products generally suck, and you should be able to do better.”

#15 Hope is not a plan.

#16 Doveryai no proveryai.

Trust but verify. It’s a Russian proverb, Rosenberg uses to remind himself to fact find for himself. Large organizations and teams have a tendency to omit small details, but a good leader can’t. “The primary job of a leader is judgment and communication. But judgment and communication are only as good as the data or truth on which it’s based.”

#17 Value over costs.

“It’s simple: spend 80% of your time on 80% of your revenue.” More revenue generally solves all problems. “It’s obvious, but actually hard to do, because that other 20% of your revenue will end up taking up an inordinate amount of your time if you let it.”

#18 Beware the green-eyed monster.

“Where there is success, there is envy. But you can take away the monster’s greatest weapon, which is surprise – and you can fight it with envy’s kryptonite, which is humility.”

#19 Reorganizations.

If you must reorganize, do it in a day — 24 hours. “This is my corollary to the Ben Franklin wisdom that ‘Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead,’” Rosenberg says.

Team Building

#20 Interview well.

You have to learn how to interview well -- just like you would learn any other skill. “Hiring is the heart and soul of the company. People think it’s the gourmet lunches, massages, espresso drinks and all that stuff that bring people to Google. But the main reason people come to Google is to work with great people.” It’s a virtue that compounds. Great people not only make a great company, they also attract more great people.

Instead of laying off the bottom 10%, don’t hire them. It’s way harder to fire people than it is to hire them.

#21 Hire by committee.

All too often, companies allow hiring managers to call all the shots. “At Google, we didn’t do that. The gate is a committee. And, similarly, promotions should be a peer review process.”

#22 You can’t teach passion.

“The guys who invented Google Sky are software engineers, not astronomers,” Rosenberg says. “They didn’t build this super cool product because they’re great engineers. They did it because they love astronomy.” When enthusiasm is real, everyone can feel it — it’s a tangible energy that lights people up. When hiring, it’s important to spot passion, even in other areas of a candidate’s life. “How can you expect people to be passionate at work if they’re never passionate about anything?”

#23 Don’t hire specialists.

“Especially in tech,” Rosenberg says. “And don’t grow up to be a specialist. The job will change, and the underlying pace of the technology will transform the landscape so quickly that the specialist’s job will be gone.” As Einstein said, “Change is the only thing that is permanent.”

#24 Slow down.

“Urgency of a role isn’t sufficiently important to compromise quality in hiring.”

#25 Diversity is your best defense…

“…against myopia,” Rosenberg says, extolling the virtues of hiring all kids of people. “People with different backgrounds see the world a little differently. That’s invaluable. You can’t teach that kind of insight.”

#26 Be selective.

“Instead of laying off the bottom 10%, don’t hire them. It’s way harder to fire people than it is to hire them.”

#27 Life isn’t fair.

“The average Major League Baseball player makes $3 million a year. I wanted to play baseball but I wasn’t good enough. I’d pay $3 million just to walk out to center field in Giants uniform, but even that’s not going to happen because life’s not fair,” Rosenberg says. The same goes for managing teams. “You shouldn’t tell people they’re doing a great job when they're not.” He warns against leading like a Little League coach — giving everyone a trophy and unwarranted positive feedback. “Real life is a meritocracy. Some perform better than others. So if you want better performance from the best, celebrate and reward what you want to see more of.”

#28 Identify and purge.

It’s important to single out and remove the bad eggs. Rosenberg has a whole bad egg theory: “You go to a party and there’s six pieces of sushi left. Your friend goes ahead of you. He takes five pieces. Bad egg. You see someone in the dining hall. They spill something, and they give it a perfunctory wipe. Bad egg. Get rid of bad eggs.”

Decision Making

#29 Start with the right goals.

“Choose your goals wisely. Goals drive behavior and conflict. Make sure you have the goals right, and if they’re creating conflict, change them.”

#30 Consensus does not mean unanimous.

“Teams are not juries locked in a room until they reach a unanimous verdict.” There’s no reason to spend endless hours trying to get everyone on board — sometimes you just have to decide to go ahead. In fact, consensus with no dissent can be dangerous. “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” Group dynamics are critical for solid decision-making. “None of us are as smart as all of us."

#31 Consider the customer.

“If there’s a doubt about what to do, consider your customer’s perspective.”


#32 Creativity can’t be managed

Too many companies micro-manage the creative processes. That doesn’t work. “Creativity can be allocated, it can be budgeted, it can be measured, it can be tracked and encouraged, but it can’t be dictated.”

In a Darwinian process for weeding out the bad ideas, you will do best by encouraging all of them. The best will win and the others will fail.

#33 Prepare to lose in order to win.

“A leader’s job is not to prevent risk, but to build the capability to recover when failures occur,” Rosenberg says. “There’s such a thing as good failure and bad failure. A good one happens quickly and provides plenty of lessons. A bad one takes a long time and you don’t learn anything. Leaders don’t prevent failures. They prevent bad failures.” Even crises can serve a purpose. Suddenly, everyone stop taking things for granted. And that’s when real change becomes possible.

#34 Lay off the kill switch.

Sometimes leaders kill ideas because they think they have a better one. But there’s a bull market for innovation. “In a Darwinian process for weeding out the bad ideas, you will do best by encouraging all of them. The best will win and the others will fail. Thomas Edison said, ‘To have a great idea, have a lot of them.’”

#35 Create a culture of ‘yes.’

You want to build from a place of optimism and big thinking. “Organizations develop antibodies to change. That’s why big companies stop innovating. If you’re the innovator, you’re like a virus. The antibodies want to kill you.” In this situation, a good leader says ‘yes’ to new ideas to protect the company from inertia. “Pessimists don’t change the world,” Rosenberg reminds. Be positive.

#36 Good judgment comes from experience.

“On my team, I asked everyone who screwed up to write a postmortem and publish it to the entire team,” he says. “You would think this would be a shameful experience. But we kept an archive of all these things, and you know what, show me a team that never makes a mistake, and I’ll show you a team that has never done anything innovative.” Errors shouldn’t be defended or buried. They are what make you smarter. You can learn more from your mistakes than from your successes if you take time to study them.


#37 Never stop learning.

School is never out. Your education is never over. Part of being humble is realizing how much you don’t know that you don’t know. “Learn something new so you can remember how hard it is to learn. Corollary: teach something so you can learn.” It’s never too late to learn how to program a computer, build a website, speak a new language.

#38 Grow up.

“Humility is correlated with age. Arrogance is inversely correlated with age. Why? Because as you get older, you realize how hard it is to get things done.”

#39 Delegate.

“You get personal leverage through empowerment, delegation and inspection. As a smart leader, you surround yourself with great people. Your people get to understand what they’re doing better than you.” That’s how pride takes root.

#40 Mean what you say.

A great leader has to commit — body and soul — to a team’s goal and vision. People can tell if it’s not the case, and they’re always watching. “Smart people can smell hypocrisy. So think before you speak, and make sure you spend your time on the things that you say are important. Culture is set from the top, and once set, it cannot be changed.”

#41 Watch people on their way out.

The tech world can be a very small place. Everyone is more and more connected, and you’ll run into the people you’ve worked with again and again. “Observe people when they leave a place. You learn a great deal about a person and your ability to judge them in that moment they resign and the manner they walk out the door.”

#42 Know you’re not exempt.

Would you work for yourself? If you wouldn’t, why should anyone else? On this score, Rosenberg says he writes a critical self-review every year. “It’s the only way to learn he says. Communicate, confess, and comply. No one is perfect – not even you.”

You can find Rosenberg’s entire, unedited talk here.